Travel changes people. It broadens one’s perspective, helps us see both the differences and the commonalities among the billions of souls inhabiting this little blue marble whirling in space. I know that my trips outside the US have stretched me — and the effects of my recent trip to South Africa are still being sorted out. Clearly, a visit to the US for Mtuseni would be an incredible opportunity. His brief winter break between semesters begins in late June. What better time to visit Boston? But despite the obvious benefits for a bright college student, a significant obstacle looms: obtaining a visitor visa.
This will be our third attempt to secure a visa. We tried twice last year, to no avail. The first attempt reflected my own naivete. I figured he wasn’t applying for residency; he was just a college kid coming to visit for a couple of weeks. Getting a visa would be a little speed bump. But at his “interview” he was summarily rejected in 30 seconds.
Refusing to accept defeat, I contacted my congressman’s office. His staff described the difficulty in obtaining visitor visas, particularly from countries where people live in poor circumstances. The thinking is that, once here, they will never leave. I assured the woman that Mtuseni would return to continue his studies and care for his younger siblings. Although she said our chances were slim and we should wait one (or more!) years to reapply, I decided to go for it.
On the first attempt, we just did the basic application: an insane process that requires completing a seven-page online application and a trip to a bank to pay the $140 fee. (Hasn’t the US government heard of things called credit cards? Or PayPal?) Clearly, doing “just the basics” didn’t work. I learned from the congressman’s staff that visa applications can include supplementary information
So on the second attempt, I wrote a letter of support as Mtuseni’s mentor and host. His school administrator also wrote a letter, as did the congressman’s office. To bolster our chances, I contacted my senator’s office. His staff wrote a letter and faxed all the materials to the consulate in Johannesburg. They have no influence; legislators only have a direct conduit for sending information. I was told by both legislators’ staff that the visa clerks are notoriously rude and abrupt. I imagine them as Marge Simpson’s sisters who work at the DMV — and evidently that picture isn’t very far off the mark.
So with solid letters of support and a second $140 application fee — and having coached Mtuseni on how to answer questions about the purpose of his visit and whether he planned to return to SA — his interview lasted a whopping three minutes. Rejected again. He texted me later that it was “heartbreak for real.”
Mtuseni is just a college kid who has an opportunity to see another part of the world. He’ll take those experiences back to school with him. He’ll see how his peers in the US operate. He’ll see that, unlike when we were in Johannesburg, a white man and a black teen together at a cafe won’t get disapproving stares. As a media student, he’ll experience TV, radio, advertising and marketing in a different culture. A visit to the US this summer will enrich him tremendously. And knowing Mtuseni, it will further drive him to press for changes in South Africa through his future media career.
So in the coming weeks, we’ll try for a visa again. I’m brainstorming strategies to improve his chances of success. I’m not optimistic, but I have to try. If it works out, Mtuseni could be in Boston to hear them read the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July from the balcony of the Old State House, as they did in 1776. He could eat clam chowder on City Hall Plaza with a diverse crowd of visitors from across the country and around the world. Hell, he can even watch reruns of Snooki on Jersey Shore and the commercials for tanning spray and teeth whitener. When traveling abroad, everything counts. And he’ll absorb all of it like a sponge, stretching his mind and his perspective, making positive and negative assessments, and just being another college student experiencing the world before starting a career and contributing his knowledge and vitality and idealism to his homeland.
Hopefully this third try will be the charm.
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