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Families Win Visa Lottery But Are Losing Everything In Move to US

“My husband doesn’t eat and is too weak to move. He still tries to get up and hunt for a job. If he dies, I don’t think I’ll even have the money to cremate him.”

QUEENS, N.Y. -- Shami Regmi, a petite, 46-year-old woman with freckled skin, peeked through the door of a 7-Eleven in Queens, trying to catch a glimpse of the person behind the billing counter. She was searching for Indian faces, confused by similar brown-skinned Hispanic ones. A Nepalese immigrant, Regmi speaks only a few words of English and was hoping to find a benevolent Hindi-speaking Indian to give her a job. Any job.

“I felt defeated,” she says in scarcely coherent Hindi, her first and only language being Nepalese. In the two years that Regmi and her family have spent in the United States, they have been sucked into a vicious cycle of isolation, unemployment, illness and shattered dreams. “We were supposed to be lucky to be in America, but this has been the worst time of my life.”

Regmi was one of the 50,000 winners of the 2008 “Green Card” lottery. Officially called the Diversity Visa lottery, it is offered by the U.S. State Department in countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. Winners, chosen through a random computer-generated lottery, are given permanent resident visas to live, work and study in the U.S. Each year, more than 10 million people apply; like Regmi, 70 percent of the winners come from developing countries in Africa and Asia.

But without any assistance, family or guidance in a new country, many find themselves unprepared to start their lives from scratch.

When he applied for the lottery, Shami’s husband, 48-year-old Shree Hari Regmi, had worked for 20 years as a civil irrigation engineer for the Nepalese government. He had a comfortable job, the perks of government employment and a settled life, but was persuaded by his 21-year-old son’s desire to study computer engineering in the U.S. and his own wish to be among the “lucky” Nepalese to win the “golden opportunity to go to America.”

Three months later, the consular officer at the U.S. embassy in Kathmandu shook his hand and said heartily, “Welcome to America.” The Regmis had won the Green Card lottery.

In preparation for their new life, Shree Hari mortgaged the family home in Phulchowk, Kathmandu, to raise 1 million Nepalese rupees, roughly $14,000. The family paid around $700 each for the lottery fee, spent $4,500 on three one-way air tickets, and set aside the rest to cover their initial expenses in the U.S.

Lottery winners are unique in their lack of a support system. Unlike immigrants who are “sponsored” by families or employers based in the U.S., those with diversity lottery visas often don’t have a family or job waiting for them. Nor do they have avenues for help or information -- the State Department does not offer orientation sessions or programs to integrate them into mainstream American society. A booklet, “Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants,” published by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, is available in 17 languages. But immigrants are seldom aware of even this rudimentary resource.

The Regmis certainly weren’t. They first arrived at the home of a friend of a friend in Springfield, Maryland, where they rented a two-bedroom apartment for $1,000 a month. But they quickly realized that Shree Hari’s engineering degree from Nepal would not get him a job in the U.S., unless he supplemented it with a six-month American diploma. Nepalese neighbors and acquaintances told the family to apply for jobs in stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot, just to pay the bills till they found better work. But the Regmis were turned down there, too. Without references, they couldn’t get jobs.

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