Tuesday, March 27, 2012

In Pursuit of a Visa I

My life has been consumed these past few weeks with the process of trying to receive a visa to be in Ukraine until the end of my service which is now July 2013. As I said in earlier posts, the Ukraine government changed their visa laws last October, requiring a new form of visa for all foreigners, which has resulted in Peace Corps Volunteers taking over our own registration process, something that had previously been done in Kyiv without our involvement.

Right now, this only affects those of us who are extending and the group that was sworn in last December. However, all new groups will have to abide by the new registration process, unless the pleas of the U.S. Embassy are successful in changing the requirements, which they mostly likely will be, given that the Ambassador is now meeting with the Ukraine Minister of Foreign Affairs.

However, for Volunteers like me, who cannot wait for the outcome of these high level talks, it has been a nightmare. Initially, I was told to wait for the central registration process to happen in Kyiv once Peace Corps learned of how many documents were going to be required in Crimea. But the visa I received from the Moldova trip expires at the end of March, and with no word from Kyiv, my Peace Corps manager told Nadjie and I we had to start working on getting the registration done in Crimea.

So we have spent every day for the last two weeks in various government offices, pursuing the elusive visa. Our biggest stumbling block has been the fact that landlords have to be involved in the registration process, providing documents proving their ownership of the house/apartment. Almost all landlords are reluctant to do this, as they are fearful of added taxes, etc., but in the case of Crimean Tatars, people don’t even have ownership documents. I discovered this fact when Neshet went with me to the registration place, only to be turned down because of not having the right documents. He has a document showing ownership of the land, but not the house. When I asked him why, he explained that when Crimean Tatars first returned to Crimea, they were only allowed to build houses in remote, unpopulated villages such as where Lenura’s parents live. They were denied access to land in Simferopol, where, of course, there was a much greater possibility of finding work. So people just started to squat on empty land surrounding Simferopol and began to build their houses. Eventually the government acquiesced (after a prolonged protest in the city center), and five “compact settlements” were established around Simferopol where Crimean Tatars could own land and build houses. At some point they were given deeds to the land, but by then, for the early settlers like Neshet, the houses had long been built without the required permits. And thus, they have no document showing that they own a house. Which begs the question of how they will pass their houses on to their children, and could the houses ever be sold. Many people have built substantial homes and over the years have continued to add improvements, such as what Neshet has done with our house. But all that work and money apparently will never be able to come back to them until there is some further development in the land reparations dispute.

But as it turns out, with the visa registration process the government doesn’t really care if you actually live were documents say you do--they just want some landlord to come forward and register you as living there. So we asked around Ak Mechet and the library to find someone who might possibly have the right ownership documents. Most people didn’t, but finally someone at the library told us to call someone she knew in one of the settlements who owned a large building with various apartments, and he agreed to act as my landlord.

So that brings me to the next stage of my adventure—my meeting with, as it turns out, the legendary Eskender Umerova.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Visa Struggles

No new word on the Ukraine visa front, but one Volunteer I know whose visa is expiring this week was told that she might have to pay some kind of fine and just stay here with the expired visa until she returns to the U.S. in August. Just got an update via email—the Volunteer was told that she will be in the country illegally for now and the Peace Corps will provide some kind of letter. Showing what, I’m not sure. Somehow this feels like the ultimate practice of “letting go” of the belief that what I do determines the course of my life. I have done what I can do to affect this process, and now I just have to trust that so boodet normano—all will be okay. And try not to get too frustrated with the Peace Corps not-very-helpful communication process.

I also have to keep in mind that I am an American citizen, which is a huge privilege that gives me the right to travel almost anywhere in the world with no hassles. How much I took that for granted, indeed never really thought about it, in my pre-Peace Corps life. And perhaps even living in Ukraine I would have continued to not recognize what a privilege an American passport is if I hadn’t accompanied Serdar on his quest to get a visa to visit the U.S., or any western country for that matter.

In the latest attempt to secure him a visa to visit the US, recently I met with an acquaintance from the U.S. Embassy who now works in the consulate section, reviewing visa applications. Due to the constraints of her position, she was only willing to give me general information, but I came away from the conversation realizing that Serdar will probably never be able to get a U.S. tourist visa as a young person. Once he is done with university and has successfully established a family and career in Ukraine, he will have a much greater chance to receive a visa. But he is in that category of applicants that is automatically rejected because of the fear that they will stay in the U.S. illegally.

The one possible opportunity for him to come to the U.S. as a young person is a State Department program called Work and Travel. Basically it is a way that foreign university students can spend the summer in the U.S., mostly working service type jobs in resorts, and supposedly travelling for a month at the end of the summer, though this privilege is excluded from the Ukrainian program, as all the universities here start at the beginning of September. And for the privilege of working his/her butt off at some crappy job, a student has to pay a minimum of $1500 plus travel expenses. I have talked to several students who have gone to the U.S. under this program—some have liked it, others have hated it. But it is a way to get a visa to the U.S. for a population that would otherwise be denied that privilege.

But here is the real kicker. They told Serdar that he might not even be able to receive a visa through that program because it is on his record that he was once denied a visa. So last year when I wanted to take him to the US with me and thought there would be no problem for him to get a visa since he would be traveling with a Peace Corps Volunteer, an assumption born out of my then ignorance of the visa process, in the end resulted in further damaging his prospects for visiting America, something he so badly wants. We have both come to accept it, an easier task for me of course, and have begun to talk about maybe doing a small trip somewhere else this summer. But ever country I look at requires a visa from a Ukrainian citizen, the only exception being Russia, Belarus, and Turkey, and perhaps some of the “Stans” (Uzbekistan, etc.). And obtaining a visa usually means two trips to the country consulate, most of whom are located in Kyiv. So an expensive hassle and always with the uncertainty of whether or not he will get a visa. It is a fact of life here that people are sort of trapped—not as much as when there was the “Iron Curtain” of course—but still, it isn’t an easy process to travel out of the country. And that fact, almost more than anything else I have encountered living here, brings home the reality of what it means to be an American in the eyes of the rest of the world. Do we really deserve this welcome, this freedom to move across borders unencumbered? Many times, I think not. But I am grateful for it.
With love from Crimea.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A trip to Moldova to get a visa

Scenes from Chisinau
On the bus.

Some of my traveling companions.
Remains of a synagogue from before the war.
Large Orthodox Christian church in the center of the city.

Snowy park in the center.
the Minnesota Twins in Moldova!
A quiet morning. Alone in the house today, a rare treat for me. I will spend the day doing a little laundry, going for a walk if it seems at all feasible given the cold and icy conditions of the roads, cooking dinner for the family, studying some Russian, and just hanging out, savoring the silence. Though I have become accustomed to living with the family—the TV on downstairs, Serdar’s music blasting out of his room, Lenura and the kids yelling back and forth—and have even come to miss it when it gets too quiet on these days of having the house to myself--I do cherish my occasional aloneness. It’s such a big change for me, this living in a family. For most of my adult life I have either lived alone or with only one other person. But I have grown to like the feeling of being part of a family. I like that both Serdar and Safie feel they can come into my room anytime and just hang out with me (I can lock the door if I want to be alone), that Lenura likes to come in and see what I’m doing and chat about different things, that Neshet and I occasionally remain sitting at the table after dinner, talking (or trying to) about Crimean Tatar life, world events, life in Uzbekistan. The hardest times I find living here are the result of my lack of understanding of the language. The other night Safie was rattling on about something to do with school and Serdar and Lenura were laughing so hard, and I didn’t have a clue what it was about. Times like that I can feel so isolated and alone, despite knowing how much they love me. I wonder if I will ever get to the level of fluency where I can understand conversations in which people are talking rapidly and (probably) using a lot of slang.

These last three weeks have been occupied by the visa registration headache. Ukraine instituted new visa laws last September, and it has created huge hassles for Peace Corps Volunteers like me who’s visas are expiring soon—basically all of the Volunteers that came in October and those Volunteers who are extending our service. The first step in the process was a trip to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova! We all had to get what is called a D visa before we could even start the registration process, and you can’t get that visa in Ukraine, you have to go out of the country to a Ukrainian consulate. Which, of course, makes little sense, but that is the law. So the Peace Corps organized bus trips for all of us to Moldova. Which could have been fun, I guess, but the trip turned into a 16-hour overnight on the bus, one night at a hotel in Chernisau, and then another 14-hour overnight on the return bus. Combined with the overnight train to and from Kyiv. Grueling is the word that comes to mind. Especially the return trip where I ended up at the back of the bus where the more partying types of the young Volunteers congregated. Finally, about 2am, I said, “are you guys ever going to sleep??” About 3, they eventually did.

Actually, I enjoyed myself in Chisinau. We had a lot of free time, waiting for the consulate to prepare our visas, and the Peace Corps gave us a generous spending allowance. I had fun walking around, checking out the city, buying presents, having a great dinner at a traditional Moldovan restaurant, perusing bookstores. The day we got back to Kyiv was not the best—exhaustion, a frustrating meeting about the steps of registration, a trip to the dentist to have a tooth pulled, and finally crashing at the hostel, waiting for Cheryl to come the next day. She had tickets to the Georgian National Ballet which was performing that night, so we had made plans to spend the weekend in Kyiv. It continued to be very cold which limited our sightseeing, but we still had a good time. Made it to the huge outdoor market there which I had never been to. Cheryl had the address of a booth that sold maps, and when we did finally locate it, what a treat it was—tons of maps from all over the world. I bought a geographical map of Central Asia that shows all the places Neshet talks about in Uzbekistan. Will definitely have to go back there my next time in Kyiv.

I arrived back in Simferopol on a Monday morning, and it feels like I have been dealing with the registration hassle ever since. After several frustrating trips to various offices with both Neshet and Nadjie, as my landlord and the site where I volunteer also had to register, I was finally told by one official that I needed to leave Ukraine and come back with a 90-day tourist visa, as there was no way that I would be able to complete all the documents before my current 45-day visa expired. Most of the Volunteers who are attempting to register are running into the same problem, and the Peace Corps in Kyiv along with the US Ambassador is pushing the Ukraine government to allow a simpler registration process for the Volunteers. And that is where it is now—in the hands of the Peace Corps office in Kyiv. I have one month to be registered, so we’ll see what happens.

More on that visa front next post—my visa and also Serdar’s attempts to once again to get a visa to the US. Love to all from cold Crimea.