Jean Francis Youmsi is from Cameroon and believes it was fate that allowed him to immigrate to the States to “chase the American Dream.”Yordanka Uvakova is from Bulgaria and has been struggling with accepting a downgrade in lifestyle since she immigrated to Chicago with her family. Her sacrifice, she reasons, is for her kids.

At 23 years old, Ivan Stoyanov emigrated from Bulgaria with his newlywed wife as an adventure and to “try something new.”

Every year 50,000 people from around the world are randomly selected to receive what amounts to a free pass to immigrate to the U.S.

The Diversity Immigration Visa or Green Card Lottery was first administered in 1995 by the State Department and makes available permanent resident visas to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. Countries change from year to year as those who have sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the States in the past five years are ineligible to qualify for the DV lottery. That number does not include refugees, asylum seekers, or previous diversity immigrants.

Though it is a lottery, the selection process is not completely blind luck.

“Law and regulations require that every diversity visa entrant must have at least a high school education or its equivalent or have, within the past five years, two years of work experience in an occupation requiring at least two years’ training or experience,” according to the U.S. Department of State website.

Many people win the lottery but don’t end up immigrating. Some lottery winners never receive notification that they were selected either because of something as simple as an address change or because of fraud. Some don’t follow through with the process because they failed to meet the requirements when they applied.

For some reason, people think they can get away with taking the notification from the actual winner and trying to pose as that person, said Heather, a public inquiry department operator for the U.S. Department of State Kentucky Consular Center in Williamsburg, Kentucky (operators are only allowed to give first names). “Or, some take the notification and demand money from the person before they will give them the documents.”

When people do immigrate, it’s usually because they’re not happy where they are, she said. “A lot of our applicants may have an education but cannot find jobs in their field or there are no jobs in the area where they are living. Some come to provide for their family.”

Came for the career

Jean Francis Youmsi is from Cameroon. When he was 14 years old, he went to France to join his sisters and continue his studies. He attended Ecole Centrale Paris, an engineering school and received a B.S. in Electronics and a Master’s in Information Systems Engineering. Youmsi then worked for seven years as a consultant, designing, implementing and maintaining management support systems. After four years with a French IT consulting company, he launched his own firm.

In April 2007 he won the Diversity Visa Lottery and in September 2008, Youmsi arrived in the United States to “chase the American Dream.” Now 34, Youmsi regards his immigration as a “stroke of fate.

“My brothers-in-law were playing the Green Card Lottery and they asked for my assistance for sizing the picture to meet the requirements,” he said. “I decided to play just for fun.” He had applied once before “but thought it would never work.”

When he received notification of his selection, he was very surprised. “I was getting emotional and crazy,” he said. “It was so unexpected. I was shouting and my friends didn’t understand anything.” He took it as a blessing. “I never dreamt of living in the U.S. and I thought there must be some bigger plans for my life.”

Youmsi’s boss even encouraged him to go to the U.S. “Of course, my mother didn’t want me to go because the U.S. is very far from Cameroon.”

At that time, Youmsi was going through recruitment with a business in Britain. The month after winning the lottery, he got the job to be a Technical Consultant and moved to the UK. “I decided to seize the opportunity because it happened to be an excellent transition from the French culture to the American system,” he said. “In this global economy, I thought it was very important to broaden my career and acquire international exposure. Compared to France, the U.S. represents a land of opportunities where there is no limit if you work hard. The integration of minorities is also better.” He worked as a technical consultant until September the following year when he moved to the States.

Diversity Visa lottery winners aren’t required to have a state-side sponsor like some other visas in order to immigrate, but winners have to show that they can financially support themselves, generally with their bank statements, property, or if they have any job offers.

Youmsi had visited the States before but had never dreamed of living there. He chose to immigrate to Chicago because his brother had lived there for four years.

It helped that Youmsi was unencumbered by family constraints when he made his decision to immigrate. However now that he’s in Chicago, he’s thinking about building a family. “I would like to get married with a Cameroonian girl but for now, I don’t know many Cameroonians in the U.S.”

Youmsi doesn’t think he’ll return permanently to France. However, Africa may be an option in the future. “I will eventually go back permanently to Africa if I feel that I can have a greater impact,” he said. “I am very confident about my future in the United States. I have the right attitude and it is just a matter of time. The American Dream is possible if you work hard.”

Came for the kids

Yordanka Uvakova

The Diversity Visa application process went green in 2005 when the registration system became electronic. Yordanka Uvakova had been applying for her family every year for ten years. As soon as the application went online, she won. But by that time, her life had changed significantly since she first applied.

“My husband and I had perfect jobs in Bulgaria,” Uvakova said. “We had a very nice and modern house, our own. It’s very hard to make the decision on what to do because you have to decide, do you want to stop your life over there and put everything in a bag and to come to a completely new country with different laws and start from the very beginning?”

Friends and family encouraged Uvakova to come to the States, saying that it would be silly not to use the opportunity and that it was an opportunity for her daughter.

In order to allow for those who do not pursue immigrant visas, more winners are selected in the lottery than there are visas available. Winner notifications contain a number and if the pool of 50,000 visas has been issued before one’s number is reached, it’s over.

“A friend of mine wanted very much to come, but they only received the first step,” Uvakova said. “Their number was too high and they weren’t chosen. They couldn’t come.”

In April 2005, Uvakova and her husband came with their daughter to Chicago. They stayed for a month, took their green cards and social security numbers, and returned to Bulgaria. When Uvakova became pregnant with her second daughter, U.S. immigration officials advised her to give birth in the United States. If she didn’t, there would be no way to bring her younger daughter to the States because she was not included on the original diversity visa application. In October 2005, Uvakova and her husband returned to Chicago where her parents (who also won the lottery that year) and cousin were living.

Her second daughter was born in 2006. This prompted her final decision to stay in the States. “We decided to stay and become citizens so our two kids could have equal opportunities in life. Right now, the older one has a green card, the little one has an American passport.”

After living in the States for five years, immigrants are allowed to apply for citizenship. If parents receive citizenship, children under the age of 18 years old are immediately granted citizenship as well. “I didn’t want some day to have my older daughter tell me, ‘Why did you give this opportunity to my sister and I don’t have the same?’” Uvakova said.

It has been challenging for Uvakova, now 34, to cope with the change in lifestyle. “Maybe if we won the lottery many years ago when I first started applying, it would be different. If you are young, you can come here and find a better job from the beginning. Both my husband and I were working for government institutions in Bulgaria. We were somebody in this job. To leave our house and come here and rent an apartment and not even have from the beginning a bed, a TV, a table.”

Uvakova never thought she would be able to have a professional job in the States and still made the decision to immigrate. Since then she has discovered Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization which tries to match immigrant professionals with jobs that suit their skill level. Uvakova is hopeful she will find a better job than the one she has now, one she will enjoy.

Since immigrating, Uvakova has been back to Bulgaria a couple of times but traveling with the six people in her family makes it very financially difficult. “Two years ago we came to Bulgaria just after New Years. My brother decided to get married just after we left. He called us and said, ‘You’re invited to the wedding.’ But he didn’t ask us if we had enough money to come. He told me, ‘I know that you can do this’ and of course we did. We had to borrow money from friends and when we come back to the States, we have to pay them back.”

Uvakova misses family the most. “When you say goodbye, you never know if you will see grandparents before they don’t have many years to live,” she said. “I’m really sad because all these people, maybe you will never see again.”

Came for the adventure

Ivan Stoyanov

Ivan Stoyanov is from Sofia, Bulgaria. He attended the prestigious American University in Bulgaria. In 2007, a day before his convocation ceremony, Stoyanov received notification he was selected for the diversity visa. The following year he worked for the investment banking department of a Bulgarian commercial bank until he came to the U.S. in May 2008.

“Many people think that immigrants come to the States just because they want to make more money. I don’t think this is true. I left a pretty good job in Bulgaria,” Stoyanov said. “What made me come to the U.S. was my desire to try something new. Kind of like an adventure.”

Visas are distributed on a regional basis. No single country can receive more than 7 percent, or 3,500, of the total number of visas.

What aided his decision in immigrating, Stoyanov believes, was that he was at the beginning of his career. “I wasn’t like someone who has been working for ten years having a senior management position,” he said. “The older you are, the more you’re used to the way life is over there. It’s more difficult for you to adapt. I had colleagues of mine who told me they’d never immigrate.”

Stoyanov thinks he applied for the lottery two or three times, never seriously thinking about the possibility of winning. “You do change a lot initially. I had to prepare, propose to my girlfriend. These kinds of things.”

Stoyanov married his girlfriend of two years in 2008. They chose to move to Chicago because his wife had very close friends who had been here for 15 years. Both had been to the States before.

There is always the option of returning to Bulgaria if things don’t go well, but Stoyanov doesn’t anticipate this happening.

“If I try different things, try my best and nothing works out, then the most logical thing I could do would be to go back,” he said. “It’s difficult for everyone who comes here. It’s been difficult for the first settlers on this continent, but their efforts brought the greatest nation in the world.”