Untapped Talent: From winning the Green Card lottery to feeling lost

Editor’s note: This is the second part in a weekly series by contributor Nzar Sharif examining how individual immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life have, for various reasons, had to leave behind the skills, talents and careers they had cultivated.

Ako Talabani came to the United States because he won the Green Card lottery. He had filled out a form like almost 20 million people around the world and was one of those 50,000 individuals who won the lottery and immigrated to the U.S. The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. It aims to provide another legal means for the United States to accept immigrants from countries that have had a low number of immigrants in the past few years. But life in the United States wasn’t what he expected. Last weekend, Talabani traveled back to the Kurstian region of Iraq where he plans to stay for the next six months. Earlier this summer, he explained why he wanted to come to the United States and how the experience differed from his expectations.

Here is Talabani’s story as told to contributor Nzar Sharif:

Ako Talabani, who has a master’s degree in political geography, while working in the kitchen at Babylon in Harrisonburg. (Photo provided)

My name is Ako Talabani, and I am from Kurdistan region of Iraq. I am 33 years old and have been a resident of Harrisonburg since 2017. I have bachelor’s degree in geography and a master’s degree in political geography. 

I have worked as a principal and as school teacher since 2010 before moving to the U.S. The U.S. side that was shown to us was more than a paradise. We were watching TV and observing news that showed the U.S. as “such a green heaven.” All the beautiful pictures and positive news about the United States made me a little skeptical. Could a place be so perfect? So I was a little bit nervous about my relocation. 

Yet, I never imagined life to be that hard and challenging here in the U.S. Like anyone looking for improved circumstances, the hope was to become safe, comfortable and happy; find a decent job and have access to education. I was not planning to find a job that I can utilize my talents — mainly I was not ready to do so because of language barrier. However, I started to learn English. I knew Kurdish people who became laborers in the United States, but I thought that was because they didn’t know the language. But after moving here, I found people who have a high proficiency in English but unfortunately, they were not able to use their talents, and the society is wasting their experiences. 

I feel welcome but not included

Ako Talabani

The shocking part began after I applied to certain jobs so I could at least make a living while continuing to improve my language skills. But I was disappointed there was no job in the area to get except in manufacturing. Like everybody, I have bills to pay. I started to think about focusing only on improving my English and not working in manufacturing jobs, but I had rent and bills to pay. My first job was working in one of the giant distribution centers in the Valley. I was very surprised that I had to work for 12 hours with few short breaks. I cannot think of any job in Kurdistan and Iraq, in general, that people would work in those conditions and for those long hours.

When people ask me where I am from, I say, of course, “I am from Kurdistan — Middle East.” Many people think the Middle East is not safe or healthy. Maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t describe everyone’s experiences. I had a good life, but people don’t know that, and they feel sorry for me that I was living in the Middle East. Many people think I have to be thankful that I made it to the United States.  But they did not know what kind of life style I had left to carry packages and stand on my feet 12 hours a day to obtain almost a minimum wage.  I had to lower my expectations in the beginning due to lack of English knowledge. I started applying to entry-level jobs. Over and over I got no response. The only options that I had was a poultry plant or laboring in one of the distribution centers.

I think it takes a long time for the society to think about utilizing our talents and skills. We will get there one day — I am positive about that. It also takes a lot of persistence and determination from our fellow immigrants to find their way back to their career or jobs similar to what they used to have.

Language will probably be one of the main barriers to immigrants getting jobs aligned with their degree or experiences. There are also other factors. I believe the society is not accepting of us — our color and our origin always remain question marks. Too often I get the feeling that people are looking at me as if I am a guest in this country. I feel welcomed but not included. The way I live and work is a proof of this. I strongly believe that even though I have a master’s degree and know four languages that I have much less of a chance of getting a job than a local white dude with high school degree who knows only English. 

I have some plans for the future. The most important of them is to go back to my home country and live there. If I live in the U.S. for the rest of my life, I will remain unknown. My talents will go unnoticed. So my advice for new immigrants would be to think about that: Do you want to remain unnoticed?  I want to return to Kurdistan in the future. And I would like to pursue my Ph.D. in geography and help my society to be reconstructed. 

My advice to the future immigrants is to not get in a trap of media. Do not relocate with high expectations. I would take some English classes before even starting relocation. I strongly recommend obtaining a degree inside the U.S since degrees outside the U.S. will not carry the same credibility.

  • Ahead in the series: Next week, a former telecommunications engineer from Iraq tries to keep his dreams alive in the United States. And on Sept. 23, a husband and wife team from Venezuela left behind careers in law and medicine.

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