As seen in the *Amsterdam News*
Working the night shift at Wendy’s and earning $7.25 an hour was never part of the dream. Not for an aspiring attorney, less than a year away from a law degree when luck struck and sent him 6,380 miles from home.
Today, Olivier Wetshi rents a room in a four-bedroom apartment in Corona, Queens. There’s a map of the New York City subway system hanging off the wall, and it doesn’t take more than two giant steps to get to the other side of the room.
“I left Kinshasa for my education, my future. I’m only doing this to have the money to pay my schooling, then I’ll be back on track,” said Wetshi.
Before sweltering in the kitchen at Wendy’s, the 24-year-old was delivering sandwiches for a restaurant in midtown Manhattan. Before that, he was a customer service aide at a discount store in The Bronx. The odd jobs are starkly different from his role as a field officer for a human rights organization, his last post in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Wetshi moved to the United States last June, one of 2,575 Congolese to be relocated to the U.S. last year through the Diversity Visa Immigrant Program administered by the Department of State. From early October to early November every year, the program, dubbed “the green card lottery,” accepts electronic applications from nearly 20 million dreamers envisioning a future in the U.S. Anyone can win, a notion that has drawn criticism from lawmakers hoping to end the program, calling it a gateway for terrorists. Nearly 7,000 Congolese immigrants have won since 1992, and their luck has spurred a dramatic growth in the number of applications from the DRC in the last few years.
Almost 209,000 Congolese applicants tried their luck in last year’s lottery, a spike from about 139,000 in 2010. John Whitley, public affairs officer at the Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington D.C., says there is no clear reason for the increase but that it is consistent with what the bureau has seen in other parts of Africa. About 30 percent of last year’s applications came from the continent.
“I have always dreamed of a country where I was free to speak and express my opinion. In the Congo, your voice is either silenced or stopped completely,” Wetshi said, adding that this fundamental need for freedom in his hometown is what spurs many Congolese to flood “cyber cafes” in Kinshasa during the month-long application period.
“Everyone wants wellbeing and a guaranteed tomorrow,” Wetshi said, “People think, if there is no possibility to find that here, why not search elsewhere?”
In the small and very crowded cybers all over Kinshasa, 500 Congolese francs — about 50 cents — get you an hour on a computer with a solid Internet connection. The fans spinning at maximum speed do little to kill the 90 degree heat or stench of body odor. After waiting in line for an hour or two, you can finally complete your entry form, and cybers often charge $20 to $30 to process your application. Pay the fee and you’re in the running to be one of the chosen few.
Dieu-Merci Nkanza has repeated this process for the last few years, always hopeful that this year will be different. The 29-year-old unemployed technician-turned-journalist is his father’s first son. Living up to the responsibilities that come with that title means being able to provide financially. For Nkanza, a trip to the U.S. translates to more learning opportunities and an extensive technical skill set, one that will allow him to find a high paying job when he returns to Kinshasa.
“I’m already convinced and very ambitious. I know that when I get there, I will easily find my way,” Nkanza said in a phone interview, “Even dealing with different cultures, you just have to adapt.”
But this conviction, that life is easier an ocean away, can blind you to reality, said Wetshi. Since moving to the U.S., he has had to restart college, after his credits from the University of Kinshasa did not transfer. Law school isn’t even an option until he completes his bachelor’s degree. English courses and small talk with coworkers has helped him get used to his new home.
“You’re coming to a world in which you’ve never been. You have to learn this new world, and how people here live and think,” Wetshi said, “There are also some things that are much better here than what you’re accustomed to, so adjusting is difficult.”
Paying the bills means taking a bus, then a train from Queens to Harlem for the overnight shift, and coming in on off-days for extra pay. At least once a month, Wetshi sends money home to his parents and younger sister, putting added strain on his finances. Winners of the green card lottery aren’t classified as refugees, and therefore get no 8-month period of support from the U.S. government from the time they arrive. Once the winners are here, they must fend for themselves.
Community groups like Friends Of The Congo, based in Washington D.C., aim to provide a network for the Congolese diaspora. The group links Congolese-Americans to their home country while pushing for activism against some of the core issues that have forced many of them to leave the Congo.
“It’s hard to assemble the Congolese diaspora, but you have to put it in context,” said Kambale Musavuli, spokesperson and student coordinator at the FOTC, “We were under a political dictatorship for a very long time, and that’s part of the reason why we generally lack trust among each other. The majority of our Congolese community worldwide isn’t organized and is very political.”
The DRC is a staple on world human rights violations lists, with war raging in its east and political instability in its capital. Poverty, unemployment and a flawed education system have all contributed to countless Congolese seeking a way out. Europe is still the primary destination, but there has been a recent surge in Congolese immigrants resettling in the U.S.
Friends of the Congo holds Congo Week every October, to raise awareness about the central African country and mobilize support from the Congolese diaspora and U.S. residents as a whole.
Wetshi doesn’t plan on attending any of the Congo Week events, saying that his busy schedule won’t allow it. He bought a pair of soccer cleats months ago, hoping to fall back in love with the sport he played back home. He hasn’t had the time to use them yet. Working the night shift means sleeping during the day, when other people are running up and down the soccer field in new cleats.