An Inspired Life in America

Photo by Cuma Ugur

Imagine leaving everything you know behind. The small village you and your friends grew up in. The city where you attended high school. And now you’re going somewhere a lot bigger, and nobody there speaks your language. You’re probably a little intimidated. Probably anxious or scared. Excited, sure, but I don’t think any of those other words describe how Cuma Ugur felt when he traveled from Turkey to the United States.

“I was always looking for adventure,” says Cuma. “I never liked staying home.” So, in 2018, with nothing more than what he was wearing, Cuma went to work in Maine, but it would be less than a year before he returned to Turkey for an internship.

Okay, that’s not really that interesting, but in 2020, Cuma wanted to return to the United States and see other states. There was one hang up, the cultural exchange program he’d used to come the first time ceased to exist, at least in the same capacity. With no money and a pandemic in full swing, it wasn’t looking good.

Cuma also refused to take an indirect flight. Most of those flights were stopping in Qatar and Russia. “We’re looking for direct flights because the other ones are risky. When you’re flying to Qatar or Russia, they can say your visa—” Cuma gestures them taking it away.

“I almost lost hope. If I couldn’t get money or a flight, my cousin called me to live in the village. He asked if I’m available for weekends because he needed me on the farm. I said okay because I couldn’t find a flight. A few hours later, I finally found a flight, but I didn’t have any money for flights and expenses. I called my other cousin and got a loan. I got my ticket with my friends, and I told my cousin, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t come.’

“‘Why?’

“‘I’m going to the United States.’”

Photograph provided by Cuma Ugur

Once again, with only the shirt on his back, Cuma was off. He’d interviewed to work in a Wisconsin Dells resort as a maintenance tech to obtain his work visa. As it is, Cuma has a knack for mechanical and electrical things, something he’d taught himself in Turkey. But when he arrived at the resort, he was put in housekeeping. “I said I don’t want to do this. They said if [a maintenance position] is available in a few weeks, they’d give it to me.” Weeks went by, and Cuma never moved to what he was initially hired for.

After being disciplined for taking a lunch break in the middle of his shift instead of waiting until 4:00 p.m., he decided that was enough for him. “My sponsor called me and said if I quit, my visa is canceled. They’re just trying to scare you.” There’s a 60-day maximum grace period to get a new job.

“I found a lawyer working in Delaware. He knows Turkish too, and he’s from Azerbaijan. He says you can change your status.” Cuma changed his work visa to a tourist visa, which is good for up to six months.

The opportunity to undertake more travel was irresistible to Cuma, and he headed to New Jersey. Then from New Jersey he went to Georgia. He tells me that traveling this way isn’t scary and it isn’t lonely. “I always find someone and join them. They have the same brain. The same thinking.”

Once in Georgia, Cuma got the itch to continue pursuing something he’d wanted to for a long time: a degree in engineering. “It kind of pushed me to come back to Wisconsin.” Looking to his younger years, that itch to tinker started in primary school, when Cuma created a voice-activated cradle that rocked when the baby started to cry (he was the fifth child of six with a younger sister, older brother, and three older sisters).

His parents always encouraged him in his science and engineering pursuits. In fact, it was to the point where Cuma’s dad told him that if he wanted to do something, he should just do it. The result was Cuma not always working on what his head teacher asked in secondary school; he was laser focused on his interests. If that didn’t pan out, he figured, “Worst case, I can go back to my village and live like a farmer.” The goal wasn’t to pass the class; it was to learn.

Photograph provided by Cuma Ugur

But now he needed a student visa if he wanted to move forward with attending a university, and the clock was ticking on Cuma’s tourist visa. “My visa only had one month left. I applied for an exchange program visa. I would have to wait six months for approval. I was talking with this girl online, and I told her it was too late, so let’s go for coffee.’

“She said, ‘Are you sure this is it? How can I trust you?’ She was so scared.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to kill you, don’t worry.’

“We talked. We had coffee. Later, I was preparing to propose to her on her birthday. She was preparing to propose to me too. I heard from my friends. No! In our culture, only men can propose. I didn’t know here, girls also propose. When I proposed to her, she said, ‘I’m glad you didn’t kill me.’”

He’d found a person he could go on adventures with, and they’ve been doing just that ever since. When they went to Colorado, Cuma learned something about himself after reading a sign that said not to run if he encountered a bear. “No! I’m not used to seeing bears. I said to my wife, ‘I’m going to definitely run.’

“‘You’re going to leave me alone?’

“‘No, I’m saving your life. I’m running, and he’s going to chase me.’”

Cuma is in the process of getting his green card. Once he’s done with the interviews required by the government to determine the legitimacy of his marriage, he can get in-state tuition. That doesn’t mean the university leg of his journey is set in stone, but if Cuma wants it, I believe he’ll get it. He doesn’t seem too familiar with the idea of quitting, but is very much persuaded by the flashes of opportunity sparked by inspiration.

Kyle Jacobson is lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photography by Barbara Wilson