After a year plus of preparations, some of our Hopeprint team and teens are headed across the ocean to Ghana, West Africa. From obtaining passports, to navigating parental concerns, to raising funding and more, it has been a significant ordeal. Besides packing suitcases, I initiated the final preparatory step this week - the visa application.
If you've ever travelled out of the United States as a U.S. Citizen, you have experienced the passport control of various nations. Many times, the worst one is when you try to re-enter right here at home, standing for multiple hours in a winding line to get asked a few questions and passed on your way. In most cases, as a U.S. citizen, obtaining a tourist visa for another nation is a rather painless process that can be done at the border. Some countries, such as Turkey and the U.A.E. even intentionally make your lay over in their country on your flights, promoting inexpensive to free visas, tours and hotels.
Yet all it takes is knowing one person who has tried to enter our country from any non-European nation in the world, and you quickly realize, the Unites States does not return the favor. We live in a nation that a good deal of the rest of the world pines to live in. Of course, their perception of the land of sea to shining seas is predominately formed by Hollywood and the fairy tale stories that remain perpetuated by those who have immigrated. I have met multiple families who work themselves to the bone, hover on the poverty line, and still maintain a narrative of the golden streets to those they left behind. Those who live in both urban and rural communities in the United States have born witness to our nation's own poverty problem - an often ignored or downplayed poverty problem, which the NY Times recently reported impacts 5.3 million Americans who are absolutely poor by global standards, about the same as or more than Senegal, Sierra Leone and Nepal.
And yes, there are some elements afforded in this nation that are indeed extraordinary or unusual in contrast to the nations from whence they are coming. For example, my friend from Iran is able to work, drive, choose if she wants to wear hijab and access higher education. My friend from Iraq who endures significant symptoms of PTSD has supports that allow his family not to starve, and his children able to remain in school. When our neighbor family has only oil and eggs left in their cupboards, and not a dime in their pockets, there are systems and supports to ensure the children do not starve.
These and the stories of rags to riches are key factors in magnetizing a world full of people to get in the visa line to enter this country. The "if only, then" mentality causes people to leave their families behind and suffer great costs towards a dream. It's surrounding this visa process that a phenomenal amount of our national attention has been exploding lately. It is the place where the question of "Who will we let in?" resides most powerfully. The granted and unexpired visa is the document that makes the difference between "documented" and "undocumented," and because of its legal ramifications, those who are here with the blessing of the law or outside of the law.
Getting one of these seemingly golden papers is a different process depending on a myriad of factors. When my friend Munu wished to stay, she had to search for a job who was willing to pay thousands of dollars for a special work visa. When my friend Monu sought to bring her husband to join her from Nepal, she had to wait for over a year to get an answer. For my acquaintances from Nigeria, they applied, received notice that they won the highly competitive lottery, and had to make arrangements to leave weeks later. For my friend Johnny from Ghana, he has repeatedly been denied entry as they fear if he comes, he will not leave. For my friend Rose from Congo, she has been waiting on temporary asylum status for five years, having no idea if she is now safe to build a new life, or if she will be deported to her nation where great persecution would await her.
I know in a very personal way how hard it is to enter and stay in the United States if it is not the nation of your birth. I have experienced the ease with which my passport affords me the exact opposite experience in other nations. I know that the navy blue, U.S.A. emblemized document that I have with my name on it is a powerful privilege.
Yet, as I went to complete these visa applications for Ghana, the experience changed. The instructions were contradictory and challenging. They wanted to see documentation of personal financials, notarized forms and more. They expected me to work for entry to their country. After seven hours of laboring over forms, pictures, releases, and more, I was frustrated, and found myself exclaiming, "Don't you want me to come to your country? I'm coming to help you!"
As soon as it crossed my lips, guilt flooded over me. Who in the world do I think I am to think I have anything to offer Ghana, West Africa? Why do I think that it should be easy for me to enter Johnny's country when my country refuses to allow Johnny to enter ours? Ashamedly, I know the why of my guttural response. It's this incredibly embedded thing called privilege. I think somehow I deserve extraordinary treatment than my fellow human race, in a nation that is not my own. I think somehow I have something to give, when I know full well there is far more for me to learn.
I hope we get these visas. I pray the process goes smoothly so that I can see the beautiful waterfalls my friend Jes loves, travel Johnny's home countryside with him, walk the forts that bore witness to the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade alongside of Ronnie Matthew, land on African soil with our students who have not been to their home continent since preschool, play soccer with children who are living declarations of freedom after being trafficked, and learn from the nation that has written a narrative the world is starting to watch. But as they make me wait, and I am forced not to know, I get the chance to recognize my privilege and remember my kindred connectedness to the human race. To remember I am both nothing but by and everything because of the Creator, Redeeming God. We all are.
I do not deserve a visa any more than any human being deserves one to my own country. We all ought to affirm dignity in the process, for borders and passports do not define our humanity. May we practice for others what we long for ourselves.