The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat.
You would think it was the final round of the World Cup but we were not on a football field. The emotions were all the same, the victors cheered and celebrated and the defeated tried to hang their heads high but the expression on their faces revealed their anguish and sadness. The walk of honor or shame, depending on the results took place inside a sterile office building, one that lack the flavor and often over the top decorations of a Nigerian office and the room reminded me of home. I was on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Abuja.
Last week I had to go to the US Embassy to increase the number of pages in my passport. Living and visiting countries that require a visa quickly fills up your passport. Kenya is the worst culprit as I currently have three Kenyan visas in my passport (all from the past six months). And, I did not mention that I received my new passport in October 2013 while living in South Sudan. In addition to the three visas from Kenya, I also have my expired visa from South Sudan and my Nigeria visa, for a grand total of five unusable pages. I was concerned that I would find myself in Kenya again in the near future and no page for another visa!
The cheering and celebration was taking place on the other side of the large room that I was sitting in. It was as if the room was set up for those with passports from the U.S. to have a prime view of the visa extravaganza. Nigerians were queuing outside, waiting for the next available window to make their case for a visa to the United States of America. In typical American form, the process was an impersonal experience that often left the loser to make the walk of shame. It reminded me of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), if you have ever gotten a U.S. driver’s license then you understand the reference…it’s nice to see that we are replicating the infamous DMV experience in the rest of the world.
Visa applicants were forced to approach a window where the consular teller, in an American accent would shout a series of questions through the microphone… “Where are you traveling?” “Why are you traveling to the U.S.?” “Where do you plan to visit/stay?” “What is your occupation?” “What is your salary?” While I recognize the importance of these questions in determining whether someone will be approved for a visa, I would be a bit embarrassed discussing my financial background for everyone to hear (and maybe discussing my trip in general with a crowd of spectators listening in). After all the questions were answered, a decision was immediately announced for the room to hear…
“I’m sorry to inform you that your visa request has not been approved” the microphone would reverberate. After a few minutes to collect documents, the defeated individual would turn and begin the humiliating walk from the counter to the door, having to smile at those who nod to show their sympathy. Once outside the door, the person would collect him/herself and exit the embassy. My heart ached for those rejected because after witnessing the excitement of those approved, I realized that in some ways, the U.S. visa process was crushing dreams. These Nigerians had dreamed about traveling to the U.S. and probably heard stories from friends and relatives who had made the journey. The consular agent knows the rules and I would like to believe trained in what to look for when approving/rejecting visa request.
Rejections were fairly common during my hour glimpse at the visa process, especially among young men. But just before my name was called to pick up my visa, two young men, I assumed they were brothers were met with the words, “Congratulations.” They were unable to hold their excitement and raced to exit the building (maybe they assumed the news was too good to be true and if they lingered too long, the visa would be recalled). While we were unable to hear their cheers because of the bullet proof doors, you could only smile as they jumped and high-five each other at their new status. These two now had what others in the room wanted, a small document that granted entry into what we call the “Free World.”