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The US Green Card Lottery: one family's story

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Klaus and Flavia Westerwelle seldom play lotteries. They've already hit the big one. The Associated Press reports.

The evidence can be spotted on the living-room wall of their Eastside home: 15 hand-quilted American flags that used to adorn the wall in their home in Germany. That was before the couple hit their life-changing lottery in 1997.

Unlike the lotteries that bring money to their winners, the Westerwelles' win forced a financial step backward. In seeking and winning green cards, these immigrants had to leave their careers, home, friends and extended family.

"My generation has a dream to someday move to America. This is the land of our fantasies," says 50-year-old Klaus Westerwelle, who visited the United States in 1991 and shortly thereafter began trying to win the annual lottery that can provide immigration to those without sponsors.

The green-card lottery, designed to diversify the flow of immigrants, is held annually. Its 50,000 winners are awarded the opportunity to apply for a green card, which assures permanent residence to those who have convinced U.S. embassy officials that they can be productive citizens. It grants permanent residence, as long as the holder does not violate immigration or other U.S. laws. It must be renewed every 10 years.

It was a gamble the Westerwelles considered worth the price. There was considerable anxiety for Flavia, a native of Heidelberg whose children were ages 10 and 9 at the time. "We had to give up everything -- sell the house and quit the jobs. The children were afraid to leave. It was difficult."

The opportunity also required quick moves. Because three-month notices of job resignation were the norm in Germany, and because the lottery required its winner to make the move in roughly the same period, Klaus Westerwelle had to quit his job before the long green-card interview process was complete. There also wasn't time to learn English before the move.

"Among our families and friends, over 60 percent thought it was a crazy idea," Klaus recalled. "They asked, 'Why take the risk and have to start life all over again?' "

When job-hunting began in the United States, the couple first looked to New York. Klaus had two job interviews in New York but said "it didn't take me long to see that New York was very expensive and did not have very good schools."

So, the couple "jumped into a car and drove to South Carolina," largely because they considered it an ideal location between the furniture-making town of Hickory, N.C., and the carpet-weaving city of Dalton, Ga.

Driving south, the family left Interstate 85 to cruise through downtown Spartanburg, then drove to Greenville.

"It was like a European town, with a large number of people outside, listening to music," Klaus said. "We knew, this is the right place for us."

While the strategic location between Hickory and Dalton seemed like a good plan at the time, neither Klaus nor Flavia was able to use the expertise gained during careers in Germany. Flavia had worked as an interior, textile and graphic designer while in Germany, serving as vice president of public relations and marketing for a furniture producer. She's now a real-estate agent.

Klaus, who had worked 20 years in textile sales, was an executive with an interior decoration/construction firm. He now works as a corporate relocation specialist.

"Even if we went through a lot of trouble, had to start all over again and still have not reached our former wealth and income, we are very thankful being taken in so generous as U.S. residents and new citizens," Flavia said. "We are finally at home."

All four are now U.S. citizens, but Klaus said he was an American long before he moved here.

"I don't think you're not an American because of where you're born -- I think Americans are Americans because they have the same strong beliefs in certain values, like freedom and self-reliance," he said. "America is the most generous nation in the world and the most self-reliant."