Saturday, October 02, 2004

Outside Eye: This Week, An Insider Looks Out

By Julia Hakobyan
ArmeniaNow Reporter

This week I joined hundreds of Armenians in the long line of dreams, waiting outside the US Embassy in Yerevan for a visa to America. The process is a test of endurance.

Having previously taken papers, we all were invited between at 9 -9.30 a.m. and were told to wait. Two by two, applicants disappear inside for about 20 minutes at a time. I was 15th in the line and grew weary calculating when my turn would come.

I decided instead to indulge in eavesdropping. . .

Two people in front of me and three behind were angrily discussing the increased price for visiting a consular service. Last year it was $50 and now it is $100. Even if you don’t get the visa, you pay the fee.

“For what we are paying, for being rejected?,” asked one woman.

“Because here in Armenia it is anarchy,” answered one man. “And the Americans decided: ‘Why do we have to pay $20 at the airport for leaving their country. If so let them pay too for entering our country’.”

“They just collect money from people and give visas to a few,” said the other man. “How do you think the Americans are building their new embassy here? Each week they collect $20,000 from people like us and it goes to the construction works and to the wages of embassy employees. They get at least $1,000, and it all comes from our pockets.”

You can learn a lot about your countrymen, listening to them trying to leave. By their words, they neither like where they are nor where they are going . . .

They went on, accusing President Robert Kocharyan of corruption, anarchy, poor economy in the country and in allowing Americans to take so much money.

“I would never leave Armenia if I feel protected here, if I have job. If my president can not provide me with a job, I will go to serve another country,” one man said.

It is a sunny September in Yerevan. The sidewalk, the walls, the pavement and the heated words are enough for a headache.

I crossed the roped off line to stand in the shadow of a tree between the stone barriers built by the embassy after 9/11. People watched, perhaps enviously, but none left the line to join me. However in about five minutes an embassy guard approached to put me back in line.

“I can’t. It’s too sunny there,” I told him.

“Please go back,” he repeated, politely, but firmly. “You can’t wait here”

“Did I do something illegal,” I asked, jokingly. “I want to wait here and I see no problem.”

“You hinder the way of passersby,” the guard said. “See everyone stands, even old people. Please sister- jan go back, otherwise I will be in trouble.”

Of course I was not obstructing pedestrians, but his last argument persuaded me.

I returned to the line to find global issues on the talk agenda.

One man predicted an imminent energy crisis in the US.

“Soon Americans will not fuel their cars because it will be too expensive for them,” the man said. “And they will be deprived of electricity and gas.”

“If it is so, then why are you going there?” a woman asked.

“I go to see my grandsons, whom I’ve never seen,” the man replied. He then told that his two sons are not US citizens and could not send him an invitation.

In an hour of listening I realized that I was probably the only one in the line who had an official invitation from a US entity (for a Duke University media fellowship) – the only one in that hot line who had reasonable hope.

And I guess that for most people the visa was a one way ticket. For a group of people I saw, mostly middle-age and old the visa stamp was the most desirable thing they could wish for.

But what impressed me most was the people’s sympathy towards each others, their uniting around the common aim. The frankness of Armenians reach its apex in the visa line. Or so it was that day I was watching people’s true stories about their life in Armenia and purposes in US. People were so easily sharing their secrets of their true intentions in US as if we were at a private party.

A woman of about 40 with emaciated face was telling people around that she is going to get a job in the US but she would tell the embassy interviewer that she goes to the US to visit her god mother. The woman had no paper, no invitation and no idea how she would get a job in the US. The only thing she knew was that she has to leave Armenia to get a job in America, because no one of her five family members has a job here.

“If I get a visa we will sell a car to cover the ticket cost,” the woman said. “And I will not be back for at least five years.”

I tried to persuade her that it is not so easy to get a job and warned her that she could become a victim of cheaters. But she replied that her friend left last year and now is a housemaid at one of the hotels in Utah. She too wanted to be a housemaid. I asked her if she is ready for this job, why she does not try to find a similar job here.

“I can’t do this job here. My relatives will know about it and I will feel uncomfortable. If I go to the US I will tell them that I work as a babysitter.”

In 20 minutes the woman told me the story of her life, about her husband, of her uneasy relations with her mother-in-law.

I was trying to follow her logic, logic of a tired and unprotected Armenian woman, who told me her secret only because I was a stranger. I asked her if she is not concerned that one of the people in line is an employee of the US embassy who learned about her true purposes. As soon as I said that, others in the line joined our discussion, saying that no matter why you go to US, if they (interviewers) decide to give you a visa they do not care why you are going to their country.

In that line I learned that all the US consular employees are psychic, and no matter what papers you have, they look at you and make a decision. Face-control, in other words. I also heard that the most severe consular agent is a bald American of middle age who rejects everybody.

“There are three windows in the consular room, try to approach the windows with two young Americans, they give visas,” said one old woman, whose sister was rejected last month by the bald American.

People in line were generously giving advice on how to behave to get a visa. The one I liked most was from a woman who was going on her second trip to visit her daughter.

“Whatever you are asked, you have to tell ‘no’,” the woman said. “Do you have relatives in US? Say ‘No’. Do you intend to stay in the US? ‘No’. I did so last time and got a visa.”

Finally my turn came. I got the bald guy.

He went through my papers for five minutes without saying a word. Then he started asking questions. Turns out that all my answers, in fact, were “No”.

“Do you need a translator,” he asked in Russian. “No,” I replied. “Do you intend to study or work in the US?” “No.” “Did someone else fill out your application?” “No.”

I was the last to leave the US embassy that day. The guards asked me the results, then sincerely congratulated me.

There were some people outside who were rejected but stayed near the building as if it could help them. One woman was crying, men were smoking. They all looked very depressed.

I was looking for the woman who indented to go to the US for work, but I did not see her. I hope that she is aware of human trafficking. And I want to hope that whatever she does she will not be involved in a bigger trouble.

I looked at them all – at people whose life turned in a way they could never expect. At people whose children, though safe in the US, can not see their parents. At people who know the US life only from movies and want to go there to be in the country where dreams come true. For some.

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