By Sue Brown
In reality, all men everywhere—are created equal. We really are. It’s almost so simple, that at first glance, it might be overlooked. In contemplation, we see the sameness. We all have the same basic needs for: food, clothing, and shelter; the same basic desires for: love, understanding, and compassion; and the same non-ending tests and challenges to not only be better people for ourselves, but for the community around us. This applies to every man, every nation, everywhere. Recently, I looked at our great country through another’s eyes. Often in this country we take simple things in life for granted and need to be reminded how truly lucky we are to be Americans. We probably know that already, but every so often it’s good to be reminded.
Her name is Omotayo Omobolanle Onuoha, but you may call her “Tayo” (tie-o) and she is from Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria. This is the story of how she came to Richmond Hill, Georgia in the Unites States of America in 2002. In theory, it’s rather simple, but in actuality the odds of her making it to the United States are astounding.Tayo won the Green Card Lottery in 2001 in Nigeria, at the age of 26, which allowed her to gain permanent residence in the United States in April of the next year. While millions of people throughout the world look to the Green Card Lottery as their best hope for obtaining a U.S. Permanent Resident Visa, many Americans are not even aware the program exists. What is the Green Card Lottery, how does it work, and most importantly why is it good for America?
The Green Card Lottery sets aside 50,000 permanent resident visas annually, commonly known as Green Cards, for citizens of countries with historically low numbers of immigrants coming into the U.S. and makes these visas available through a free lottery. The purpose of the program is to encourage diversity amongst U.S. immigrants. In fact, the correct name for the program is The U.S. Diversity Program and it was created by Congress in 1994. The program makes permanent residence visas available to persons meeting simple, but strict, eligibility requirements. Applicants are chosen by a computer-generated random lottery drawing.
Tayo comes from a family of five grown children; she has two sisters and two brothers, in addition to her mother and father, and she is second oldest. However, she might be the lucky one in the family. She grew up in the capitol of Kwara State which is roughly home to some two and one-half million Nigerians by last estimate. Sadly, the per capita income is much less than $2,000 per year. She spoke of how her father had often won small amounts of “nairas,” the native currency, by submitting her name to Nigerian lotteries.
That very fact alone, made it apparent that perhaps there might be something more to her name. It was at a friend’s urging that she sent in her free application to the Green Card Lottery. The requirements are strict in that you must have a minimum of a high school education, Tayo and her four siblings have considerably more. In addition, you must submit a recent picture and other credentials, usually a passport, to prove who you are. You must sign your own application in script; no one can enter the lottery in your name.
Most importantly you must be able to work in the U.S. immediately upon entering the country. This is so the winners are not a burden on American society; they are immediately given a Social Security number. In addition, they must have a fellow countryman, already living here, who is willing to house them for a period when they first arrive in the Unites States and get adjusted.
Tayo’s family was so thrilled when she was one of the few people from the entire country of Nigeria who won the lottery that year. Of their five children, all of whom hold a higher education degree—jobs in Nigeria are just not available. If Tayo were to come to America, she at least would be able to work and have a better life. But it almost didn’t happen. Initially, she was to have gone to New York City to live with a distant relative, but at the last minute the offer was rescinded.
Then through a connection at her mother’s job, there was a mention of a doctor here in Richmond Hill, Georgia whose family might be willing to give Tayo a place to live while she got settled in the U.S. And so it happened that the good doctor — Dr. Olatunji Awe, an Internist in our town, and his family became “home and family” for Tayo for the first eight months. His kindness to her has extended even further as he still includes her in his own family vacations so she might experience more of the U.S. A few months ago there was a trip to Disney World!
Ford Academy, which will be celebrating its Fifth Anniversary this fall, became Tayo’s permanent place of employment. It was under different owner/directorship when she first began working there, but is now successfully directed by Jeralyn Wilson. Ford Academy has a staff of over twenty and when they are at full capacity, during the school year—they provide care for over a hundred children!
Jeralyn views the fact that Tayo has continued her employment with them as “a blessing.” Indeed, it was very evident that the care and affection between the two was deeper than employer and employee. “Ms. Wilson is my mother here,” Tayo said smiling. And if Ms. Wilson is her female angel than Jody Laing is her male angel.
When it came time for Tayo to get her first apartment, it made sense that she be close to work. She explained that one of the ladies she worked with lived nearby in an apartment complex: she suggested that Tayo check there herself to rent. As it turned out, there was a vacancy and she moved into her own place and was finally on her own!
A few months into her rental, Jody Laing, of Sterling Real Estate Incorporated, had occasion to enter the apartment for a minor repair job. Surprised that there were no furnishings whatsoever…he asked Tayo why she hadn’t moved in yet! It didn’t take long to determine that she had in fact moved in, but she had nothing in the way of furniture. She slept on her small pile of clothes on the floor. Tayo had a roof over her head, she had food, and she a job. America was wonderful.
Much to her surprise, while she was at work the next day, the bighearted “Mr. Jody” furnished her apartment from top to bottom. When she came home the next evening, the realization this was all given to her from someone who was neither family nor countryman was “a miracle.” She leaned closer to me when she told me her excitement about her good fortune. “I couldn’t even close the door, when I was in the bathroom…I was so happy and I just wanted to see out.”
It has been seven years since Tayo arrived in America and many things have changed. True, she still lives and works in Richmond Hill, but she is now married and the mother of a two year old son, Emmanuel. Although Tayo was dating Remigius Ndidi Onuoha when she first arrived here in 2002, it was not until 2004 that they married in their home country of Nigeria. It has been a lot of red tape to get her husband here to Richmond Hill, but he’s here at last. Hopefully, a job will come along soon. He was a Public Officer in government relations for many years in his own country.
One might wonder exactly when Tayo sleeps! Over the years since she has been here, in addition to her job at Ford Academy she also worked in the Bakery at Kroger where she often gave out “too many cookie samples.” She watches other children on weekends and just recently enrolled in Savannah Tech where she later will transfer to Armstrong Atlantic State University and finish her B.A. degree in Early Childhood Education. Her hope is to give back to our community by being a grade school teacher right here in Richmond Hill. There is not a doubt that Tayo will be a more than welcome addition to any public school and enrich the children’s lives considerably.
“Everyone here has been so nice to me,” she beamed. She feels particularly fortunate to be working with such wonderful people at her job. The ladies at work gave her a baby shower and she was again extremely touched. “I had no idea just how I was going to get anything for a baby…but they gave me everything…just everything.” Shanna Neal, a coworker, was particularly instrumental in making the event successful. Just as wonderful was Ms. Wilson going to the hospital with her for the delivery of her son.
I knew without asking, but I asked anyway: “What is your favorite American food?” “Sweets,” she told me, “We don’t have any and I could eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Pushing further, I asked, “Is your favorite oatmeal raisin cookies?” Her eyes grew wide. “YES!” and she clapped her hands in excitement. “And…?” I said. At the same time we both said: “Apple Pie!” and laughed!
Where Tayo covets sweets because she never had them in Nigeria— she makes hamburgers for her husband, any meal he wants, including breakfast, because meat is not plentiful. Children who go to school start learning English at an early age, but not all children finish school. In our time together in addition to the stories of levity, we discussed frankly some of the problems of Nigeria. There continues to be trafficking of women and girls, poverty and lack of employment even with an education, Polygamy which is a widespread practice, and the general problems of the African people in the modern world.
What was impressive was how this young woman, now in her early thirties, had not only come to America all on her own with nothing but a few clothes in a bag, but had embraced our people, culture, and customs. What was especially noteworthy was the fact that Tayo was so sincerely thankful for everything she now had and was willing to work even harder to give back to others in gratitude.
I looked through her eyes and saw our country and its freedoms in a new light. Here, we have the freedom to dream, freedom to succeed, freedom to be whoever and whatever we want to be. Ours is not a country of empty words, but rather a place of realities. We have the freedoms to change things we don’t like, either with our own personal tests and challenges, or on a greater scope. We can all be Tayo-s in our own right. We just have to do it.
Omotayo Omobolanle Onuoha thinks that America is the best place on Earth, like Heaven, and the people here, especially in Richmond Hill, the most caring, loving, generous people of all.
Published: Richmond Hill Reflections magazine 10/ 2009