Model Citizens

Almarie and Francois van Staden left their native South Africa in 2000 to pursue a better life for their two children. More than two decades later, they consider themselves Americans in every sense of the word.

by David Roten

The family of four buckled their seatbelts and prepared for takeoff. Francois and Almarie van Staden, along with 7-year-old Brooke and 2½-year-old Francois Jr., were leaving their home country of South Africa for the first time. Almarie wept as the plane lifted off the ground and climbed quickly into the night sky toward the unknown. “With two kids in tow, we left without knowing where we were going, where we were going to stay and leaving all that was familiar behind,” she said. “It was tough.” Their journey in February 2000 was a leap of faith spanning several thousand miles, beginning in Johannesburg and ending in Los Angeles some 24 hours later. 

In actuality, the van Staden’s quest to become American citizens had just begun. 

If leaving was hard, the decision to do so was relatively easy. Though both Francois and Almarie had excellent jobs—he as an electrical engineer, she as head of accounting—future career prospects for their young children in post-apartheid South Africa did not look good. According to Almarie, government policies were resulting in greatly diminished access to universities and career opportunities for certain population groups. Poor infrastructure and a staggering crime rate further clouded their children’s future. 

“We just looked at what the country was going to look like in 10 or 15 years and what the options for our children would be career-wise,” Almarie said, “and we couldn’t see anything that was sustainable for them.” 

The couple had only recently begun to discuss the possibility of moving to another country when opportunity knocked. “The next thing we knew,” Almarie said, “God had opened up a path for us through a golf game my husband was playing in.” When one of the other golfers mentioned he had a son in the United States whose company was looking for electrical engineers, Francois listened intently. Almarie recalled the ensuing conversation with her husband and their moment of decision. “My husband said to me, ‘What do you think?’” she said. “I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

“When we first got here, I saw a quote that said, ‘I didn’t say it was going to be easy; I said it was going to be worth it,’ and it’s been worth it every single day.”

Almarie van Staden

The van Stadens made San Diego their first home on American soil as they set about the rigorous process of acquiring citizenship. “If you do it the right way,” Almarie said, “it’s very difficult.” Francois had to provide proof of a college degree to acquire a permanent resident card. Physicals were taken and background checks made. There were endless appointments and mounds of paperwork. Processing fees totaled around $20,000. It would be years later, in 2013, before the van Stadens were finally granted United States citizenship. 

“When we first got here, I saw a quote that said, ‘I didn’t say it was going to be easy; I said it was going to be worth it,’” Almarie said, “and it’s been worth it every single day.” Challenges in those first few years were not only legal but social and cultural. “When we immigrated, we didn’t know anybody in this country,” Almarie said, “but I soon realized that, regardless of where you go, the Lord is always there. He was on this side of the ocean, as well, and that helped us a lot to get through all the difficult times and things we had to face.”

Learning a new language was near the top of the list. Though Almarie and Francois were fluent in English, their children spoke only their native language: Afrikaans. Francois settled into his new job, while Almarie stayed home with Francois Jr., who managed to pick up English by watching television. 

“My son and I weren’t pushed into the workforce or into the community as such,” Almarie said, “so we had a blast.” 

For Brooke, who went directly into elementary school, it was a different story. She struggled with the language, as well as socially, according to her mother. “She was the odd kid out,” Almarie said, “and kids can be very rude.” When Brooke came home from school in tears, Almarie did her best to encourage her, at times resorting to tough love: “I would tell her, ‘You need to buckle up because this is it. You will have to make it here. There’s no other option for you.’” It took some time, but Brooke met the challenge. “I’m telling you,” Almarie said, “she came out strong.” Brooke volunteered at a local hospital as a teenager, graduated from high school and entered nursing school. When Francois accepted a job offer in Georgia and the family moved to Covington in 2015, Brooke stayed behind to continue her training, eventually earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing. Since becoming a registered nurse six years ago, she has worked in the trenches of the coronavirus pandemic while managing several residential moves up and down the California coast on her own. 

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“She’s grown into a very confident, take-no-nonsense kind of woman,” Almarie said. “I’m extremely proud of her.”

 Almarie takes an equal amount of pride in Francois Jr., who served as an audio-visual technician at church as a teenager and later was involved with the outreach ministries of Christian Fellowship at the University of Georgia. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from UGA, Francois went on to graduate from the police academy and has worn the uniform of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department since 2021. According to his mother, he admits to enjoying the “adrenaline rush” that comes with the job. However, when Almarie asked him why he chose such a dangerous profession, his answer revealed a weightier motive. She still remembers his words: “Mom, you guys brought us here and I just can’t fail you by not doing something that’s worthy.” 

The van Stadens feel a debt of gratitude to God and country for the honor of living in America and have successfully passed that attitude on to their kids.

“Since they were young,” Almarie said, “I instilled in my children that we have to do something to give back because this is a blessing that we’ve been given.” 

Almarie and Francois practice what they preach. Almarie participates in Climb to CURE—a childhood cancer philanthropic initiative—through her employer, Lendmark Financial Services, and donates to other worthy causes through the Newton County chapter of 100 Women Who Care. Francois plays a supportive role by filling in where needed at church and with various charities, including those sponsored by golf tournaments. 

Unlike those who were simply born in this country, the van Stadens made a choice to be American. They view it as a privilege not to be taken for granted. 

“Every day I wake up,” Almarie said, “I’m grateful that I am here and that my children are here and that they have got a better future.” 

Click here to read more stories by David Roten.

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