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Immigrants in Champaign County struggle, often in obscurity

By Shelley Smithson "” Yamani Wijesekara had just completed her morning prayers when her cell phone's jarring ringtone broke the silence. 

"OK, friend," she told the cab driver on the phone. "OK, thank you." 

It was 4:30 a.m., time for Wijesekara to go to her job at Meijer in Urbana.  Wijesekara, 29, moved to Urbana one year ago from Sri Lanka, an island country in South Asia.  She works 32 hours a week, usually from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., putting price labels on the superstore's shelves. 

"There are no buses early in the morning," Wijesekara said. "I pay [the] taxi $7, but, unfortunately, my pay for one hour [is] $8.45. I pay my hardworking money." Vanda Bidwell/The News-Gazette - Because she reads and speaks English, Yamani Wijesekara has more work options than many immigrants who do not speak English. She is taking online classes at Parkland College and hopes to someday become a graphic designer.

In 2008, Wijesekara learned she was one of 55,000 people around the world selected to come to the United States through a Green Card Lottery. The lottery began in 1990 to encourage immigration from countries where the U.S. had not traditionally granted visas.

Wijesekara had dreamed of living in an English-speaking country since she was in high school, and believed she would find work as a secretary or computer operator. A bubbly, bright woman who learned English and computer skills in Sri Lanka, Wijesekara was surprised when the only job she could find was a position that pays just over $1,000 a month. She struggles to pay $400 a month for a rented room, buy food and save money for a car. She cannot afford health insurance and has received warning letters twice from Meijer because she was too sick to come to work.

"I am so happy to meet good friends, but I am still not happy because I am still bottom," Wijesekara said. "Bottom means, I am still low person. Low person means, I haven't any money. I have just few money."

More than 10 percent of Champaign County's population "“ at least 20,000 people "“ are foreign-born, according to 2008 Census estimates, the most recent available. Some immigrants come here because of research, teaching or learning opportunities at the University of Illinois. In addition to faculty and professional staff, more than 6,200 foreign students attended the University last spring, according to University enrollment data.

But many immigrants come for different reasons.

Whether they are here legally or illegally, most immigrants came to the U.S., and eventually settled in Champaign County, because they believed they could create more prosperous lives here than in their own countries, which are often wracked by poverty and war. But for Wijesekara and many other immigrants in Champaign County, living in America is far more difficult, frightening and lonely than they ever expected.