Until this day, many of my friends and family members don’t understand why I decided to leave France and migrate to the United States about eight years ago. They don’t understand why I decided to leave a country where healthcare and education are free and employees get an average of five weeks of paid vacations per year. My reply to them has evolved over the course of my journey in the U.S. from the stereotyped “I want to challenge myself” to “I belong here.”
Yes, I do belong to the United States.
While many can argue that the U.S. is not the most welcoming place at the moment, this country has given me a place among its own.
Last month, I finally became a Permanent Resident of the United States after nearly three years of a long, tedious and costly process.
During all these years, I went through all sorts of feelings and emotions, from counting down days to hoping each week that I will find an envelope sent by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in my mailbox. During all these years, I also lost count of the number of times I called USCIS to receive updates about my application. Unfortunately, information shared on the phone by the USCIS employees was similar to the one already available on my online account. Yet, I was naively hoping they would divulge additional information.
One day after work, I found the mail I had been waiting for. The mail was sent by USCIS. Anxious, I immediately tore apart the envelope. The letter started with the word “Congratulations!” It was enough to understand I was no longer a conditional permanent resident. The letter said that I should be receiving my actual Green Card within 60 days. I laughed and I cried at the same time. It was a bittersweet feeling as I could finally close a long, and at times, painful chapter to start a new one.
After more than seven years living and working in the U.S., I am longing for stability. I no longer want to worry about my visa statuses, to live in the fear of losing my job and to simply have the possibility of changing employers without facing restrictions. In fact, I want to be able to consider a future in this country instead of living a temporary experience.
I have learned to love this country to which I emigrated to in February 2010. I moved to the United States alone. I had no family and no friends. I spoke a poor English and had a very little understanding of the American society. Because I had indulged in American movies during my child and teenage years, I mistakenly thought that I knew the United States. I even watched four episodes of the TV show Friends every evening for two months to prepare myself before moving to the U.S. The reality was otherwise.
I had to start from scratch when I settled in New York. Like any newcomer who starts a life in a new country, the first step towards integration is to learn the language and so I spent the first year in a language school. In order to pay for my tuitions, I wanted to work but I was not allowed to. I was a foreign student, and thus I didn’t have the right to earn an income in the United States.
When I left France for the U.S., I was a journalist with more than 6 years of professional experience; yet it no longer mattered when I moved to New York. I had to put my career on hold until my English improved and start from the bottom as an intern. Eighteen months after moving to the U.S., I became an intern journalist for a digital publication. It was an unpaid internship. For nine months, despite my professional experience and my ability to conduct interviews in three different languages –French, Arabic and English - I was an unpaid intern until I was offered a paid job and a sponsorship for a work visa. Till this day, I still remember how some days where more difficult than others. The first and last week of each month were certainly the most difficult days as I would worry about paying my rent and bills on time. It was tough but quiet seas don’t make good sailors. It was also the kind of sacrifices I was ready to make in order to remain in a country that had enabled me to blossom and be myself.
By “be myself”, I mean being able to affirm my multiple identities and ambitions without having to justify or compromise. Before moving to the U.S., I had spent the first 23 years of my life introducing myself as a French woman before being immediately reminded that the sound of my name and physical features were foreign. In the U.S., being foreign means being American. Everyone comes from somewhere else.
Coming to the U.S. was liberating. I am aware that every personal experience is different; yet mine was a transformative and positive one. Choosing to be in the U.S. at the moment doesn’t mean that I turn my back to my homeland, France, or my parents’ country, Tunisia. In fact, I am all these countries. They all make up pieces of my identity and losing them would mean losing parts of who I am.
Less than three weeks after receiving the USCIS mail, I eventually received my actual Green Card. It is now in my wallet and serves as my ID card. Every time I use it, I can’t help but think of how far I have come and how far I still want to go.