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.

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