A Special Immigrant’s journey to America

Lia’s first home in New York was a dark basement with no windows.

By Lia Ocampo

Lia Ocampo worked at the U.S. Embassy in Manila for 18 years, starting out as a Human Resources Clerk, at the U.S. Department of State and departing in 2012 as a Human Resources Specialist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She is known as a Special Immigrant, a title reserved for foreign nationals who are employed by the U.S. government abroad and recognized for their “long, faithful, and valuable service.”

In her book “What We Know for Sure: Inspirational Stories of Filipino Special Immigrants in America,” Lia has compiled the narratives 25 Filipinos she has worked with, became friends, and are now living in the four corners of America. The book opened with her own story. Below is an excerpt.

A native of Batangas, Lia arrived in the U.S. through New York City. After a series of metamorphic and hilarious attempts at finding her place in what used to be called God’s Country, she now works as a flight attendant, splitting her time between New York and Florida. Her children — Jonathan, Mary Frances, and Joshua — have joined her, but that is not the end of her diasporic journey. Her story continues to unfold showing how “hard work, faith, and determination” have seen her through the good, the bad and the lonely times. — Ed

My children and I moved swiftly through the terminal so I could make it to my gate on time. The night before I hadn’t slept at all as I had a long list of things to do before I left. But by the time we made it to the airport, all I felt was excitement.

“I won’t be here, but you know what I expect?” I asked, looking at all three of my children as they stood before me.

All three of them nodded yes. “Be good and study well. We will all be together soon.” We hugged tightly, and I gave each one a final good-bye kiss and then headed to my gate. The prior two months had been a whirlwind of activity. I received my approval for my Special Immigrant Visa in May, and I was boarding the plane on July 31.

When she was with the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Her first book. A second book about her travels abroad is in the works.

I arrived in the “Big Apple” in July of 2012, carrying two suitcases packed with my necessities: framed pictures of my children, my resume, my favorite clothes, and what I hoped would be enough money to get me through. My decision to leave the Philippines was in some ways very easy, but in other ways challenged me to my core. I had spent 18 years working for the United States Embassy all for the chance to immigrate with the goal of bringing my children with me. Although you needed 20 years as an employee to be eligible for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), my years of exemplary service to the embassy allowed me to receive an exemption and I was granted my SIV after 18 years.

My first home

The first place I called home was a dark basement apartment. There were steep, narrow stairs that led to a door. Once inside you walked right into the kitchen. There were no windows to allow natural light. I had one tiny room that just had enough space for a single bed and my things. I shared the one bathroom and the kitchen with several other tenants. I had grown up in a similar environment, so perhaps that is why I didn’t mind the place initially. I could handle it until I couldn’t. The noise bothered me. In the mornings when I tried to sleep, people were outside my bedroom door talking. I had no privacy. So, after two months I found another place. The new place wasn’t much different than the first and within three months I was moving again. I missed the quiet and peacefulness of the condo I left in the Philippines. And surprisingly I missed driving. But, like adapting to living with strangers in a small, crowded, noisy apartment, I had to learn to live with taking the subway whenever I needed to. The homeless in the subway stations in the early morning, or the thick, foul stench that ruled the air as you waited for your train to move, were just some of the costs of achieving my goals.

Every week I had set aside time to talk with my kids. And no matter where I was living, the first thing I did was unpack their photos and place them next to my bed. Their faces were the last thing I saw at night and the first thing I saw in the morning. Keeping them close and talking when we could got me through those difficult and lonely times. I would tell myself, time and time again, you chose this Lia, so you can’t be sad or unhappy. You will achieve your dream.

The Ocampo children, from left Joshua, Mary Frances, and Jonathan.

When I started looking for work, my search became a full-time job. I kept a steno-pad filled with lists. I wrote down every company and position I applied for to track my progress. I went on every interview that I got. I took nothing for granted. Overtime, I gained so much interview practice that my nerves finally calmed, and I found the confidence I needed when I talked to potential employers.

Friends who cared

Although I had planned my money out carefully before leaving the Philippines, accounting for the time I would be unemployed, I still found myself with less funds than I needed. New York was expensive and with no money coming in, reality hit hard. I soon found I had almost no funds. I sought solace with my two friends Marichu Cansino and Hazel Del Rosario. Marichu and I had been best friends since college, and I knew if I reached out to her, she would help me. She understood my dilemma and wired me money immediately. A short time after, I realized I wouldn’t have enough money for my rent. So, this time I texted my friend Hazel in Arizona. Hazel and I are close friends and we had met while working at the embassy. She empathized with my struggles and sent me money right away. Their understanding and generosity helped me through those initial months in the States before I found employment.

In what seemed like my never-ending job search, I joined one of the many organizations available to immigrants. This organization helps recent immigrants apply their skills, education, and previous experiences to the U.S. workforce. I got accepted. They taught me advanced job search skills and I honed my interviewing skills through their mock interviews.

In addition to joining an organization designed to help immigrants, I read about a program at Pace University to receive a Human Resources Generalist certificate. I knew the more I could put on my resume in terms of experience, education, and certifications, the better chance I had to land a job. But this course was not cheap. I didn’t let that stop me. I emailed the campus registrar and told them my story. Thankfully they granted me a discount, and I was on my way to getting the additional certification.

My interviewing skills ramped up and my new certification added to my resume, I got my first job. Eight months after my plane had touched down on U.S. soil, I had a place to live, had done some travel, and I was employed by a large non-profit organization as a recruiter.

The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other bookstores.

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