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At Long Last

June 27, 2013 — 2 Comments

Times Square New York US flagAfter four years and four attempts at getting a visitor visa, Mtuseni has arrived in the US. Tired, loopy, and no longer a big fan of flying after a 15-hour flight — but he’s here!  Times Square NYPD

MtuseniA few weeks have passed since the happy news that Mtuseni had received a visitor visa. Since then I was buried in a gnarly work project that consumed my life and threatened my sanity. And of course there was the usual roller coaster ride with my son. Less than 24 hours after celebrating his visa, Mtuseni dropped his phone out of a taxi, which then ran over it. So I had to shell out $250 for a new phone because that’s our lifeline. I told him it’s an early birthday present (though given the cultural significance of turning 21 in South Africa, it will likely be hard for me not to mark his day with something come September).

Now that the trip is finally happening, I’ve shifted into my default worry mode. Getting my beloved knucklehead to fly 8,000 miles into New York — when he’s never flown alone and forgets details and seems to lose something every other week — definitely cranks up the stress. I won’t breathe easy until he texts me from the plane … so long as he doesn’t leave his phone on the Gautrain to the airport! Last week I wrote him a five-page set of instructions on everything from packing and getting through immigration at JFK to dealing with turbulence. Our flights between Joburg and Cape Town last year were perfectly smooth, but on a 16-hour flight Mtuseni will definitely hit some bumps; the turbulence over Cape Verde on my South Africa flights was intense. Scary stuff if you’re flying alone the first time!

But Mtuseni likes roller coasters and was completely enthralled with flying on our trip last year, so perhaps he’ll take turbulence all in stride. He told me that he’ll be “in space for 16 hours and you can’t get better than that!” It will be interesting to see if he still adores flying after this long haul. A 90-minute hop to Cape Town is nothing, but Joburg to New York is one of the longest flights in the world. I wanted a parachute after ten hours!

As I obsess over logistics, every so often it hits me to stop and look at this trip from Mtuseni’s perspective. Imagine being a 20-year-old college kid from Africa traveling halfway around the world for the first time, and to realize his dream of seeing the US. How excited he must be! Of course, I’m excited too. I’ll just be happy and relieved when he’s here in my house, because I’ve learned from experience that there are always surprises and speed bumps when dealing with South Africa.

Mtusnei, like me, can be a worry wart — and that holds true for the trip. But logistics don’t worry him. He’s come to have almost blind faith and trust in my ability to cover every angle of a situation and make things happen for him. (Earning this trust and following through on it has been one of my proudest accomplishments parenting him.) However, he has his own unique set of worries…

For some reason Mtuseni has not been telling people about his trip. We joked about it, but I really didn’t understand why. When I asked him yesterday he said, “there’s certain elements in society I’m avoiding, e.g., witchcraft and jealousy.” He doesn’t talk too much about the more traditional aspects of his culture, but I do know that the goats his mom raises aren’t used to make chevre for restaurants, but are sold for traditional Zulu rituals. (Mtuseni hates “those crazy goats.”) He said that people in his community will be filled with jealousy and hatred over his trip — enough to put a spell on him “to get on the grave.”

I know Mtuseni doesn’t put too much stock in this stuff, but like me he’s doing everything to make sure the trip comes off. Still… witchcraft. Wow. It’s an indicator of the difference in culture and perspective I’ll have in my house for two weeks. Maybe I’ll take him up to Salem and we’ll get a Northeast white witch’s potion to counteract the black witches’ spells at home.

I have a feeling this is gonna be a crazy trip!

MTuseni trip countdown

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Oh Happy Day!

May 16, 2013 — 4 Comments
Finally, a smiling face after yet another trip to the US Consulate in Johannesburg!

Finally, a smiling face after yet another trip to the US Consulate in Johannesburg!

After three years of trying, four applications, and over $600 in filing fees, Mtuseni was finally granted a visitor visa to come to the US this June! The trip is an early, and well-deserved graduation present.

It’s been a long, frustrating road with paperwork and support letters and research and practice interviews and even a new tie (not a hit with Mtuseni). But our perseverance paid off, despite official advice to just “wait a few more years.” Now he’ll be able to travel abroad like many other college kids, and benefit from the life-enriching experience that visiting other countries and cultures provides. We are thrilled!

Now… I gotta talk to travel agents. If you’d like to make a gift to help cover the airfare and activity costs and help give Mtuseni an amazing time in the US, click the GoFundMe link in the blog sidebar.

Thanks so much for all of your positive energy and support in this process. It really helped make a difference!

WhatsApp visa


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So Mtuseni had his “interview” for a US visitor visa yesterday. Rejected again. Yesterday was not a day to get on my bad side.

We did everything right this time. His application listed all of his school, church and social activities to demonstrate those vague “strong local ties” that prove he would return to South Africa. Because he can be shy and gets flustered under pressure, his college counselor coached him on interview strategies. He had letters of support attesting to his responsibility, character, and commitment to school and family. I actually allowed myself to feel optimistic Wednesday when I wished him luck before he went to sleep — set to enter the Consulate fortress the next morning.

Like last year, Mtuseni watched a parade of white people ahead of him be granted visas and told to “Have a nice trip.” But when he stepped up to the window — similar to a US Department of Motor Vehicles setup, in all aspects — he was quickly rejected. Even though his reference letters had been faxed to the Consulate earlier this week by my Senator’s staff, Mtuseni had copies and I had told him to be proactive in making sure the clerk read them. He said “they didn’t even want to.”

Last year, the interviewer said that if I had met Mtuseni in person, he’d have a better chance of getting a visa. That happened in January, and I noted it in my letter. This time… the interviewer told him that once he had more money, his application would be approved. (Does every person visiting the US have money? I think not.) What will they tell him next year if he reapplies, that he needs to be white? Yesterday he changed his Mxit status line to “no matter what, they don’t want me there.”

I understand that, on paper, Mtuseni looks like a “flight risk” — someone who would enter the US and vanish into the underground economy, perhaps doing jobs that Americans find too distasteful for our refined sensibilities while we thumb the TV remote and wolf down 3,000-calorie snacks. Mtuseni lives in a settlement camp in a one-room shack with no electricity or water. But his life is not a dead end of poverty, not with me by his side every day. He is going to college in South Africa. He loves his family. He is proud of his country, even defending aspects of it that I find counterproductive. I know this kid; he would spend ten days soaking up knowledge and experience in the US, then go back to SA full of ideas and motivation to make some changes that can help the country’s youth.

This is why we wrote the reference letters. From me. From his school. From my alma mater Emerson College, where he was going to visit and talk to peers about US and SA media. From John Kerry, one of the country’s most powerful senators. Applicants are allowed to bring in supporting documentation that proves their local ties, school being one of them. Yet the clerk refused to look at them. Didn’t even pretend to look at them. The die was already cast for Mtuseni: a young black male applicant living in a settlement camp. Rejected. No need to look at his character references.

I understand that many people apply for visas, and there are certain restrictions. But when the consulate staff will not even glance at letters supporting his application, it sends a clear message to Mtuseni: “Your kind is not welcome in the United States.” Maybe it’s an effective strategy for the State Department. Maybe potential “risky” applicants will become so frustrated and so disillusioned that they’ll stop applying, and tell their risky friends to do the same.

Both my senator’s and congressman’s staff told me that the overseas visa clerks are notoriously rude. The visa rejection bothers me, yes. But what angers me is the fact that the interviewer did not “consider all available information,” as quoted in a legalese-steeped letter from the Consulate forwarded to me by Sen. Kerry’s office. As a taxpayer… and someone who has now shelled out $440 for three failed visa applications… I pay that interviewer’s salary. I work hard and make many sacrifices to help Mtuseni rise above his situation. The bored civil servant at the window can at least muster the effort to review support letters, and offer this hard-working kid a little respect — both as a fellow human being and as a representative of the United States of America. It might have taken another two or three minutes, tops. Even if the result was the same.

I guess it’s easier to see a poor black kid, plop a big REJECTED stamp on his application, and yell “Next.”

My only solace is that Mtuseni will one day have a much better job than that.

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