Friday, August 11, 2006

The visa process

This is a story from around Christmas last year when I tried to get Siham a visa.

Canada’s a Great Place to Live, but we’re not Allowed to Visit.

Sitting in front of my computer, working on a chapter about Ethiopia, my wife Siham called. “Hi honey, the boss says I can take the morning off and do the visa application.”


On a quiet residential street, we parked under a palm tree two houses down from where the Canadian flag flapped atop a blocky white building. Siham, with her documents tucked into a green folder, was let through the Canadian consulate’s big metal door. I wished her luck before the guard stopped me from following her and clanged the entrance shut.

For the next two hours, I tapped on the steering wheel, listening to the mix of Arabic and French music on the radio. When she finally stumbled out, she was distraught and seemed to be trying to restrain tears. I started the car and pulled off the side of the road.

“What happened?” I asked.

She managed to choke out a response as she climbed in. “The woman said she probably won’t issue me a visa. That there too many discrepancies?”

“That’s ridiculous, we have everything they asked for, what are you talking about?”

“She says my accounts showed three different pay rates.” Siham’s voice wavered. I tightened my fists on the steering wheel and continued onto a busy road.

“That can be explained,” I said, “you took a week unpaid leave so we could get married in Oujda. The other two statements were your first pay checks at the new pay rate and the accounting department had to adjust them.”

“There’s more,” Siham said. “The woman asked if we planned to live in Canada. I said yes, but not right now. Then she asked why, if we wanted to live in Canada, were we not applying for sponsorship?” Siham took a deep breath. “She said if I want to go and stay in Canada then I should be applying for a resident’s visa.”

I gritted my teeth and gripped the steering wheel, stopping at a traffic light.

Siham’s voice started to crack. “She said it doesn’t make sense to apply for a visitor’s visa when we intend to live in Canada. I tried to explain that we only want to visit right now, but then she said, ‘Why did you tell me you wanted to stay?’ Before I left, she said there was very little chance she would issue me a visa.”

Siham’s eyes were filled with tears when I dropped her off at her office. “Don’t worry,” I said, “When she reviews the application, she’ll realise she made a mistake. We gave them everything they asked for. The same credentials got you two Spanish visitor's visas, a French one and the American one. You're married to a Canadian now, it should be guaranteed you can visit Canada.”

I returned home and sat down in front of my laptop, wishing I could believe my words. I felt helpless that some stamp wielding bureaucrat made her mind up the moment she saw my wife. It felt like we had been accused of lying and trying to cheat the system.

I think it’s important that my family knows my wife and better. They had only met her for a few brief and hectic days at our wedding three months earlier in June.


We returned at 3:00pm, Siham walked away from the door, her pace quick and irritated. “I was rejected," she said.


I felt violated, as though I’d just been conned by some guy on the street. My stomach was wrenched in anger and I kept pulling my hands away from the steering wheel to ball my fists. It wasn't a conman on the street though. It was a faceless bureaucrat behind a locked iron door with a little swinging window, like the one at the edge of the emerald city in the Wizard of Oz. In our scenario though, the little munchkin said, it will cost you one-hundred-and fifty dollars to apply for entrance. The moment he had the cash in his hand, he said, “Sorry, request denied!” and slammed the door in our face.

I went to the consulate the next morning and tried to query why my wife had been rejected. They wouldn’t let me through the door, so I went to the neighbouring Consular Services part of the embassy, where they told me to go back and deal with the immigration.

I couldn't understand it, was this woman blind or just plain stupid. Siham was the perfect candidate for a visa? The USA didn’t have a problem when they issued her a ten-year, multiple-entry visa. Nor did Spain, France, or Thailand. Never once had she overstayed her allotted time in another country. Nor had she been rejected until today, by the Canadian Embassy.

To make things even more confusing, I’m told that if we were not married, there is a good chance Siham would have been accepted.

I can only assume that they think we are trying to sneak in through the back door and avoid the costly and time consuming process of a spousal visa application. We are not, but I can sympathise with people who might want to try. The visa application process, I’m told, can take up to two years. Meanwhile, families are separated, lives are shattered and the process inflicts hardship and suffering on those unfortunate enough to partake in it, like the woman we met outside the embassy who has a husband and two children in Canada and hadn’t seen them for six months.

Siham had all the right documents. They were in order when she went to the embassy. In every aspect I can think of, she is the perfect candidate to visit Canada, except that she married a Canadian! The woman treated her like a refugee with a criminal record when she misinterpreted one question. “Do you intend to live in Canada?”

Siham's answer, "Yes, some day, but not right now."

We live in Morocco and are quite comfortable. It’s cheaper for me to live and write here, and Siham has a good job with pay and benefits that would fit the lower-middle-class income level in Canada. Why would she give that up to be an illegal immigrant with the best prospect in the new country, an under-the-table job paying a third what she makes here?

I feel many things right now, anger and helplessness are at the top of the list.

We paid $150 Canadian to do the multiple-entry application. Siham brought all the documents they wanted: An official translation of our marriage certificate; her bank statements to show she has a steady job; the application; pictures; her passport; a letter from her employer.

There was no second chance, there was no, “If you could provide us with these extra documents, then perhaps we can reconsider.” There was just the plain and simple form letter with one of the five boxes ticked. (Regulation 179) We don’t believe you have the intention to leave Canada once you arrive. The thing is; they shouldn’t have needed the extra documents.

Did the woman do any work? Did she think rejection from the moment Siham walked into her office? Did she take two seconds to flip through her passport and see where she’s been and that she can go to Europe or the US without a problem?

Stupid me! I thought, the less paperwork the better. Stick to the essentials, give them what they ask for, be efficient and get approved. She’s married to a Canadian after all. It’s a done deal… Not!

What if questions ran through my head like one of those electric cafeteria signs. It made me angrier and angrier and I was at a loss to explain what I could only describe as sheer stupidity.

So who did I complain to?

A search led me to my family's local MP back in Canada, who quite simply said, “Immigration officials are like police. Politicians aren’t allowed to interfere with their investigations or question there decisions.”

So there’s nobody to go to for this incompetence.

Nobody could help me. My voice had been drowned out with the thousands of other people seething in frustration because some bureaucrat raised their mighty stamp, slammed it down and essentially stole their money.

The woman sitting behind the safety of the iron door can’t understand why we wanted to visit Canada and not stay permanently. Nor do I think she understood what it’s like to marry a foreigner and feel the humiliation of a rejection stamp. We felt alienated by a system we may come to rely on for our future. It made me feel like the integrity of our marriage had been dirtied and that our ethics and character spat upon. All this because someone’s preformed bias pre-assumed that we wanted to enter Canada and stay illegally.

Later that fateful day, Siham walked into my office crying. She said, “You’re father paid a fortune so your entire family could come over and see us get married. Now I can do nothing, nothing! I can’t even visit them!”

Before Siham left the interview, the woman told her to apply for a resident’s visa. “But I don’t want to live in Canada right now,” she had said. “I just want to visit my husband’s family.”
Canada’s a great place to live, but we’re not allowed to visit.

Will post the follow up later.

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