Sam Komla Ewu holds a master’s degree in linguistics from one of the best universities in Togo, a small West African country, and has years of experience teaching high school English. Today, however, he makes his living carving up pig carcasses at a JBS meat-processing plant in Beardstown, Ill. — a vast facility that employs hundreds of immigrants and processes around 20,000 hogs a day, making it a critical part of the $1.5 billion Illinois pork industry.
Ewu’s trajectory — from school teacher to meat-cutter — might not sound like something to celebrate, but Ewu feels he’s been immensely lucky. For a decade, he played the diversity lottery, which provides up to 50,000 green cards a year for residents of countries with low rates of immigration to the United States, before finally winning a green card five years ago; as soon as he learned he’d been selected, he boarded a flight for America. “I was blessed by God to be able to come here,” he says. “America is a great place — from nothing, you can become anybody. This really is a country of dreams.”
I was blessed by God to be able to come here. America is a great place — from nothing, you can become anybody. This really is a country of dreams.
Ewu had to pay a steep price to claim his piece of the American dream: his wife and three young children weren’t covered by his green card, and remain in Togo. Ewu also had to accept that his foreign education and years of experience didn’t count for much in the U.S. employment market. “All those years I spent going to school, and now I have to start my life anew,” he says. But while Ewu has made sacrifices, he and his family have also benefited enormously from his arrival in America. In Togo, teaching in well-regarded high schools, Ewu earned the equivalent of about $400 a month; at the JBS plant, he can easily make that much in a single week.
Ewu sends half of every paycheck home to his family in Africa, supporting not only his wife and children, but also a long list of parents, siblings, nephews, and other family members. That’s a responsibility that Ewu takes very seriously, and that manifests itself in his rigorous work-ethic. “I work every day — I never miss my work,” he says. “As long as I go to work, I know I’m going to have $400 every week, and this is how I take care of my family back home.”
Besides, Ewu says, the meat-processing job is really just a stepping stone. He’s currently taking classes at a community college, in addition to working full-time, and by this time next year he hopes to have completed a master’s degree in public administration. After that, he says, he’ll use his experiences and linguistic abilities to find a job in public service, perhaps with a nonprofit group helping new immigrants to find their feet. “This is my role, as an immigrant in the United States — to improve my situation,” he says.
While Ewu is optimistic about the future, he struggles with living so far from his family. He’s been trying for years to bring his wife and children to the United States to be with him, but there’s a long waiting period for the dependents of green-card holders. “It’s heartbreaking, every single day to wake up and see that you’re alone,” he says. “This is the price I’m paying, and every day I struggle because I love my family and my kids.”
Ewu hopes that immigration reform will make it easier for legal immigrants to bring their families to the United States. “We need a process that’s more tolerant of people who come here legally,” he says. “If they’re here and legal, they shouldn’t have to wait.”
Still, despite the pain of separation, Ewu knows he’s doing the right thing for his family. “When my family and my kids do get here, they’ll build a better future. They’ll have opportunities to go to school, to get a better education and have a better standard of life,” he says. “I never regret coming to America. I just want my family to be here with me, so they too can have a bright future.”