Stefan and Stanija had been hoping for a Green Card for almost ten years before their dream of living in the USA finally came true by winning the Green Card Lottery. They had a perfect plan: move to sunny Florida, open a restaurant, and start a new life by the sea. However, they had greatly underestimated one thing.
Stefan, your immigration went quite differently than expected because the TV show "Goodbye Deutschland" (German TV channel VOX) was involved. How did that come about?
A friend of mine was accompanied by Goodbye Deutschland during his emigration to Texas. We visited him there, and the editors noticed that we also wanted to emigrate. When things got serious for us, they asked us if we would tell our story on TV.
What was it like to be accompanied by a camera crew as a Green Card winner? Immigrating alone is thrilling enough!
Yes, the first few days were a bit strange, but the process went on for many months, and we got used to it. Even though we always wore a microphone, at some point we didn't really notice that everything was being recorded. It was almost family-like with the camera team. Actually, that was a great time for us, too.
Since then, you've been a role model for US emigrants. Do you often get questions from people who want to go to America?
Yes, it's amazing how widely a TV broadcast spreads. We weren't prepared for that at all. We received countless emails and visits to the restaurant from people who wanted to meet us.
Many were naturally curious: How does immigration work? How does one come to the decision to go to America? What is life like here? How much does it cost to live in the USA? What is the climate like? What are the people like? How can you even get a foothold in America and build a business without having lived here before?
I always try to answer everything as detailed as possible. Maybe I can give a tip to somebody and encourage people to make a move. Because: we have no regrets. We're glad we made it and we'd do it again anytime.
How did you approach making your dream come true from Germany?
We always kept in mind: at some point, we would like to go to the USA. Of course, we participated in the Green Card Lottery, but you never know beforehand: when will you be lucky? Things happen all of a sudden and unexpectedly.
We had also considered applying for an E-2 investor visa and had already made a preliminary contract with a restaurant in California but then decided against it because of the many requirements. The reason was the uncertainty.
With an E-2 visa, you are only a temporary guest. There is no certainty about what will happen after the visa expires. Will you get an extension or not? You might invest a lot of money and don't know if it will be forever.
In addition, some of our children were still in school and training at that time, so we preferred to wait until they were independent. Therefore, we continued to hope for the Green Card Lottery.
We always had in mind: What if it really works out? We were determined and worked hard so that when the day came, we would be prepared. We put money aside to be able to do everything we wanted in the USA. On the ninth participation, we were lucky!
What was it like when you received the Green Card winning notification?
I was at work, as usual. In Germany, we worked around the clock, seven days a week. When I was doing orders on my PC in between, I saw the email from The American Dream.
At first, I thought: ah, surely the rejection again, like in the years before. It's just a lottery. But then I opened the mail, and it said "Herzlichen Glückwunsch!" ("Congratulations!")
That made me feel quite dizzy! I felt light-headed, I was sweating, and I didn't know if it was true or not. I closed the mail a few times and opened it again until I truly realized it.
Then I lost my temper with joy, even though I was at work. I screamed loudly in the restaurant, and people were already looking, but I couldn't hold back anymore.
It was pure happiness! We had a foot in the door! In the days that followed, other emails came in, and then it became a reality! We now had the opportunity to get a Green Card!
(Editor's note: If you win, not only the participant of the Green Card Lottery but also their spouse and all unmarried children under the age of 21 will receive a Green Card).
Why did you decide to go with The American Dream in the first place?
When we made the decision to participate in the lottery, we did some online research: You can enter on the site (editor's note: official website of the US government) by yourself without any assistance, or you can use the help of the agency.
We chose the agency because it was easier for us. You don't have so much pressure to meet deadlines, and you don't have to ask yourself: are the applications filled out correctly? Are the photos uploaded correctly?
We had good support from The American Dream. That was essential for us as self-employed people: you don't have much time to take care of things on the side. And this took some of the burdens off us.
What was the time like between the winning notification and the relocation to the USA?
After we received the winning notification, it got really busy. You don't get the Green Card right away, but you have to apply for it first. And it took us several months to take care of all the formalities: obtaining documents, getting certificates, answering questions - all the paperwork, which is then double-checked. Making sure the application is complete.
And then you also have to dissolve your life back home. We had a secure lifestyle in Germany. We led a good life. It was an emotional roller coaster. For many months, we were obsessed only with the subject of immigrating.
I had frequent phone contact with The American Dream. Whenever I had a question that I was stuck on, I called them and they were always able to help me. Another great thing was the winners' community, which you can join after you win. We were able to research a lot of things there.
Of course, another exciting thing is: what happens during the Green Card interview? I mean, when you're invited to the embassy? I was nervous because I thought: now, the whole thing could fail, just because of the interview.
However, it’s not a big deal. I can tell you that! They're just human beings. And I was glad that the interview went well and quickly. We spoke for maybe ten minutes, and the rest was the time they took to process the application. After two hours, they came back with the happy news that we were "approved" and that we would get our Green Cards.
We had to leave our passports there. Then it was like: "When are the passports coming back?" "Has the mail been here yet?" "Are the passports in there?" It took about 5 - 6 days. And when we held the passports with the temporary visa in our hands, it was certain: now we’ve made it! The dream has come true!
How was your first entry into the USA as official Green Card holders?
Of course, we were very excited. It was hard to say goodbye to our family. It's not like going on vacation and knowing you'll be back after two weeks. It was goodbye for a long time.
When we were on the plane, we really got to grips with it: we are about to go to the USA now. We had to take the other entrance for US citizens and permanent residents, so we were no longer standing in the big queue where all the tourists are, but had the more convenient option.
"Welcome back home!"
When we went through immigration, we were greeted with "Welcome back home", which was a tremendous feeling, of course. A warm welcome from the officer sitting there. That was truly overwhelming.
What was the first thing you did as a "Permanent Resident" in the USA?
We lived in a hotel for the first 14 days, and the daily routine started from day one: We needed an apartment, and we needed a car. So we actually started from scratch to build our life here.
We were asked for our residence status everywhere. That played an important role: a landlord naturally wants to know that you're staying long-term. However, we no longer had any time pressure to rush and discover everything because we didn't need to go back this time.
You opened a restaurant in Florida with your wife, Stanija. Was it easier than back home in Germany?
We were self-employed in Germany for almost 20 years and had several restaurants. That's why I'm not new to this, but I found it much easier just to open a restaurant here in the USA. Of course, you have to find your way around the system a bit, which is also different in every US state.
We also founded another company after the restaurant, in which our son Christian became the managing director. That all went very smoothly. There are not as many hurdles as in Germany.
What is your favorite thing about living in the USA?
Everything is different here. We don't feel the pressure that we had in Germany. Here in Florida, everything is pretty relaxed. And the mentality of the people - it spills over. Sure: everyone has to work. Everyone needs money. But the first priority is a nice, pleasant life. And we have that now.
"We make space for ourselves. That just wasn't possible in Germany."
We live here on the Gulf of Mexico and are only minutes away from all the dream beaches in Florida. It was important for us to be close to the water because we just love the ocean. That's why Southwest Florida was our choice. We have found a completely different lifestyle here in the US, and we are glad it turned out that way. We still work hard, but we also create space for ourselves to enjoy everything. That simply wasn't possible in Germany. You couldn't.
However, there was also one very important thing that you had underestimated before you left. Do you want to tell us about it?
The problem we had after immigrating was the separation from the family. We have four children and two grandchildren. Our youngest son Christian came to the USA with us, and he is now 23 years old. But the separation from the rest of the family was very hard at first.
In Germany, we had all worked together in our businesses. Our children did their vocational training with us, and we were always close throughout our lives. At some point, we said: now we have to pursue our dreams - we're not getting any younger. Our children also said to us: "Think of yourselves now! Take this step while you still can!
Then we arrived here and the first weeks - maybe even months - were very hard. You can't plan something like that. That was clearly visible back then, when "Goodbye Germany" accompanied us. As time went on and we settled in a bit, things got better.
Of course, we are still thinking of our children and grandchildren in Germany every day. We have a daily video call with everyone. They also often come here on vacation, and we have a good time.
It has gotten better. So much better, in fact, that we don't even think about going back anymore. We have followed this path for many, many years and pulled through. And that's a good thing.
Our lives have changed in such a positive way! Here in Florida, we can really enjoy our free time, and the lifestyle here has helped a lot to overcome the pain of separation.
What advice would you give to other people who dream of living in the USA?
I would recommend learning as much as possible about the United States, going on an extended vacation at least a few times, and maybe try out some things that go beyond the vacation.
After all, you have to get along here. So if you are seriously thinking of immigrating, build up a financial buffer in advance. You also have to deal with the fact that you might be leaving beloved people behind.
Besides that, I advise everyone who has the dream to come to America: hold on to it! Never give up and work hard for it! Then your dream will come true one day!