Tarig Elhakim was in medical school in Sudan in 2014 when his father persuaded him to apply for a U. S. residency permit through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, a highly competitive lottery that allows 50,000 people a year to immigrate without a family sponsor or a special skill. Elhakim had applied before, as do as many as 15 million worldwide each year. “The lottery is really big over there because everyone wants to leave Sudan,” says Elhakim, who cites a high poverty rate and slim access to clean drinking water and healthcare. “It’s a business almost. When you go to a coffee shop, there’s a computer area where someone is available to apply to the lottery for you.”
The last time he entered the lottery was in 2008, when his father, who is also a physician, applied for the family. Soon after, an email landed in Elhakim’s own inbox claiming he had won. “I was really shocked about it,” he recalls. “But then we figured out it was a scam where they wanted me to send money through Western Union. That’s very common in the lottery.” So in 2014, Elhakim was not hopeful, and had even forgotten about the lottery. But when, prompted by a friend, he logged on to the U.S. State Department website, he couldn’t believe his eyes. “It was a different screen,” he says. “You get used to the screen where you’re not chosen. But this one was a whole paragraph saying, You won the lottery.” Elhakim’s father told him: “Now you have a great opportunity to upgrade yourself.”
Elhakim arrived in the United States weeks before President Donald Trump assumed office and issued a ban on foreign travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Sudan. Elhakim now lives in Arlington, Virginia, and is studying for the medical exam. “Being a doctor is carrying a huge responsibility,” he says. “You are taking care of human life.”
Immigrant doctors will relocate to more communities, allowing healthcare to be available to more people.
Although Elhakim graduated from medical school in Sudan and worked as a physician there, it will be years before he can practice in the United States. He will have to pass the three-step U.S Medical Licensing Examination, and get recommendations for, and complete, a residency program at a hospital in the United States or Canada, a process that takes several years and includes at least three years of grueling, up-to 80-hour workweeks. European countries have similarly strict policies on practicing medicine, and Elhakim says these high standards are part of “what makes America the global leader of medicine.” But many in the U.S. medical field have deemed the process unnecessarily restrictive, particularly given that the country faces a growing doctor shortage, especially in rural areas. Already, 135 counties in the United States lack a single practicing physician. With the graying of the population, the America is projected to be short 60,000 to 95,000 doctors by 2025.
Still, even with all the roadblocks, Elhakim says he is grateful for the opportunity he has been given. “I didn’t know anything about America before I won the lottery,” he says. “I was in a box. But the people here have given me a different view of the world. They are nice and try to get to know you. The country is well organized and everything is working really well.” Elhakim hopes to become a U.S. citizen and to then sponsor visas for his family, a process that will take at least five years. But for now, the family remains separated by more than 6,000 miles. “It’s sad that I am alone,” he says. “If I could bring my family, it would make a huge difference for me. Your family is your family and you want to be with them.”
Elhakim wants to see immigration reform that will make it easier for others to come to America and contribute. Even after winning the lottery, it took a year and a half for the government to schedule Elhakim’s visa interview. “I saw a lot of people in front of me who got rejected,” he says. Caps on guest-worker visas and quotas on the numbers of visas issued for each country further restrict entry for many qualified people, he says. “Sudanese people, a lot of them are really talented and a lot of them get rejected,” he says. “If America was more open to immigrants who want to come here to contribute, new and different talents will appear. Like the field of medicine — immigrant doctors will relocate to more communities, allowing healthcare to be available to more people.”