A South Sudanese refugee finds a permanent U.S. home with the help of a Diversity Visa and Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska
His name is Butrus Lazarus.
Lazarus of the Bible endured death for four days before Jesus gave him a new life. The Lazarus in our story endured four different stages of immigration status before a computer in a government facility randomly gave him a chance for a new life in the United States of America.
Stage 1: Refugee
Butrus fled his home in Southern Sudan in 2003. At that time, the Second Sudanese War had been waging for 20 years—the entirety of his young life.
Approximately 2 million people died during this conflict; another 4 million were displaced. Butrus, his father in jail, his Christian family a target of persecution, was determined to survive.
Following another biblical example, Butrus fled to Egypt. He applied to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and was accepted as a refugee. He waited to be resettled.
He was still waiting nine years later.
“There is no refugee camp in Egypt,” he explains. “I found work where I could, cleaning houses and things like that. This is how I was able to live and to survive.”
With such a rootless existence, school was out of the question. Yet it was the one thing—besides his family—that Butrus yearned for the most. He had always been serious about his studies.
An American missionary working in Cairo took an interest in him. She was able to find a place for Butrus in a high school outside the city. He stayed there for two years, when his missionary angel was able to help him, once again, with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Honestly, the idea of going to the United States was not in my mind,” Butrus admits, “I just wanted to go to college. I wanted it more than anything.”
Stage 2: Student Visa
Butrus surrendered his refugee card for a student visa and arrived at Iowa Western Community College in 2011, not long after South Sudan became an independent nation.
Life in Iowa was different, but Butrus soon felt at home. He was reunited with his eldest brother—who had been resettled in Iowa as a refugee—after a separation of nine years. He could worship at a local church where many South Sundanese were fellow congregants.
“I struggled for that first year, but only for monetary reasons,” says Butrus, shrugging. “It wasn’t tough. I was happy. I enjoyed the school very much and the people were very friendly.”
Stage 3: Temporary Protected Status (TPS)
In 2013, South Sudan descended into bloody ethnic violence and civil war. Recognizing the impossibility for those South Sudanese residing in the United States to return to an essentially failed state, the US government designated South Sudan for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
A person with TPS can legally work in the United States. Butrus, a student struggling to pay college costs, needed to work. He wanted to apply for TPS, but felt he needed help with the application. He found that help with staff attorney Gary Walters of Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska.
“Butrus is a great guy; very intelligent and very hard-working,” says Gary, “In South Sudan, he and his family were targeted because they were Christian and because they were from the wrong tribe. I was glad we were able to help him stay here.”
Gary helped Butrus apply for TPS the first time and then renew it two years later. In the meantime, Butrus continued working and taking as many classes as he could. He eventually transferred to University of Nebraska in Omaha, choosing to major in finance.
Stage 4: Diversity Visa Lottery
In 2017, 19.3 million people applied for the U.S. diversity visa lottery program. Although only a tiny fraction of these applicants will succeed in receiving visas, it is a wildly popular program worldwide, particularly in Africa. In 2015, for example, 10 percent of the Republic of Congo’s citizens applied for the program.
“It gives hope to people,” explains Gary, who, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo had witnessed first-hand the excitement the lottery engenders. “And it shows our welcoming nature towards all kinds of immigrants.”
“Can you believe it? I had no idea of what the diversity visa program was,” says Butrus ruefully, “until I was trying to help a friend apply.”
Although most people who apply do so from their home countries, applicants living in the U.S. are also eligible, if they can prove they had legal status the entire time they have resided here. Butrus had never overstayed his student visa. He now had TPS. Furthermore, he was from a country which had not sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the previous five years. He was definitely eligible.
Butrus was always uneasy about his TPS, knowing that it could be canceled at any time. The lottery was a long shot, but it was also a chance for to stay in his new home.
“I thought, ‘well, why not me?’” he says, chuckling. “Why not let me try?”
He applied in October 2015 and again in 2016. The second time he was lucky. Among all those other names, the computer had plucked out his. But it wasn’t a done deal yet.
“It’s a two-part system,” explains Gary, who has been a JFON attorney for nearly a decade. “First you get your lottery number. Then you have to wait for that number to open up a visa spot. It doesn’t always open up. Basically, if you win, but the spot doesn’t open up, you lose your chance.”
Once again, Butrus was lucky. There was a spot available for him; now all he needed to do was file for his immigrant visa and successfully complete the interview process.
“I was really nervous about that,” he confesses, “because you don’t know what kind of questions they will ask.”
“It was not a difficult case,” counters Gary. “Butrus was a person in good standing, with no record, and well-regarded in the community. He’s exactly the kind of person you want settling in the United States.”
Butrus is now a U.S. permanent resident. He will graduate next year from the university. He plans for a career in banking. He wants to become a U.S. citizen.
Does he miss his home in South Sudan?
“I miss my people,” he says quietly. “With my green card, I can travel anywhere I want to, but…it’s not good there. The war doesn’t stop.”
Butrus bows his head. “I am so blessed.”
Is he remembering the terrors of war, the years of loss and hardship? Or does he reflect on the many kindnesses of strangers he has encountered along his journey?
Perhaps, just perhaps, he considers one random and monumental act of kindness in particular…from an inanimate machine in a government office somewhere in Kentucky, briskly choosing the next Lazarus.
Feature photo by Reuters