Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Is the grass greener? Emigrating from Morocco

The US State Department grants roughly 50,000 permanent resident visas annually, through the Diversity Visa Lottery, to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

The Morocco Board news service carries this article written by Joe Sciarrillo of the African Immigrant Refugee Resource Center in San Francisco. It highlights the case of Benyounes from Rabat, who met the criteria and in 2006 was able to apply with his wife and two children, allowing them to work and reside in the U.S. as legal permanent residents. Most of the 10 million participants in this lottery come from Asia and Africa, and must meet specific educational or occupational requirements.

Benyounes makes pizza
Benyounes speaks of his experience as an immigrant coming to San Francisco as if he’s reciting poetry, reminiscing on his adjustment to his new life in the Bay Area. Arriving in 2006, he went to the African Immigrant Refugee Resource Center seeking assistance with employment and housing. More importantly, he was looking to connect with friends to guide and support him in navigating his new home.

The obstacles began to mount when his family could no longer comfortably stay at his sister-in-law’s house after the first month. Tempers flared between his relatives, sparked by conflicting expectations on living arrangements, and personal differences. The complex social dynamics of living in an unfamiliar city with new expectations were just his first barriers.

Benyounes’s first steps were to apply for a Social Security card, a California ID, and start a new life. He explained to the caseworkers his frustration in finding affordable housing and livable paying jobs that do not require high-levels of English. The Center provided listings of affordable housing and signed him up for several housing wait-lists. Instead, he preferred to avoid the backlog of public housing and found a more comfortable, personal setting at a Tenderloin apartment with an Algerian friend. The Center referred him to a technological training at Cartridge World, but no related jobs panned out.

One of this biggest obstacles was navigating through the red tape and bureaucratic barriers to employment, housing, and qualifying for certain medical benefits as a legal permanent resident. Yet, he was gaining a familiarity with such obstacles after having gone through the rough fourteen month process of the Lottery.

While attending prayer services at the Attawhid mosque on Sutter and Polk in the Tenderloin, Benyounes met Abdel Mokrani, the manager at Volare Pizzeria. He recalls their first encounter in 2007, “I was looking for any work - part time. Abdel needed someone to open and to start the oven and clean up. I made fish one day for him - he found out I was a good chef so he pushed me to try cooking pizza. He even gave me his secrets (for sauce and pasta) and I improved them because I’m a chemist.” Together, Benyounes and Abdel altered and improved their recipes as well as the restaurant’s interior and exterior design.

He shares memories of bustling in the kitchen of Volare Pizzeria on Haight Street, serving slices of pizza over the hot oven, while welcoming customers in his native Moroccan accent to “Enjoy while it’s hot.”

Since leaving Volare Pizzeria, Benyounes has moved on to search for teaching jobs, similar to his profession in Morocco as a high school chemistry and physics teacher, but openings are limited, and many only hire applicants who are fluent in English.

Like countless other immigrants in the Bay Area, Benyounes’s story is similar to many who hop between jobs in the service sector while searching for the right fit. Yet when he reflects on his personal journey, he looks you in the eye and recalls his rocky struggles, first with unemployment in San Francisco to the odds he faces now competing for jobs in the US’s economic recession.

Benyounes reflects on the unexpected skills he has picked up, “Je ne savais rien,” meaning that he had no experience in managing a restaurant whatsoever, crediting Islam and his spirituality for this. “You must have, above all, faith,” explaining that patience is one of its main virtues. Patience, he attests, is the first thing that helped him when it seemed all solutions and support were gone as a newly arrived immigrant in the U.S.

Volare Pizzeria stands out as one of the many city hot spots that is run and staffed by African immigrants. Most staff are Maghrebis, which makes it a resource for news, celebrations and connections among San Francisco’s Maghrebi community. In fact, the number of Africans in San Francisco still remains “countless” and unknown because there is little conclusive census data - only extensive statistics on the number of residents who consider themselves “black.”

“I need to learn English, to help my position as manager,” Benyounes states just after one month and a half on the job. Often working along at the pizzeria late at night, managing the cashier and kitchen, he would find time to practice his English. “I study English when it’s slow…I practice English with customers. I understand a little but it’s hard.” He notes that picking up on the slang of customers and nearby residents has been the hardest part of the language.

He says, “I noticed that Americans are really polite…that really makes me happy. When they know I don’t understand, they try to help me.”

Benyounes says, “I never thought I’d be giving so much of my life to pizza!” Though he has moved on to look for higher-level jobs, his eyes squint with melancholy, speaking with gratitude about the support he has received at Volare Pizzeria and the African Immigrant & Refugee Resource Center. “I can’t tell you how much this has done for me. They are some of my only friends in the US. They’re my support system.”

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