Bozi Kiekie grew up in a poor farming community in the war-torn Democratic Republic of The Congo, helping his family work the land while also selling bread, gasoline, and fish in order to scrape together enough money to pay for his studies. “I struggled, as everyone in the country did,” he says. Although Keikie was fortunate to have secured a diversity visa to come to the United States, his struggling and striving continued. Completing a master’s degree in education while working as a janitor at an Illinois meat-processing plant, Keike finally earned a well-paying job teaching high school French and ESL.
In his home country, Kiekie, who speaks five languages and holds a bachelor’s degree, had already gained a respectable job as a high-school and university teacher. But despite having pulled himself out of poverty and built a career, Kiekie dropped everything in 2010, when he won a green card through the diversity lottery. Borrowing a few thousand dollars, he said goodbye to his wife and three young children, and boarded a flight for America.
If you don’t sacrifice, you can’t get what you want.
Like hundreds of other West African immigrants, Kiekie wound up in Beardstown, a city of about 6,000 people, where the JBS pork-processing plant has long been a magnet for immigrant workers. With his Congolese education of little interest to U.S. employers, the best job Kiekie could find was as a janitor at the plant. “The job wasn’t at all something that I could enjoy, but it was my only choice,” he says. “I had a family back home, and they depended on me.”
Sweeping floors seemed a step down from teaching university courses, but it wasn’t all bad news: The $12.30 an hour that Kiekie earned as a janitor was a vast improvement on the $150 a month he’d earned as a teacher. Better still, union officials recognized Kiekie’s potential, and after a year he was made a union steward, supervising other immigrant workers. “Because of my language skills I was in a good position to help other people, to translate for them, to fight grievances,” he explains.
Kiekie remained at the meat-processing plant for four years, working by day and studying by night, while he completed a master’s degree in K-12 education. With an American degree under his belt, Kiekie was finally able to leave the meat-processing plant and take a job teaching at the local high school. Working and studying hadn’t been easy, but it had all been part of Kiekie’s plan to improve his lot. “If you don’t sacrifice, you can’t get what you want,” he explains.
That’s a thought that’s kept Kiekie going, even as he’s struggled to get by without his family. He’s returned to the DRC only once since coming to America, in 2010, and in the meantime his children — the eldest now aged 9, and his two twins aged 7 — have grown up without him. “It’s not easy. I get phone calls every single day from my kids telling me that they’re missing me and they need me,” he says.
It isn’t easy for green-card holders to bring dependents to America, Kiekie explains. Still, he’s certain the separation will be worth it. “This is me saying: Okay, I’ll stop family life now, I’ll sacrifice five or six years for a better life in the future,” he says. “My children will benefit, and this is the only gift I can give them. There’s no comparison between life in the United States and life in our poor country.”
This summer, Kiekie gained full citizenship, and he is now finally preparing to file green-card applications for his family. “Now that I’ve got my naturalization, the first thing I’m looking forward to is bringing them here,” he says. In doing so, Kiekie says, he’ll be securing a better life for his family — but also giving something back to America, for his children, like him, will be determined to make the most of the opportunities they find here.
That’s something the United States should be trying to encourage through its immigration policies, Kiekie says. The diversity lottery worked well for him personally, but he knows many other people who have been denied the opportunities he’s had. That’s bad for the would-be immigrants, but also for America, which is missing out on talented and determined workers. “This country has been built on immigration,” Kiekie says. “America needs people like me to come and contribute — and there are so many people in countries like mine who can contribute to the development of this country.”