Written by Farooq A. Kperogi (09-08-15)
Sometime in January this year at 3: 00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (that is, 5 hours or 6 behind Nigerian time), a shrill phone call rudely disrupted my incipient sleep. I’d retired for the night only about an hour earlier because I stayed up late in order to catch up with my perpetually expanding reading list. I wondered who could be calling me at that time of the day.
I knew the call couldn’t have originated from the United States. No one here would call me at that hour. And I was sure the call couldn’t have been from my wife—or even from my close relations and friends in Nigeria. They all know when not to call me.
So who in the world was calling me at that awkward hour? I was both too weak and too irritated to pick the call. After some time, I went back to sleep. And just when I was in that liminal zone between wakefulness and sleep, the call came again with more vehemence—or so it seemed to me. I got off from my bed and walked blearily to my living room to answer the phone.
“Farooq, guess what?” a voice thundered with the palpable excitement of a little kid who had just got his first toy.
“Could I first know whom I am speaking with, please?” I said in my dreamy, barely coherent and languorous voice, trying exceedingly hard to suppress my anger.
“Haba, Farooq, don’t you realize that it’s me Musa [not real name]?”
“But I know at least 10 Musas from my immediate and extended family alone, not to talk of my friends and acquaintances. How can I know which Musa is speaking?”
The caller quickly realized that I was in no mood for his air-headed raillery. It turned out that he was my neighbor, my friendly, good-natured neighbor, when I used to live in some state in the far North. I hadn’t been in touch with him since I came here. He got my phone number from one of our mutual friends, he told me.
So why did he call me? And why was he beside himself with so much contagious and wide-eyed excitement? Well, it’s because he had just been given a tourist visa to America. It had always been his dream, he said, to “come and settle my life there,” to quote his hilariously broken grammar. The news that he got a tourist visa to visit the United States excited me, but the bit about “coming to settle my life there” confused, even worried, me.
Because I hadn’t spoken with him in a long while, I thought he had hit some jackpot somewhere and could therefore afford the luxury to spend some time here on vacation. But then I wondered what business a tourist has “settling his life” in another man’s country without proper documentation. To be sure, I asked again what class of visa he had been issued. He assured me that it was a three-month, single-entry tourist visa. I was speechless.
A tourist visa does not entitle anyone to work legally in the United States. So how could he relocate here permanently on the strength of that class of visa? I expressed my reservations to him and advised him to think through his decision.
He said he called me precisely because he wanted me to help him. Deep breath. How? He wanted me to accommodate him, find him a temporary job and possibly arrange for him to marry an African American woman so he could become an American citizen after some time. (And this man is married with two kids!). I took an even deeper breath. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. As we were talking, his units ran out.
I called him back. I said to myself that I had a duty to tell this pleasant gentleman some unpleasant, inconvenient truths about life in this country. I told him his requests were impossible to grant because I would never be an accomplice in the violation of the laws of my country of sojourn.
But most importantly, even if someone else agreed to accommodate him, I said, it would be impossible for him to get a temporary job that would be legal and that would pay him enough money to make any difference to his life.
For starters, to be eligible to work in the United States, you must have a social security number, and you cannot have a social security number unless you are citizen, a legal permanent resident, a guest worker, a student visa holder (which limits you to work only in the school in which you’re enrolled) or a holder of other categories of immigrant and non-immigrant visa.
In the absence of legal documentation to work, I told him, the best deal he could get here would be to be condemned to menial, denigrating drudgeries like cutting grasses, harvesting tomatoes in some desolate farm or, if he is lucky, washing plates and serving food in a restaurant.
And he would most certainly be severely underpaid because he is an illegal alien, as Americans call such people. The wages he would get from such jobs would not be sufficient to pay his bills. Most importantly, not many people—certainly not me—would be prepared to bear the burden of his upkeep while he works illegally and earns peanuts that condemn him to live below the breadline.
South Americans who work here illegally have the advantage of geographic proximity, numerical strength and a functional social network. An illegal African immigrant with an accent (which sets him apart from black Americans) will stand out like a sore thump here. Of course, such people do exist. But that’s a story for another day.
And Green Card marriage? I told him the only thing I knew about it was that, increasingly, the long arm of the American law had been catching up with perpetrators of this fraud of passion. I have heard and read of many Nigerians, Ghanaians and Kenyans who either are in American prisons or have been deported to their home countries on account of it.
(People who read this column regularly will recall that I once culled a story from the New York Times about the mass deportation of Ghanaians who were caught in this fraud). So I advised him to steer clear of it if or when he eventually made his way here.
My friend was unimpressed. He said he thought the passage of time had changed me, but that I was still the same cowardly, prim and proper person who would not venture to take a risk and would discourage others from trying.
I grinned and bore the subtle insult. Before we hung up, he assured me that he would come to America, get a decent job, be successful and prove all my dreadful predictions wrong. I wished him luck.
A few weeks after this telephone conversation, he emailed to tell me that an old friend of his who now lives in New York had agreed to “set me up.” He also said he got assurances from another old friend here who pledged to accommodate him, get him a job and arrange a Green-Card marriage for him. So he sold his N700,000 worth car for N500,000 to pay for a return ticket.
My friend arrived in New York on a notoriously freezing Sunday morning. But the contentment he felt at having the privilege to set his foot in America, wondrous America, that Nigerians curiously cherish to dub “God’s own country,” gave him enormous comfort.
His smug glow of self-satisfaction dissipated as quickly as it came, however, when he called his friend who had promised to “set him up” in New York.
The friend said he was out of town, even though he was aware that Musa would arrive in New York that day. He told Musa that some sudden, unanticipated work-related commitment had taken him to Chicago and that he would no longer be able to honor his promise to be his host.
Musa said his heart jumped into his mouth and then sank back whence it sprang. “In spite of the cold weather and the snow, I was sweating profusely,” he later told me. New York ceased to be the gorgeously scenic city that had registered in his senses when he first stepped out of the airport. “Everywhere and everybody just looked ugly and wicked,” he said. He was helpless.
But he was both reluctant and ashamed to call me for two reasons. First, he didn’t inform me that he was coming on that day because he had vowed to have no truck with me again after I told him some bitter truths about life here. Second, and more important, I had told him that I would not accommodate him if his intention was to immigrate illegally.
He was understandably unsure how I would react if he called me. So he decided to call his other friend who had also promised to accommodate and find him a job. The friend lives in a state somewhere in the southernmost fringes of the United States.
Luckily, the man was sufficiently smitten by the pathos of Musa’s predicament that he invited him over without questions, even though he had no prior information that Musa was coming here that soon. His host was a middle-aged Nigerian who is "obviously doing well" here.
One weekday, I returned from school in the late evening hours when my phone rang. It was Musa. He had been in the country for the past two weeks and was only now just getting around to touch base with me. I was at once glad and nervous when I heard his voice. His voice sounded expressionless, almost melancholic. He lacked the boisterousness and blitheness that seemed like second nature to him.
After exchanging our conventional courtesies and pleasantries, the first thing he said was, “Farooq, I now know you’re my true friend.”
“What do you mean, Musa?” I asked.
“I frankly thought you didn’t want me to come to America for whatever reasons. I never believed anything you told me when I called you the other day. Now I know better.”
His host, he told me, was initially very welcoming and helpful. After a week, however, he said, the entire family seemed to be fed up with him. The man and his wife said they'd thought he had come for only a one-week vacation. I was touched, even conscience-stricken, as if I had a hand in his plight.
“But I told this man that I sold my car to come here. Which normal human being sells his property just to go for a yeye vacation?” he said, his voice betraying a profound emotional dislocation.
He said the man’s wife stopped greeting him and also stopped answering his greetings. And because the couple went to work in the mornings and returned home late at nights, he hardly ate well.
But food was the least of his concerns. The state of his mind, he said, was such that he, in fact, would not enjoy any food even if it were “brought fromal-janah firdaus, the highest paradise,” as he himself put it jokingly. His greatest worry was that his American Dream had crumbled even before he had a chance to sleep. He was seeing nightmares in his wakefulness—and, worse, in broad daylight.
His friend said he was not in a position to find him a job with his current immigration status, even though he had assured him that he could do it. He said the man told him exactly the same things I had told him when he called me from Nigeria some months back. But what of the Green-Card marriage? Well, the man said he would help with that.
In Musa’s presence, the man called a phone number in Chicago. Oh, this Chicago again! He was on the phone for over an hour with an “agency” that specializes in arranging Green-Card marriages for illegal immigrants from Africa who want to become American citizens.
Musa said his host told him that a black American lady had agreed to be his “Green-Card wife.” But there were two obstacles he needed to surmount. The first was to pay the "professional fee" for this “service.” The second was to have the patience to wait for up to two years (it could be earlier) before the U.S. government would recognize the “marriage” and subsequently give him the Green-Card, which is a transitional step to becoming a citizen.
The fee is $10,000, that is, over one million naira! However, he was required to give only $5,000 as down payment. The outstanding balance would be paid when he eventually got his Green Card, he was told. But Musa had only a little over $1000 with him-- inside out.
What was worse, his host said he couldn’t accommodate him for more than a month. So even if he was able to raise the money, he would have to look for a place to stay for two years. Confused, he decided to call his friend in New York again. Perhaps, he had returned from Chicago. But the man said he was still in Chicago.
He ignored Musa’s subsequent calls.
With no place to stay, no money to purchase “Green-Card marriage” and no job, the harsh, cruel reality of life in America dawned on Musa. When he pleaded with his host to loan him $5,000 with interest, any interest, the host said Musa was out of his mind.
“But this man has two brand new jeeps, two new Hondas, a huge house, which he owns, and….” I stopped him because I knew where he was headed. I explained to him that America is essentially a debt society and that people’s material possessions are not a firm basis to judge their real wealth.
Everybody here seems to be in debt. Almost everything that everybody owns is on credit. I told him those new SUVs his friend has are bought on credit. The man probably pays as little as $200 a month for them, depending on his credit rating.
And the house does not belong to him in the sense in which we mean when we say we’ve bought our houses in Nigeria. Here, it’s a mere illusion of ownership. I told him that it is almost impossible for anybody with a middle-class income in America to afford to give a personal loan of $5,000 to anybody. My friend was disillusioned.
Well, the truth is that the American Dream is actually an American illusion for many people. For still others, it’s even worse: it’s an American nightmare, as Malcolm X famously put it in the early 1960s.
Musa spent the rest of his days in America listlessly and anxiously waiting for the day he would return to good old Nigeria with all its poverty, deprivation and chaos.
His only problem was that he was having a hard time coming to terms with the reality of returning to Nigeria without his car and other material comforts he sold off in order to come here. “People can’t understand why I would go to America for a whole month and, upon return, start jumping from Okada to Okada,” he said ruefully.
But a worse tragedy awaited him. The day he left for New York from his base here, there was an unseasonably fierce snowstorm that forced local airlines to cancel or delay flights. So he missed his international flight. Airline officials told him he had to wait for three days before he could fly back to Nigeria.
Crestfallen and confused, he decided to call his New York friend again. He merely wanted a place to sleep for three days. This time around, the friend was not in Chicago—thankfully. However, he said he was held up at work and would not be able to see him even in four days. Musa slept on bare floor at the airport.
So, just as he was welcome by a severely cold weather when he arrived in New York, he was now being sent off by an even more severe blizzard that caused him to miss his international flight. Perhaps, these gelid weather conditions symbolized both a literal and a metaphoric rupture of his American dream.
When he got back to Nigeria, he called to tell me that some of his friends and relations were upset that he returned too soon. “If only they knew that I was in solitary confinement for the whole month!” he said in his usual satirical self-flagellation. Even in moments of distress, Musa never fails to throw light-hearted, self-deprecating jibes at himself.
It is all too easy to dismiss this good-natured gentleman as a naïve, impetuous chump who ignored friendly counsel and got himself enmeshed in an avoidable mess. But that would be a wee tot unfair, I think.
I am willing to concede that his indiscretions were actuated by the despair and hopelessness that our leaders have so cruelly democratized in the past couple of years. However, whatever the level of our desperation, it’s not half bad if we can demonstrate a little discernment and caution in our choices.
This story is shared with the kind permission of my friend. However, names, places and some facts have been deliberately changed to conceal his real identity.
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