The American Dream: Opportunity or Exploitation

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Kolkata, India – Every day of the year thousands of people with hope in their eyes swarm the many US consulates and embassies all over the world for that prized visa. India is no such exception. In fact the largest number of immigrants currently flying into the US legally is from the sub-continent itself.

People sell all they posses to come to the US, some even borrow huge sums on high interest in order to just get here. So why the lure? Why the mad rush to live the American Dream.

Let’s look at three people I met who are here to live that American Dream.

Meet Shyamal Ghoshal. Shyamal is from Kolkata, India who holds a Masters in Economics and works nearly 10 hours a day at the local seven eleven store making a paltry $ 4.50 an hour, much lower than the minimum wage. Shyamal came to the US on a tourist visa in 1998 and now lives here in the Langley Park area of Maryland, sharing a room with four others. Looking at some of his photographs taken in India one sees the sparkle and a broad smile.

Looking at him now one sees fatigue. The sparkle is no longer there, the smile is forced amidst deep sighs. “This is not what I had wanted,” Shyamal exhales. “I borrowed from my retired father, who was a retired school teacher,” said Shyamal. “He has no savings now, besides I have two sisters who are of marriageable age now. What do I do?

Shyamal is thinking of taking a night job in a local gas station which would pay him a bit more. Perhaps $ 8to $ 10 an hour! That would mean Shyamal would be working nearly 18 hours a day, leaving him with little or no to time to sleep.

For Shyamal the American Dream is a disillusion. He is nearly 40 years now and is an illegal immigrant. Still Shyamal continues to work, work and work. He was once in love with a beautiful girl in Kolkata. The girl has since moved on and married someone else. Shrugging his shoulders Shyamal takes leave. “Got to go to work.” As the door closes behind him, he gives me one last look. All is see is emptiness.

I first met Iqbal Qureshi in a crowded New York subway. The train was quite empty that night and I was seated at a distance from a man whose shoulders were drooped and his hands covered his face. Curiosity getting the better of me I decided to take a closer look.

Getting up I perched myself a few feet away from this person, trying to get a better look at him. He looked Indian, I thought to myself. As the train slowed down, entering a station, the person slowly spread his fingers, trying to get a quick peek through them at his surroundings.

“Aap kya India se hain,” (Are you from India), I asked.
“Pakistan,” he muttered.

As the train picked up speed, we got talking. After we shook hands introducing ourselves, I asked Iqbal as to why he looked so depressed. “Janaab,” he replied. “Family ki badi yaad aa rahi hai.” (I am missing my family). “Why don’t you take a vacation and visit Pakistan”? I suggested.

After a long pause Iqbal said, “If I go to Pakistan, I will not be able to come back.”

Iqbal like so many others paid nearly 12 lakhs to a middleman in Pakistan to get a tourist visa. He had sold his land in Karachi to fund his travel to the States in 1999. Arriving in New York, Iqbal was lucky to find a job in a shoe store owned by a fellow Pakistani in the Brooklyn area.

The store owner, a God fearing man has not regretted hiring Iqbal as today he runs the store earning nearly $ 10 an hour. Iqbal rises at 5 in the morning and arrives at the shop around 8, taking the subway every day and returns home at 11 pm. Iqbal works seven days a week and has not taken a single day off. Having lived for nearly 9 years in New York, Iqbal is unfamiliar with the other areas of the city.

“I have everything a man needs to survive here. A drivers license, a roof over my head, food….but not my family.” Iqbal is married and left his 2 year old son and promised to bring his family to the US. The family still waits.

Asaha Khetri, is perhaps one of the luckier ones…or is she? Aasha, a divorcee and the mother of 17 year old came to the United States on a tourist visa in 1997. After a bitter divorce, her brother invited her to Maryland to take a break. Aasha decide to stay back and work here.

After her brother sponsored her for a F1 (student visa) Aasha completed her Bachelors with a 3.8 GPA. Not wanting to live off her brother, Aasha joined an Indian company in the public relations department. She was paid a modest salary of $ 1,200. Impressed by Aasha’s work, the employers sponsored her for an H1 visa. Still Aasha is not happy.

“They made me work long hours, right from the beginning,” she explained. “I did not mind the long hours at all. After two months the pay became irregular. I used to practically beg them to give me my dues.” Today though she has an H1, Aasha is not paid the amount $ 52,000 mentioned in the H1 papers. Aasha is very disgruntled and confused. While she struggles to make both ends meet, Aasha is resigned to her fate as she knows she cannot even take legal action for the fear of loosing her H1 status.

The examples of the Shyamals, Iqbals and Aashas are a mere reflection of the misery of thousands of immigrants who come to this country searching for the “prospect of prosperity.”

While immigrants from the subcontinent get jobs quickly seizing the first available opportunity, the exploitation begins that very moment. Businessmen will be businessmen, some ruthless, some scrupulous but in all cases ready to exploit their own fellow countrymen without an iota of remorse. Paying their employees the legal minimum wage is all that is expected out of them and yet they do not.

While the American Dream is a satisfying peg of scotch in the evening for these employers at a job well done in exploitation, the employee waits for the next bus close to midnight to take him home where he will dream again….The American Dream.

Devasish Ray
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Devasish Ray is a senior print and television journalist

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