In the Spotlight: Refugee Services Program Manager Lilian Alvarez

Published on February 20, 2018 

The diversity visa lottery is a program that annually makes Permanent Resident Cards available to 50,000 immigrants, selected from countries with low immigration numbers in previous years, in an effort to diversify the United States’ immigrant population. The program is currently being targeted for elimination.

The Alvarez family in Guatemala

Originally from Guatemala, Lilian Alvarez and her family traveled to the United States on a diversity visa when she was just six years old. Her mother, an accountant for Saab, and her father, a mechanical engineer for Tabacalera Nacional (a Marlboro competitor), left behind their successful careers in Guatemala for a better overall life for their family here in the United States.

Lilian remembers the day, 27 years ago in January, when her family arrived in Chicago with only ten suitcases and each other.

Upon arrival, the entire Alvarez family shared a bedroom in a relative’s two-bedroom apartment. Then, they were fortunate enough to move into an apartment of their own. With the help of garage sales and donations and support from their church, their apartment soon become a home. A few years later, the Alvarez family had a house in the suburbs complete with a backyard and a swing set!

The Alvarez children during their first summer in Chicago

Growing up in the Chicago area, Lilian attended public schools that offered both English as a Second Language classes and continuing Spanish education. Her parents instilled in their children the importance of continuing to both speak Spanish and practice their Guatemalan traditions and values.

In addition to being bilingual in English and Spanish, Lilian also studied French in high school and college. She originally chose to major in International Business in college, but later decided to pursue a degree in Family and Child Studies with an emphasis in Social Services.

Throughout her career, Lilian has worked with the immigrant population in a number of capacities including at-risk youth, kinship care, young mothers and mentoring. Now, she serves as the Program Manager for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Refugee Services program.

Although she hadn’t directly worked with refugees before assuming her role at Catholic Charities, she knew their stories were similar to that of her own family and felt a calling to work in the field.

“While my family didn’t face most of the obstacles a lot of our clients face, I knew that our stories were similar. Our story is one of hope. One of struggle and humility,” she says of her relationship with her clients. “Refugees and immigrants have either had everything taken away from them or have given up everything they know for a chance at their next chapter.”

Her clients are at the mercy of others, the consequences of whose choices leave them stateless and displaced. They place their lives on hold for months, sometimes years, before they’re given the opportunity to start a new life. They’re resilient, she says, but they also have vulnerabilities that can create additional obstacles.

Reflecting on her family’s journey to the United States, Lilian is filled with both pride and heartbreak. “I struggle to fathom that some people still believe that my family and I, along with thousands of other immigrants, don’t belong in this country,” she says of the current atmosphere. “But, I remain hopeful with the demonstrations of support for all immigrants.”

An immigrant’s life, Lilian shares, is one of constantly explaining, defending and proving yourself, sometimes working twice or three times as hard as non-immigrants to achieve the same goals. Immigrants also live with a constant internal struggle to identify with both their native culture and the new culture they now embrace.

“It is a bittersweet experience being an immigrant in today’s world, but it’s my experience and one that I have dedicated my life to teaching others about,” Lilian shares. “I am proud of the struggles my family and I have overcome and optimistic about the awareness our stories will bring to others.”

Lilian and her family’s story continues as she welcomes her first child this May!