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A dependent visa holder unravels her story

Here’s a short video project on Shilpa Naveen Chandra, a gynecologist by profession. She moved to the United States in May last year and life took a different course for her. Watch this video to find out more.

Meet Jorge Enrique Jiménez

I have highlighted the woes associated with dependent visas — especially F-2 — in the country. While those on F-2 visa can only take up volunteer work or engage in study that is recreational or avocational in nature, those on J-2 visa have the liberty to study full-time or work once they get their employment authorization document.

About two-thirds of the members of the Westgate Culinary Club are on F-2 visas, the rest are on J-2 visas. While most of them (J-2 visa holders) have opted to work during their stay in the country others choose to utilize the time by exploring the country and their passion.

While coming to the U.S. on a J visa might seem to be beneficial for both the spouses; there is a reason why very few opt for this class of visa. J visas are subject to two-year foreign residency requirement.

Jorge Enrique Jimenez, the only male member of the Westgate Culinary Club, is on a J-2 visa. He moved to the US from Colombia to accompany his wife, Angela Franco, who is a fellow at the Urban Studies and Planning Department of the MIT.

Jorge used to work as a professor at the Javeriana University in Cali, Colombia. He is also currently involved with a project at the ICESI University in Cali.

Jorge with his wife Angela.

I asked him how does it feel to be the only male member in the club?

“This is a very interesting experience,” said Jorge. “I’ve never felt any kind of discrimination from the women because of my gender. At the beginning I was a little bit shy but now I feel that I’m just one more in the group.”

While Jorge’s visa allows him to work in the country — after he gets a work authorization — he preferred not to take up a job here.

“Actually I didn’t have any plans to work in the U.S. because I’ve continued a previous labor relation I had in my country, but if I have to stay here for some more time I think I would like to have a job, because this is a very good way to know the culture and learn the language,” he said.

He utilizes his free time by studying and honing his English language skills and also by engaging himself in various sports.

On asking him how is U.S. different form Colombia he said, “This is a huge question. But I would like to give an answer related with the culinary club and the cultural experience [I had]. One of the more important impacts of my experience of living in the U.S. during these months has been the opportunity to meet people from very different countries and cultures.”

“Thanks to the club I have the opportunity of practicing English and also meet very interesting people. Additionally I’ve learned about the food in other countries, that is one of the most interesting cultural characteristics we always want to learn about when we are traveling,” Jorge said.

While J-2 visa holders like Jorge have the freedom to decide whether or not they want to work or study during their stay, F-2 visa holders lack this freedom. So F-2 visa holders cannot help but wonder how life could have been different if they could have pursued a job or enrolled in a full-time study here.

The more things are forbidden the more desirable they become!

Why is moving to a new country stressful?

Moving to new country may sound exciting but it often becomes daunting and stressful for those who move. Majority of the members of the Westgate Culinary Club, complained about suffering from loneliness at some point of time.

I recently spoke with Dr Jodie Kliman, a psychologist, to listen to what she had to say about why moving to a new country becomes stressful, especially when a person is not allowed to work or study due to visa restrictions.

“For anybody who comes from a culture that is family-oriented, that whole fabric of support is ripped (when he or she moves),” said Kliman. “Immigrants lose their ‘social network’. It takes few years to build a new alternative family but still the depths of connection won’t be there.”

For the spouse on a dependent visa the situation becomes tougher because on visas like F-2 work is not permitted, she said. But people want to be productive and it is very natural, she added.

“That’s deeply frustrating. You go from feeling productive and useful to asking ‘What am I?’ It is a very big blow,” Kliman said.

For many immigrants moving to a new country also means they suddenly encounter racism, xenophobia and Islam-phobia, Kliman added.

“You go from being the privileged group in your country to becoming a person of color,” she said.

She said it’s very important to connect with people so that one doesn’t become clinically depressed.

“(But) it’s hard to develop friendship if you are not around people from your own community,” she said.

The members of the Westgate Culinary Club said that they spend a considerable time on the Internet to deal with their loneliness.

“The more time you spend online the chances are you will get clinically depressed because it takes you away from people. While it is a comfort to talk to friends (on the Internet) it isolates you further from real eye-to-eye or face-to-face contact. ‘LOL’ is not same as laughing together,” Kliman added a note of caution.

Kliman said it’s important to find organizations from the community one belongs to, to connect with people.

“Getting involved with neighborhood community is also another way to meet new people and connect with them. The more you get out of the house, the better,” she said.

Cambridge gets to know about the Westgate Culinary Club

The story about the Westgate Culinary Club members and their dependent visa restrictions got published in the Cambridge Chronicle last Thursday.

Here’s the link to the article.

Majority of the members are on F-2 visas while the rest are on J-2 visas. While the club members who are on J-2 visas can work or study during their stay in the United States, those on F-2 visas are barred from engaging in paid employment. But they can  enroll in study which is avocational or recreational in nature, which means they cannot pursue a full-time or part-time degree program.

The article  highlights these restrictions and points out why such restrictions are set.

From Left: Jorge Enrique Jiménez, Hongwei Zhao, Alice Umugwaneza, Yue Wu, Catherine Adans-Dester, Shilpa Mohan Ullikashi, Debasmita Dutta, Priyanka Saodekar, Li Theng Lee, Teo Pei Tze, Min Lu and Jassy Goh.

Lee chose to volunteer

Li Theng Lee, the founder of the Westgate Culinary Club, decided to bring together a group of people who share a common interest and passion for cooking. She topped it off by providing the members with an opportunity to socialize and learn about new cultures — and the Westgate Culinary Club was born.

The club is just four months old but it boasts of over 40 members on its Facebook page. The weekly sessions on Thursdays coupled with the trips to restaurants and grocery stores in and around the city, to explore international cuisine, are some of the activities that club members have come to love.

“From a very busy schedule I had in Singapore, I now basically keep myself engaged by doing things I enjoy and always wanted to do,” said Lee. “It’s more on a day-to-day basis now. I volunteer with the farmers’ market manager in Harvard Square; volunteer in a school where I teach math to children and also volunteer at a soup kitchen run by a group of MIT students.”

Lee used to work as an elementary school teacher in Singapore where her 12-hour–day work schedule kept her busy.

She wanted to enroll in a full-time course during her stay in the United States, but her dependent visa status posed as a restriction.

“F-2 visa regulations are actually very strict. It forbids me from working as well as take up long-term courses. It limits the things I can do. I am not trying to look for a job and to earn money but something to engage myself in and learn from,” she said.

But taking up courses which are avocational and recreational in nature are permitted under the F-2 visa status and Lee didn’t want to lose out on this opportunity. She had taken several culinary classes at the Boston Learning Center, she said. She also took some classes in the MIT and Harvard University.

“Some of these courses come with a cost so I had to manage this as I am not earning now…but I don’t mind as long as my time is meaningfully spent by taking these short classes and volunteering my services at various non-profit organizations,” Lee said.

Views of an immigration lawyer

Most of the members of Westgate Culinary Club are on F-2 visas, which mean they are bound by certain visa restrictions. What are they, how does it affect them and what are some ways to work around such types of visas? To answer these questions I recently spoke with Eileen Morrison an immigration lawyer. Morrison has been practicing immigration and nationality law since 1990.

“It’s very hard and frustrating there is no doubt about it,” she said when asked about what she has to say about the plight of dependent visa (H-4, F-2) holders who are not allowed to work in the US. Dependent visas holders on H-4 and F-2 visas can only engage in volunteer work.

F2 visa holders are allowed to engage only in study that is avocational or recreational in nature, she said. They are also not permitted to attend school without changing their visa status.

“It’s definitely an issue,” said Morrison. “Their primary reason to come into the US is to accompany the F-1 spouse and if people don’t have these [visa] facts before they come to the US they can find themselves in a situation that they really didn’t anticipate, especially when dependent spouses in their home country are allowed to work or go to school. They may assume the same is true in the US for people on a dependent visa. Many people expect to work here because the trailing spouses in Europe can work. But the situation here is quite a bit different.”

So why are such visa restrictions imposed on dependent visa holders like those on F-2?

“Why? Because if you are on F visa the expectation is that you won’t seek to immigrate here and you are going to return home. I think it has to do in part with wanting to be protective of American jobs,” said Morrison.

But when I told her about the recent study which proves that immigrants add jobs to the American economy, she said, “I think there might be a misperception about the types of jobs being added. I don’t think Americans are necessarily very well educated about the role of immigration in US economy. There is a perception that immigrants may be responsible for eroding American jobs,” she said.

Apart from dealing with the visa restrictions, is the fact that it takes time to adjust and settle down in a new country, she added. “It’s a very stressful thing to relocate to another country…it takes three to six months for people to settle into a bit of a routine, a rhythm. It’s a lot of work,” Morrison said.

While the working spouse gets involved in work, the situation becomes very overwhelming for the “trailing spouse”, she added.

But a way to work around the F-2 visa restrictions is to change it to F-1 visa, which will permit them to engage in full-time study.

“If they want to go to school then they have to change status to F-1, which then requires them to qualify to meet the financial requirement of the institution.So if you have a spouse who is on F-1 you need to meet the financial qualification times two…that is a lot of money,” Morrison said.

F-2 spouses changing status to F-1 must independently qualify academically and financially to attend the institution, she said.

Also coming to the US on a J visa might be an option that can be looked into, she said.

“The J visa could make some sense because then the J-2 spouse can work; can apply for work authorization. Sometimes people are not aware of the existence J visas, that there might be a good option for the couple. But sometimes the J visa is not a good option because there is a requirement that the family return home for two years before seeking some other type of immigration. So you need to be very planfull about this,” she said.

Morrison concluded by saying, “If you know what you are getting into before you come, it can set better expectations.”

Let’s Talk

Here’s a radio piece featuring interviews with three club members: Li Theng, Debasmita Dutta and Shilpa NaveenChandra.They talk about why the Westgate Culinary Club was formed and how it has helped them. More importantly they share their views about the stringent dependent visa restrictions (the three of them are on F2 visas) and the problems they face due to the restrictions.

On an F2 visa you cannot engage in paid employment and the only kind of study you can engage yourself in is avocational or recreational.

Meet Dr Shilpa Naveen Chandra

Shilpa with her son Tanay.

Just a year back Dr. Shilpa NaveenChandra had to plan ahead even to spend some time with her son.

Shilpa is a gynecologist from Bangalore, India. Working six days a week and every alternate Sunday left her with no time for her family or herself. While working at St. John’s Hospital in Bangalore she also taught undergraduate students at the hospital. Coupled with that was the once a week 24-hour duty she had, which left her exhausted.

But it was the support from her family that kept her going she said. Both her parents and in-laws would take turns to take care of her son.

“Things are very different now. I have a lot of time now and all of it is centered around my two-year-old son Tanay,” she said.

Shilpa moved to the United States in May last year. She is currently not practicing for she is on F2 dependent visa. She recalled the feeling of confusion she dealt with when her husband told her for the first time about his decision to move to the United States to pursue an academic degree from the MIT.

“I supported his decision. Moving to the US would be a new experience for me. I thought it would provide me with some respite from my work pressure and also I will get to spend quality time with my son. The decision to leave my job was painful but I was mentally prepared to take up the challenge,” she said.

It has been almost a year now and her son has always kept her on her toes, she said. But what she began to crave for was the company of friends and people whom she could talk to.

“My husband is always busy with school and the only one around is my son,” she said.

So when Shilpa heard about the Westgate Culinary Club, it was not the thought of culinary adventures that drew her to the club, she said, but the fact that it would provide her with a chance to socialize with others.

“Cooking never interested me and one of the reasons was the time constraint I had. But now that I have time, I thought I could learn. At the club’s sessions the members always try to teach quick and easy recipes, which has helped me develop an interest in cooking. And the most important thing is I get to socialize with other people,” she added.

Apart from being a member of the Westgate Culinary Club, Shilpa also actively participates in workshops and programs conducted by the MIT Spouses and Partners Club. “It’s a good place to learn new things,” she said.

The different club related activities and her son are things that have kept Shilpa busy, she said.

Bound by the dependent visa restrictions Shilpa cannot practice in the United States in spite of her postgraduate degree in Obstetrics and Gynecology. “The visa restrictions are so stringent that my hands are tied. I feel bad at times. But I am preparing to take exams for the residency program. I am planning to take the exam this year,” Shilpa said.

Enrolling in a residency program will re-open doors for her and after the four year training she will get the required license to practice in the United States, she said.

“The challenges I had to face have made me stronger. Coming to the United States was a decision that my husband had made but whether to stay back or not is for me to decide once I complete the residency,” said Shilpa.

The Welcome Project

Just a couple of days back I got in touch with a community-based organization called The Welcome Project, which caters to the immigrant community in Somerville.

The mission of the organization as stated on their website is to build “the collective power of Somerville immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions.”

The organization achieves their mission via various programs “that strengthen the capacity of immigrant youth, adults and families to advocate for themselves and influence schools, government, and other institutions.”

It began operating in 1987 and continues to serve the growing immigrant population of Somerville.

Among the various programs they organize to empower the immigrant community ‘YUM: A taste of Immigrant City’ is one.

I had to write an article about the YUM event and it provided me with the chance to speak with Warren Goldstein-Gelb, the executive director of the project.

“We try to have a range of [immigrant-run] restaurants: some are earlier generation of immigrants like Italian restaurants and also newer immigrant groups such as Brazilian or Mexican,” said Goldstein-Gelb. “Some of these businesses are struggling. One thing that the YUM card does is to help these people directly when they shop there. It also brings people from outside the city to the restaurants.”

“Another reason we wanted to this was to point out to very one in the city to highlight the role and the contributions that immigrant families are making,” he added.

He hopes that the April 25 event — where all the participating restaurants will come together — at the Armory on Highland Avenue will make the people of Somerville appreciate the rich cultural diversity of the city.

“It’s about creating an understanding and appreciation among every one in the city about some of the values of the multi-cultural diversity of the city,” Goldstein-Gelb said.

Students from the Tufts University have also contributed to the YUM project. As part of an undergraduate course called Urban Borderlands, 10 students interviewed about 40 immigrant-run restaurants in Somerville and wrote blog posts about their survey.

There are about 100 immigrant-run restaurants in Somerville.

“It is an Anthropology class where students learn to design and conduct field work in the community,” said Prof. Deborah Pacini Hernandez. “I have always wanted the student research to contribute to a community need. This is where I have connected with a community partner; one this [academic] year was with The Welcome Project.”

“Last year I have worked with Somerville Community Corporation around the issue of the coming of the green line and the potential impact of the green line on immigrant businesses,” she said.

Numerous students from the university have worked as interns and summer fellows at the Welcome Project, she added.

Talking about some of the problems faced by these immigrant-run restaurants Hernandez said: “The downside of the diversity is that it makes it harder for business owners to organize into a business community…there are language and cultural differences.”

It is hard for them to get a liquor license; get adequate parking and also difficult for them to spread the word about their business outside their own community, Hernandez added.

Read the student blog posts, now up on The Welcome Project website, to learn more about these immigrant-run restaurants.

What members say about the club sessions

The last three sessions of the Westgate Culinary Club were a huge hit. Members learned how to make healthy soups, crispy falafel and fluffy buñelos. They embarked on a gastronomical journey — a taste of China, Middle East and Colombia — that left the them craving for more.

The club members were all charged up after a brief hiatus, due to the renovation work at the lounge where the club’s sessions are usually held.

“We have been eagerly waiting for these sessions. Learning new cuisines is always an interesting thing. It adds a new dimension to your culinary skills,” Debasmita Dutta, an active member of the club, said.

After moving to the United States last year, to accompany her husband who is pursuing a PhD degree from MIT, Debasmita said it’s the loneliness that she often finds hard to battle with.

Her work as a research assistant at Calcutta University had always kept her occupied back in her hometown Kolkata. Debasmita holds a Masters degree in clinical psychology.

Today the ample time she has at her disposal is no less than daunting at times, she said. “I am bound by the visa regulations. I cannot engage in paid employment or pursue a full-time academic course,” Debasmita said ruefully.

But it is the culinary club that has helped her cope by coming in contact with people who are in the same boat.

“Cooking is something I have always found interest in. The club has helped me to whet my passion and also helped in building my own social circle. I have made a lot of friends through the club. The club activities keep me occupied and now I have something to look forward to every week,” Debasmita said.

The club’s first in-house session this year was held on February 2. Li Theng, the club founder, hosted the session.

It was a session on soups. “Soup forms an integral part of Chinese cuisine and is a part of every meal,” she informed the eager audience.

In the hour-and-half-long session, Li dished out four soups:

Airy Pea Soup with Sliced Almonds, Curried Carrot and Cilantro Soup, Minced Meat in Egg Soup and Lotus Root Soup.

The session also triggered conversation about cuisines and cultures from various parts of the world.

Li hails from Singapore where she was employed as an elementary school teacher. Her 12-hour a day work schedule had always kept her busy.

But things look different now. After moving to Cambridge in August last year, she keeps herself occupied by volunteering at different organizations like the Cambridge Farmer’s Market and local soup kitchens.

“I came up with the idea of the Westgate Culinary Club to socialize with other people and to engage in community based activities,” Li said.

The club provides the members with the opportunity to learn about different cultures through their cuisines, Li said.

While visa restrictions do bother Li, she tries to keep an open mind and make the best of the situation she is currently dealing with, Li said.

Boston houses thousands of well-qualified immigrants like Debasmita and Li. While a recent study has shown that immigrants create jobs for American workers, dependent visa holders continue to be tethered by regulations.

Visa regulations need to be eased and that’s the only way to provide some respite to dependent visa holders like them.