Untapped Talents: A long to-do list won’t deter Congolese doctor from practicing medicine again

Editor’s note: This is the fifth part in a weekly series by contributor Nzar Sharif examining how individual immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life have had to leave behind the skills, talents and careers they had cultivated. To read the rest of the series, search on the site for “Untapped Talents.”

“The future is mine,” Papy Sabiti said to begin his story. Sabiti immigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2016 after being selected in what is known as the Green Card lottery. The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which serves as a lottery to provide another legal means for the United States to accept immigrants from countries that have had a low number of immigrants in the previous few years. He had filled out a form like almost 20 million people around the world and was one of the 50,000 individuals selected.

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

In 2014 alone, I had seen a little over 1,000 patients and provided them with recommendations, consultations and treatments. That is pretty much what my job was as a physician in my home country. I got my degree at the University of Lubumbashi as I studied eight years to become a doctor. 

My career was a reflection on my childhood dream to treat people and help them to have better health. Along with my studies, I have traveled to many Asian and African countries to equip my knowledge and skills with most advanced tools and techniques for better serving my people. I was pretty much feeling content and fulfilled for what I was doing and contributing to my world. I was able to serve my patients in French, Swahili, Lingala (a language spoken in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo), a little bit of Arabic that I know, I am also learning English now to be prepared to serve my future patients in the U.S.

I was in my home country when the Ebola virus caused death to many people and unfortunately, we were not fully ready to find the right treatment to save people’s lives because of so many financial and technological reasons. I was dreaming about how the modern medical science would help the Democratic Republic of Congo to overcome that disease. 

Until I won the lottery I thought that might be God’s calling to move me out from Africa to the U.S and study to learn and gain a better education so as one day I could go back to Democratic Republic of Congo and better serve my people. 

I finally made my decision. My wife and I decided to come to the U.S. and take advantage of the Green Card that I won. My only goal was seeking better education. I knew my transition was going to be very hard mainly because of the language barrier and having zero networking.  I did not know any English at all. It is hard, is not it? 

Soon after I made it to Harrisonburg, I started to look for an apartment to rent. I kept getting asked for credit history or a source of income. But it was normal that I did not have them because I have not lived in the U.S before. I had accumulated a good amount of savings, which I brought to the U.S. I thought I was going to use that money to take medical classes and learn the language, but it would not help in renting an apartment. I had to have a source of income so a landlord would trust me in paying my rent. 

There was no rest period after my transition. I needed time to absorb the culture shock and adjust to the new system where we moved to. But I soon found myself in a Walmart distribution center. 

Imagine — I was a very well-paid doctor. I lived in a mansion ten times bigger than the place that I have in the U.S. I must not only start from scratch with my career but start doing a job that I had never thought about doing before. During the orientation day at Walmart, I was observing someone who was cleaning the floor. I was curious who he might be. I was told that he is one of the managers in the distribution center. Then I realized if a manager cleans floors, what am I supposed to do here daily? The same orientation day, I decided to quit. I could not imagine myself doing that job. 

I urge your readers to feel what I went through that day.  I am very sure you know any physician would have greater expectations than cleaning floors when they move to the U.S. It was not an easy for me to move from treating people to cleaning floors — with all the respect that I have for such jobs and positions. That day I left Walmart and went back home with heart broken but still with faith that something good will come to me and my family. 

I decided to stay home and refrain from working as a labor or cleaner until I spent most of my savings that I brought from Africa. A few months later, my wife became pregnant. That was an end of my strike. I finally had to find something to do — otherwise we would have spent all that money that we accumulated throughout years of working. By that time, I have made some friends from the Congolese community. 

I was recommended to apply at Cargill, Inc., (the turkey processing facility) simply because it is a well-paid job and employees have very good opportunity to work overtime and make even more money. I found out later that working overtime badly affected my wrist and caused my carpel tunnel to flare up. I was felling pity for myself every single day. I was thinking about to go back to Congo, but my faith and hope to future and my positive energy was always encouraging me to keep on. The future surely will be mine. 

When I was hanging turkeys or cleaning floors or doing another similar task in that plant, I kept remembering my office — my position and the respect that I had from people and community compared to the respect that nobody has at all to my role here in the U.S. 

“What am I doing here?” was always an active question inside me. I, of course, left Cargill but not to a better or well-paid job — to even a worse job. My transition was from wrist pain to back pain, yet from a super-fast paced job to another. I got a job at Target’s receiving department. I worked for 5 months. My job was 12 hours a day, three days per week. I was making $21 an hour. As a physician I am very sure that one healthy hour of my body was way more valuable than that $21 I was making by standing on my feet all day long and loading and unloading boxes. I had an anger inside throughout my five months of working there. “Why I was brought to this country and why I had to go through these challenges?” was another question that I was keep asking myself. 

I think there are three important elements that I must go through to gain my career and position back which are: fluency in the English language, a strong networking circle and U.S certification since my country’s certification is not validated here. As per my calculation, I need somewhere around $75,000 to get a medical certification that helps me to practice as a physician here in the U.S. And of course, that amount is not going to be easy to obtain.   

As of now, I am only studying English at Eastern Mennonite University. I am dedicating my daily time to care for my two kids and learning new English words each day. My wife is working at the Target store, which is an easy but low-paid job. We mainly depend on the source of income that we still have in Congo.

  • Ahead in the series: Next week, in the final article in the series, a professional Mexican soccer player faces a choice between the career he loves and the woman he loves in the United States.

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