Photos by Sergio Valenzuela
It was Justin West’s 33rd birthday when he won the lottery that would change his life.
West was an English teacher in Togo, a country located in West Africa. He arrived to school in the morning and was told he had received a package. The moment he saw it, he knew he had won. Inside contained the forms needed to become a United States citizen, the result of winning the Diversity Visa Lottery.
“When my results came, I decided immediately I had to go,” West said. “Teaching in Togo wasn’t that fun. Even though you love teaching, they were not paying.”
West, now 49, is currently a teacher’s assistant at New Field Primary School in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He has lived in Chicago since 2000 with his wife Stella. West has held a variety of jobs to make ends meet including working as a cashier at White Hen Pantry, a bagger at Jewel-Osco, a truck driver and a parking attendant.
“I came [to Chicago] with an open mind to learn quickly about the culture, the people and the country,” West said. “All these jobs put me in contact with a lot of people, which helped [me] feel more at ease and achieve these goals.”
The son of a soldier and a secretary-turned-hotel owner, West grew up in a household consisting of 18 children. His father’s military involvement meant his family moved from city to city throughout his life.
“[My father] was in the army, so I was fortunate because he became like a coast guard,” West said. “They moved from place to place, so we followed him to every city [and] that’s why I know everyone in Togo.”
Throughout West’s childhood, he moved several times, residing in cities spread throughout the country such as Kanté, Kpalimé, Blitta, Badou and Lomé – the capital. As he continued to pursue his education, West said he grew interested in the English language. This led to him acquiring a position as a high school English teacher when he turned 32 at ITC Assomption in Sokodé, a city located in central Togo with a predominantly Muslim population.
Before applying for a United States Visa, West said was waiting for the chance to continue his education in France. Togo was a French colony until it earned its independence in 1960, and Togolese citizens often move to France when they get older to pursue careers and further their education.
“While I was waiting, the job came up,” he said. “They wanted to teach English, so I didn’t have the opportunity to go immediately, so I said why not, [I could] practice my English by teaching.”
It was here when West began to learn more about English and the United States through the teaching curriculum he used. He said that unlike most of his English teachers who would use French to speak, he would only speak in English to his students.
“That was tough for them, [but] it was easier for me,” West said. “I was, you know, speaking and listening to myself too, since I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to speak.”
ITC Assomption was a Catholic technical school, according to West, which meant he taught lessons concerning subjects like life in America, computers and banks.
Teaching in Togo was not always easy for West. In his second year of teaching, the teachers launched a strike for seven months because they were not being paid.
It was during his third year of teaching that West realized it was possible for Togolese citizens to win the Diversity Visa Lottery. The United States hosts this lottery every year, giving the chance for 55,000 immigrants to move to the U.S. West had previously entered the lottery in 1994 and 1995 with no luck.
“I lost the hope at some point even before I began teaching,” he said. “In my country, the government didn’t allow people to leave, so we were thinking they were messing up with the results or they didn’t want the results to be published in Togo.”
West said he went to the Togolese Newspaper Library in 1998, which provided archives of past newspapers. While reading the previous week’s paper, he noticed there was a registration form for the lottery. He decided to take a chance and bought an issue of the paper from the library. West mailed the form on October 1, 1998 – the birthday of his fiancée, Stella Tchekou.
The moment West realized winning the lottery was possible came when one of his acquaintances won in March 1999, just a few months before West got his own results. Even though he said he was happy, West chose not to express his emotions and even kept the results a secret from Stella until he was on summer vacation.
“I didn’t want anybody to block my departure,” he said. “Most of the people didn’t go. I knew people who won [and] they couldn’t travel. There was no celebration. I was happy, but I kept it to myself.”
West was able to secure a visa for Stella because applicants who win the Diversity Visa Lottery are able to extend the benefits to their spouse and children under 21 and unmarried. They were legally married in September 1999 and in the Catholic Church in February 2000 before heading out to the United States in June of the same year.
“I wasn’t nervous, I don’t know why. I was just happy I’m going far away,” said Stella West, 42. “For me, I didn’t really think once about how it was going to be.”
Once in Chicago, the two found themselves living with a family acquaintance in a one bedroom apartment in Uptown. One week later, they all moved into a larger apartment in the Austin neighborhood before the couple settled on their own in Edgewater. The move was a change for the positive, according to the Wests, who eventually moved to the South Side once Justin began working at New Field Primary School.
“Now you’re living what you’ve read about, you know, in books,” Justin West said. “Now you can see the Chicago River. I had a friend who sent me postcards before that were Chicago River, Navy Pier, so now I can see all those things I was seeing before.”
When they first arrived in Chicago, Stella got a job as a hair braider and Justin remained unemployed for three months. He said it was difficult to find a job due to his immigrant status until a family friend found him a position as a cashier at White Hen Pantry in 2000.
“It was challenging. I was speaking English, but I couldn’t hear what people were saying because it was so fast and the pronunciation,” he said. “I was brought up with British English, so American English was weird.”
With family back home expecting the Wests to send money, Justin made the decision to become a truck driver for Schneider Trucking in November 2000. This job helped bring in a steady income for the couple for one year, but it also led to hardship as by this time, they were the parents of a baby boy named Emmanuel. West would often travel across the U.S. and sometimes into Canada for three week periods with only three day breaks back home.
“I came home once and my son wouldn’t even recognize me. He was scared of me because I was away for a long time,” he said. “So I started thinking, I was making money, but I wasn’t happy.”
Stella, who now works as a nursing assistant at Advocate South Suburban Hospital, said this period in her life was difficult, especially as a new citizen in the United States.
“It was terrible,” she said. “Especially at that time, I couldn’t really speak a lot of English. I have to go to hospital by myself and everything. It was really tough.”
Justin West went on to work as a parking attendant for Midcity Parking in the Loop from 2002 to 2005. While working, he met a Board of Education employee who encouraged him to get a teacher’s assistance certificate. He applied for a certificate through the Educational Credential Evaluators and had over 90 credit hours, when 60 were required, making it possible to get the certificate.
Later that year, he was hired at New Field Primary School where he continues to work today as a special education teacher’s assistant.
In 2007 he made the decision to go to school with the help of the organization, Grow Your Own Teachers. This program helps those in low-income communities become qualified teachers.
“Grow Your Own regularly works with immigrants,” director Kate Van Winkle said in an email statement. “There is a gap in Illinois and Chicago between the number of teachers of color and students of color and Grow Your Own Teachers works to bridge that gap.”
With the help of Grow Your Own Teachers, Justin earned his degrees in bilingual/bicultural education and elementary education and teaching from Northeastern Illinois University in May 2015 and he now has a teaching certificate. He said he hopes to one day have a classroom of his own.
Members of Justin’s family, such as his daughter, eighth grader Justice West, 13, said they admire Justin’s strength. Justice said he taught her to “work hard and never give up.” She is one of four siblings, with the other three being Emmanuel, 15, Messifa, 11 and Morthen, 5.
“He’s strong,” said Justice, a Memorial Junior High School student. “He went through a lot of things and it takes a really strong person to go through all those things he went through.”
At New Field, many teachers such as Linette Roman, 32, have nothing but positive words for Justin West. Roman is the special education teacher who Justin assists.
“I can honestly say Justin is one of the wisest men I have ever met [and] in the classroom, he is a hard worker who takes his responsibility seriously,” Roman said. “He is a quick learner and is very observant; he catches on to my teacher models as I use a variety of instructional and behavioral strategies on a daily basis.”
There are three instructional special education classrooms at New Field and West said he recognizes the importance of them.
“It’s something I think every teacher should do. Come here at least a month or so because these are the challenges [in] other classrooms,” West said. “Behavior problems, how do you solve them, how do you help those kids learn? I like it, I like being here.”