‘America sobers you up fast’ Russians who won green cards in the lottery Trump wants to abolish talk about life in the United States
President Donald Trump has prepared new legislation that would make it harder to obtain a green card, which provides foreigners with permanent residency, work authorization, and a fast-track to citizenship. The United States issues green cards to several categories of people, including winners of the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, also known as the green card lottery, where 50,000 pre-screened applicants from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S. try to win green cards in a random drawing. Trump wants to abolish this program. Meduza spoke to four Russians who won green cards in this lottery and asked them if they still feel like winners, after living in America.
Kirill, 38 years old
Photographer, originally moved to San Francisco three years ago
I grew up on American movies and music, and I always wanted to come to the States to experience that atmosphere. In 2008, a friend living in America sent me a link to the lottery, and told me to give it a shot. I read everything carefully and completed the form. Then, in March 2009, I found out that I’d won. I sent off the necessary documents from Khabarovsk to Moscow and then I waited. There was no answer until the fall, and in October, when I came to the consulate to inquire about my status, it turned out that my interview had been scheduled for September 1. The letter, apparently, had been lost in transit. I thought I’d missed my chance, but in March 2010 I got a call from the consulate in Moscow, and they asked me if I still wanted a green card. I told them yes, and my interview was in June. In September 2010, I flew to San Francisco.
For personal reasons, I was depressed when I left for California. Once I’d arrived in the U.S., being an immigrant only added to this depression. They say it takes adults a year or two to adjust to big life changes. I was alone, without a job, and a million miles from everyone and everything I knew. People’s basic mindset and fundamental ways of interacting were suddenly foreign to me. Even when it came to things as simple as using public transportation, I had to learn by trial and error.
I couldn’t find work, and I wasn’t looking for it particularly hard, because of how depressed I was. I rented out my apartment back in Russia. At the time, it brought in enough money to rent a room in San Francisco, and sometimes I sold my drawings and photos and resold photography equipment. I worked a couple of weddings, too.
For a long time, I couldn’t make any new friends at all. There were two or three Russians I knew in town, but I stopped talking to them almost immediately, because I was so depressed. I didn’t really intersect with other Russians in the area. We just didn’t really have common interests. Photography is what saved me. I roamed the city and photographed everything — everything that interested me.
It was only a year and a half after arriving that I started to feel okay in San Francisco. I made some friends — Americans and Brazilians. I attended free lectures, went to museums and galleries, and tried to develop myself as an artist and a photographer. Later, I came back to Khabarovsk for family reasons: my mom needed an operation. I came back to help out, thinking I’d stay for six months or maybe a year. But the operation didn’t go well, and mom didn’t make it. Soon I got sick, too. Then the dollar wasn’t 30 rubles, like before, but 60. I’ve still got the [green] card, but I haven’t tried again to return to the States.
Natalia Artemova, 41 years old
Creator of plush toys, been living in Cincinnati for two years
My husband and I wanted to emigrate. We were debating which country, weighing our options and trying to figure out if a work visa or a student visa would be better. And then I happened to see this post on LiveJournal by some woman who won the [green card] lottery. Knowing that I have a knack for sometimes finding myself in the right place at the right time, I decided that the lottery could be another good option.
I waited until the next October, and then sent off applications for myself and my husband. The first two years, it didn’t work, but the third year when I went to check the results I found those long-awaited words: we’d been selected for visas. And then the most curious thing happened: about halfway between learning that we’d won and the scheduled time of the interview at the embassy, I got pregnant. Assuming that no acts of God would intervene, we decided that I would have the baby in the U.S., which meant that we needed to expedite the processing of our case in Russia. In those days, I lived my life according to the slogan “How to enslave the world without leaving the couch.” The doctor prescribed bed rest, so I stayed at home, gathering information, completing forms, buying tickets, and preparing for the move.
We had to get everything together amazingly fast. There were only two weeks between our embassy interview and our flight to the United States. For the first three months in the U.S., we stayed with relatives in Baltimore. My husband was looking for work, while I enjoyed the last few weeks of pregnancy and the summer heat. My husband’s first day of work was the same day I was discharged from the maternity ward. When the baby was a month and a half old, we moved from Baltimore to Cincinnati, where the office of my husband’s company is located.
And that’s how we changed everything in such a short time: the country where we were living, my husband’s job, the size of our family, and our way of life. On the one hand, it seemed that everything had come together smoothly and simply. We had some savings, we had somewhere to live right out of the gates, and we could look calmly for suitable apartments and deal with completing the necessary local paperwork. On the other hand, the stress of everything was a constant presence. I remember our first days in Cincinnati as a kind of dark cloud. It wasn’t until a week after we got there when I finally felt mentally prepared to go outside for a walk. Our newborn and my inexperience with childrearing only added to the stress. I’ve never cried so often as I did in those months.
But gradually things started to improve. We furnished our home, things got simpler with raising our child, I enrolled at a local college to study English, and I started to come back to life. My husband and I are both introverts, so the process of making new friends offline went very slowly, but new friends started appearing over time. Now my husband has work, and I’m at home with the baby, studying English and thinking about the job of my dreams. In Russia, I worked as an accountant, and in the last few years before we left I had my own sewing business, where I made plush toys and different decorative things, and sold them on the Internet and in markets. Now I’m interested in arts and crafts, and I was happy to become a member of a team that does preparation work for festivals. I’m planning on going and learning.
What I like about the U.S. is how everything is set up for people, both generally speaking and when it comes to the small things. For example, the medical workers here are always considerate. It’s convenient here to be a driver: there’s parking at the main public places and volunteers ready to help with parking. It’s easy to find out when things are open, how to get there, how much events cost, and generally speaking nothing leaves you with the sense that you’re going on a quest with unpredictable results.
And I’m also amazed by how much warmth the local community has showed our child. Every time, I’m pleasantly surprised. In Russia, people are more closed-off with children, whereas here they smile at a child, and talk to him, and joke with him, and because of this he’s learning to interact with the people around him. There’s not a second that I regret moving here. I’m perfectly aware that this isn’t an ideal country, but there have been no major disappointments yet, and I’m in no hurry to part with my rose-colored glasses. Why would I?
Darina Rolnik, 25 years old
Programmer, been living in Mountain View, California, for five years
I won a green card with my mom when I was 19 years old. I had a boyfriend at the time and we’d been dating for three years. After winning the green card, we had to decide what to do next. There were two options: we could either split up, and he would keep looking for ways to fly to see me in the States, or we could get married quickly, and he would leave with me. We didn’t want to be apart, so we went with the second option. But U.S. officials aren’t too keen on couples that get married immediately after one partner wins a green card. If they catch you in a fictitious marriage, then you’re banned from the country for life, and it seems they won’t even grant you a tourist visa after that. That’s why the husband and wife have to show at their interview how well they know each other, and present evidence that their marriage is the real thing.
Two months before going to the consulate, we had a hurried wedding where we took a lot of photos, and my mom put them all into a beautiful album book. We printed out the phone records showing our calls to one another over the previous three years, and tried to memorize every little detail about each other’s lives. At the interview, they asked us what seemed like everything imaginable: who sleeps on what side of the bed? Do I talk in my sleep? How many birthmarks does he have? How many fish are their in our fishtank? But everything went fine, and we left for Mountain View.
My mom chose this town. When we were deciding what jobs we’d look for in America, she found the Portnov Computer School in Los Altos, where you can get basic training to work in computer equipment diagnostics and tech support, and later you can become a programmer. Before we left, I’d studied in college to be an interpreter in English and Spanish, and I had nothing to do with the IT sphere, but it interested me, and it also meant guaranteed job placement.
The first thing that struck me about California was the air. There was so much of it! When we got to Silicon Valley, we went outside in the morning for a walk, and there was a wall of rain. In Mountain View, there weren’t any cars or people out. It was so much space for one person. Compared to Moscow, it was a miracle.
True, our savings ran out fast. The most basic one-bedroom apartment here costs $2,000 a month. After I finished my classes, I accepted the first job offer I got, while my husband dragged his feet. He wasn’t looking very hard for work, and I didn’t feel like he was supporting me at all. Now I understand that he was probably just lonely in a new country, without any friends, with his parents still in Moscow. Then we just got divorced. As far as I know, he’s doing fine now. He waited for a good job offer, and now he works at Amazon.
I’m on my third job in the last five years. It can be difficult. About 60 percent of the assignments at work are hard for me to understand at first, but I’m working to improve my knowledge of the profession in my free time, and at work I ask my colleagues for advice. And I hang out with my coworkers after work, too. I miss my friends in Russia, of course, but thankfully there’s Skype and Instagram.
I’ve got a boyfriend now. He’s Mexican, with a mix of Indian blood. It turns out that Mexicans are a lot like Russians. They’re sad one minute and, a minute later, they’re wildly happy. They also like to gather in big groups, crack open a dozen bottles of wine, and spend the whole night talking about whatever. I’m engaged now and we’re planning to get married next year.
Natalya Slavina, 43 years old
Journalist, been living in New York for two years
I never believed I could win, since I’ve never won so much as a ruble in the lottery, and my husband was the one who wanted more to go to America. His business is tied to the U.S., and he really likes New York. But we lucked out on our second try.
We were really worried about our interview. They’d rejected many people before. It felt a lot like taking a test that, for some reason, I had to pass with my husband and daughter. The hardest question for me was when they asked me what kind of work I expected to do in the U.S. In Russia, I’d worked as a journalist at a good publication, and my work experience was all documented, so I couldn’t just say that I would be applying for waitressing jobs. But where do you work when your main skill is the Russian language? I indicated three professions: journalism, teaching, and social work. Everything went well, and, when they handed me the green card, the people at the consulate said, “The United States needs honest and free journalists.”
We didn’t hurry to make the actual move. The process took more than two years. We rented out our apartment in central Moscow, and we chose an area in New York where we wanted to live with a school for our oldest daughter. On one of my trips to New York, I gave birth to another girl. We left for good in August 2015, now a family of four.
I wasn’t able to look for work right away. In October, I found out that I was expecting another child. I remained a freelance columnist at that Russian publication, but my earnings were only enough for everyday expenses: gasoline, groceries, and a few things for the kids. If it hadn’t been for my husband, I wouldn’t have had enough for our main expenses. Here, you can eat nothing, wear nothing, and never go anywhere, but come the end of the month and you’ll still owe $3,500-$4,000 in rent and electricity, heating, and Internet bills.
We left Moscow as a fairly pampered family. My husband and I were already in our 40s, and we enjoyed a certain social status. I’ll say this: we’d grown accustomed to living well. In Moscow, I had an apartment, a summer home, a car, my child had a nanny, and a maid came and cleaned the apartment every week. In two years of living in New York, I’ve never once called a maid. In my head, I just convert the $100 it would cost into rubles, and then I do the cleaning myself.
In this sense, America sobers you up fast. It’s clear here that you’ve got to work tirelessly and without rest, in order to stay in the middle class.
I don’t think we’ve really assimilated. I thought we’d wait until our oldest daughter finished school and went to college and got situated. But it turns out that she really misses her boyfriend, who stayed behind in Moscow. With a fixed amount of money, we realized that we could afford either a very good university in Russia, or an average school in America. We didn’t plan on the Ivy League or anything. In the end, it didn’t go quite according to our plan: our daughter went back to Russia and she’s currently studying at a university in Moscow.
Objectively, I understand that the infrastructure, economy, level of medical care, the roads, and so on are all many times better [in the U.S.] than in Russia. [In America], you feel protected. If a governor and some ordinary person crash into each other on the highway, you know the courts will decide fairly who was responsible. The sense that everything will be fair is wonderful. But there’s also my subjective feelings about everyday life, where I don’t know English well enough to understand jokes or idioms. I don’t understand people who speak quickly on the bus or in pharmacies, and it’s hard for me. I don’t socialize enough. I don’t have an office where I could go and talk to colleagues. I can’t go to yoga. And I can’t visit my parents. I see how they’re aging — or rather I see it over Skype — and it’s hard for me. I miss Moscow evenings at our summer home, and the ringing of the church bells.
The only person for whom our move to America has been an unambiguous plus is our six-year-old daughter. I was very worried two years ago, handing her over to an English-speaking daycare. There weren’t any spaces left in the Russian-speaking one, and she spoke absolutely no English at the time. But here the attitudes toward children are completely different. They treat children as equals, seeing them as individuals and giving them the right to make choices. Nobody tells them, “You have to do this.” They create a very friendly atmosphere, making a little microcosm of American society, where people are kind to each other from the start. Now our daughter is fluent in two languages, and it seems she thinks more freely than either of us.
I know parents who are ready to suffer for their children, but I don’t think I’m one of these people. America as I experienced it turned out to be worse than my life in Russia. I’m in Moscow right now, and it feels like I’m finally home. I feel alive here. Back in the U.S., I just exist.