The adventures of the Els family, who immigrated from South Africa to the USA. Els family in Texas.

Our Immigration: The Long Story

This is the long story of how we came to the US. You can read it top to bottom, or the links below will take you each section...

The Green Card Lottery

Every year the United States government has a Green card lottery in which 55,000 Green cards (permanent resident visas) can be won. Only citizens, or persons born in certain selected countries may enter. The targeted countries are those with low US immigration rates. Usually a maximum of 3,850 Green cards can be awarded to one country. Anybody who has the equivalent of a US 12th grade education, or who does a job requiring 2 years training, may enter. The entry is very simple, and usually consists of placing your name, address, country of birth, and a passport photo on a sheet of paper, and mailing it to the National Visa Center (NVC) using regular mail. After a certain date, a 100,000 names are drawn randomly, and these "first round" winners are notified by mail. You are then requested to fill out a bunch of forms and submit supporting documentation (birth certificates, educational information, financial information etc.) to the NVC. Once this is received, found to be in order, and 3,850 Green cards have not yet been issued to your country, you get notified of an interview date and location (closest US embassy/consulate).If you've reached this point, you've basically got it. I think the interview is really just to check that you aren't "undesirable" (they want people who can contribute to the US economy, not those who'll be exploiting Social security), and this also gives Uncle Sam the first opportunity to get some money from you - a $200 per person administration fee (1996). After the interview you are issued with a US immigration visa, which is valid for 4 months (so you have 4 months to pack your stuff and get your butt over there). On entry into the US you are issued with a temporary Green card, and a few weeks later you receive the real thing (which, by the way, is not green) by mail.

Warning: There are many law firms offering their services with entering the Green card lottery (at a fee, of course). Some claim that using their services will increase your chances of winning, citing statistics of past successes. This is all garbage! Even the US government says so, and warns against these firms. There is no entry fee, and the entry itself is so simple that anyone who can read and follow instructions, can do it in a few minutes. The draw is random. All the law firms can do, is make sure your entry is in the required format and that you therefore don't get disqualified because of an incorrect entry. Again, this is something you can do yourself quite easily!

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Our entry

You have to realise this whole thing really works on luck. It's like entering any other competition. You're one amongst a whole lot of other people who entered, and as such, your chances of not winning are far greater than your chances of winning it.

The irony of our initial entry is that we didn't even do it ourselves. I had to leave town for three weeks and didn't have time to prepare our entries (you know, the usual leave-it-to-the-last-minute thing), so I asked a friend who was also entering, to submit entries for us. He didn't charge the outrageous fees the law firms do, only the money for the stamps. This was around February 1995. Unfortunately for him, he did a better job with our entries than with his own. (Don't worry, he's living quite happily in England now.)

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Did we really win?

I forgot completely that we had entered the Green card lottery, and one fine day in August '95, we received a large envelope with an Amsterdam postal marking. I don't know what I was thinking when I opened the envelope and read the letter, but I know I didn't believe right then that we had won, so there was no joyous jumping up and down! (Esmé says you'll never see me do that anyway!) Knowing that a lot of my friends at work also entered, I tried to solve the mystery the next day. None of them had received anything. That's when I realized we had won!

I don't recall us ever discussing whether we should go to the US or not. It was just "Yes, we're going. This kind of opportunity comes only once, and we should take it now, or lose it forever!" Little did we know how much it would change our lives, and which challenges we would face. Maybe it was good we didn't know...

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The endless documents

If you're scared of filling out forms and running from one agency to the next to obtain documentation, then you're in for a tough time. OK, it's not really that bad. I survived it. It is a lot of work though, and you want to get it done before everybody else because there are only a limited amount of Green cards up for grabs. With some help I was able to get all the required forms and documentation off to the NVC by October '95 - about 6 weeks after hearing we had won. That in itself was a miracle. I got to understand very well why some government departments are not famous for their efficiency!

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"Waiting" is something that most people don't do very well, especially if your whole life is placed on hold by it. We were reluctant to make any changes to our lives because it could all be in vain if we had to pack up and leave for the US. After 3 months I couldn't stand it anymore and tried to find out from the NVC what was going on. They couldn't tell me anything other than "your documentation has been received and you will receive further instructions later". Then after another 3 months we were notified that our interview was set for May 16, 1996. Once I knew we got the interview, I was convinced that we would get the Green cards, and I started planning the entire relocation operation step by step.

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The Interview

On May 15 we flew to Johannesburg for our interview. The first consulate person we dealt with was a very rude, impatient South African! I have later discovered on SA expat billboards that this Indian gentleman is quite notorious for his obnoxious behavior. Anyway, this idiot's job was to collect the remainder of our documentation, and to collect our first money ever paid to Uncle Sam. The actual interview was done by a very kind, pleasant American! It lasted about one hour, and two hours later we walked out of there with three immigration visas that were valid until September 15, 1996.

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Preparing to leave

On our return to Port Elizabeth I pulled out the relocation plans I prepared before, and got the ball rolling. We had a lot to do - sell our house, cars, and furniture (we decided it wasn't worth shipping it to the US). We also had to do it in such a way that we were still able to keep the essentials right to the end. For 2 months we lived in a practically empty house. Everything went very well though and we were done with most of it ahead of time. So we decided to take a final holiday with some good friends and in July '96 we flew off to Mauritius (an island in the Indian ocean) for a week. It was during this time that crime-ridden South Africa gave us our farewell. After 2 days in Mauritius we found out that our house had been burgled. The place was a mess, but luckily the burglars didn't find our immigration visas that were hidden in the house.

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We decided to spend a week with each of our families before we left. So we spent a week with my parents on their farm outside Steytlerville, and then we flew to Johannesburg to spend a week with Esmé's parents.

The goodbyes at the airports were the worst! Saying goodbye to family and friends, knowing that it'll be quite a while before you see them again, is not easy. It is only now that our own kids are growing up that I realize the turmoil our parents must've gone through during this entire period. We flew out of Johannesburg for Amsterdam and London on September 2, 1996.

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This is where my friend who entered us in the lottery comes into the picture again. He had left South Africa about a year earlier and was now living outside London. We decided it would be great to see him again, and it would also be good to split our trip in two to make it easier on Johnny, who was only two years old at the time. It also gave us time to come to grips, in the "safe" company of a long-time friend, with what we were doing. So we spent two great days in the beautiful English countryside before flying off to San Francisco via Amsterdam.

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San Francisco

September 5, 1996 was our first day in the US. We arrived at San Francisco International airport at 13:35. After going through immigration, where we received our temporary Green cards (stamped into our passports), we called up the Residence Inn in Foster City and their courtesy van picked us up.

We didn't know the San Francisco Bay area at all, and we didn't know anybody either, and to top it all, none of us had work. But we knew we'd have to put up with all the discomfort that this held, and that we'd have to take it one step at a time. And so we did. Two weeks later I found a job as a PC support engineer at a company in San Francisco, and a week after that we moved into the apartment that we lived in until we relocated to Austin, Texas on October 20, 1998. I have since become the programmer that I set out to become, and Esmé is now working as an airport sales agent for Continental airlines.


There is always a certain amount of luck that accompanies you on big ventures like these. We had lots of it. Initially we struggled to find an apartment. We had no credit history and no jobs and in the already tight Bay Area housing market, no apartment manager would rent an apartment to us... until we met Fred & Kathy Goodfellow. They were the managers of an apartment building in Hillsdale, San Mateo. By sheer coincidence their daughter was married to a South African, and they planned to move to South Africa two months later. So Fred & Kathy had a lot of sympathy for our situation. Despite no job and credit history, Fred convinced the apartment owner to let us have an apartment anyway. We lived there for two years, and are still great friends with Kathy & Fred.

And that's the whole long story.

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Copyright, John Els