My visa quest is over!! After a final return to one of the two passport desks Nadjie and I had been frequenting, I received the final stamp on a document that says, yes, I can be a volunteer in Ukraine. Though, unfortunately, only for one year--which means I have to go through this process all over again next March in order to stay to the end of my service, three months later. Sigh… But’s that a year away and right now, I am very happy to be done with it all and not have to think I am going to spend yet another afternoon in yet another government office.
As for Nadjie, I am sure she is even happier than I am. I knew of the difficulties of dealing with any kind of government agencies in Ukraine and the rampant corruption (as Serdar’s cousin told him: “Want a driver’s license? You can take the driving course or buy one which you probably will have to do anyhow because unless you slip the examiner a LOT of money, you won’t get a license no matter how well you drive.”). But actually experiencing the bureaucratic mechanisms here created a whole other level of understanding of just how very difficult it can be to be a Ukrainian citizen. And here’s why:
The physical space: The offices were invariably open only for a few hours two or three days a week and even those hours weren’t sacrosanct—twice an official up and left in the middle of the two hours the office was open despite lines of people waiting to see him. Usually the hallways were crammed with people. No waiting areas, sometimes a row of chairs in an already small space, no organization of the waiting process (numbers or sign up lists), few or no signs explaining processes, documents needed, etc. Though obviously people were used to the situation and there was a certain etiquette about the waiting process, something I have observed in other places. People always asked who was last in line, and for the most part, followed the waiting order. Except when someone with more “pull” barged into an office in front of whomever was next in line. Much grumbling occurred among people still waiting, but, clearly, that too was a common event and like so much else here, was accepted with a sigh of resignation-- “What can you do?”
The officials: Well, I guess it goes without saying—unfortunately-- that they were almost without exception rude, unfriendly and unhelpful. As an example, an official in one office approved some form that required our “landlord” to be there for the signature. A couple of days later, an official in an office across the hall said angrily, “No, this form isn’t correct. You need do redo it.” Which required the landlord to make yet another trip in his oh-so-kind agreement to help us. And on it went.
But what I found really hard was the affect it all had on Nadjie. Her hands would shake; she would frantically stumble through her previously organized documents looking for the right form; she would just quietly acquiesce to whatever demands were made. At the first office we went to when the official clearly didn’t understand what visa I needed, it was I who had to say to the woman, “No, you are wrong. This is what I need.” Nadjie told me later that if she had said that, the official would have thrown her out of the office. And whether or not that is true, her fear and aversion to the whole process were very real. At some point in the weeks it took for all this happen, she said to me that because I am an American, I am receiving my visa very fast—that it took ten years to get her son registered an a Ukrainian citizen when they moved here from Uzbekistan. And, indeed, everyone I told about our registration attempts, just rolled their eyes and said, “Yes, of course, this is Ukraine. You should have seen what it was like when we came here from Uzbekistan.”
And so, despite the immense frustration I felt with the whole visa registration process, what it really became for me was an intense learning experience that gave me yet another bit of understanding of what life is like for all Ukrainian citizens, but especially for that “other” class of citizens, the Crimean Tatars.
Here I am all legal in Ukraine!