Having been told I must present myself at the US Embassy to give a blood sample the previous afternoon, I’ve set my alarm clock for 06:00 in the morning. I wanted to make it back at the office by the time tea is served at 10:00 a.m, so I left my building before anybody else did, treading as politely as i could, the only form of apology available for the noise my shoes were making!
When, 45 minutes later, I arrived at destination’s end, four rows of the chairs that hold 5 person each were filled with individuals who look good and cold. Their eyes trailed after everybody coming through the embassy’s checkpoint: The [employee ID] badge wearing skinny girls who refused to acknowledge our presence. The badge-wearing young men whose walk reminds one of the slow-motion walk uniformed heroes walk with on TV. And finally the big bways who guard the gate that made gun-fire noises every time its opened. Neatly attired men and a woman who seem to enjoy the attention more than the subject under discussion, and laughed about it with a brief interruption in which one of them called out for the “stand by” and the stand by responded.
I took my place, on the row infront of the hall whose inside wall was bearing part of Lady Liberty’s head and a welcoming note. On my left sat a petit girl whose Motorola mobile phone, whose batteries she complained about later, seem to ring every other minute. On my right is a young man wearing the type of scarf that got Rachel Ray into trouble some months back. Soon we were friends. We started with the cold, the whether change and the respective clinics we went to. We then proceeded to what we were in for. The girl said she was giving blood sample for an immigrant visa which her Eritrean fiancée applied for in her stead. They met in Asmara, she told me, when she was there.
“So you are going as a Refugee” I said, driven to sarcasm by the VIP treatment these people are getting in a supposedly “enemy” territory, “I’ve heard on the news how our government is working over-time to facilitate visas for you guys”.
“I came here three years ago” she said with a shy smile “I am Ethiopian national, only I’ve spent most of my life there. I know how they get treated when they arrive here. But you can’t imagine what type of risk they took before they do. On top of paying twent to fifty thousand ETB to cross the border to Ethiopia, they are leaving their parents for either arrest or fine for helping them escape”.
“50,000 birr to cross to Ethiopia?!” the man sited next to her, who has thus far impressed me as having fallen in love with his official-looking binder, seem to find that information too ridiculous to pass off. “It’s crazy what these people are willing to do to go to America” he continued “They have all the dough they need to make a good life in their own country, but they’d rather pay it to go and be a slave in another. I heard they pay upto two hundred thousand birr to have somebody come here and marry their family out”
The applicant on my right was the first to recover the shock the extravagant amount induced. “Atleast they know what they are getting into!” he replied “I’ve never thought about going to America until I won DV lottery. You know how they say those who don’t want it usually get it. Now, I am told I have to pay eight thousand birr for every member of my family in the form application fee. Eight thousand birr for a family of 5! What’s worse, there isn’t even a guarantee. If I got refused, the money is non-refundable. Let’s say I got the visa, where would I get the ticket Birr for all of us?! My relative owns a private business there, but I can’t ask him to both pay for our tickets and take us in!”.
A whistle, the shaking of heads and a sympathetic teeth-sucking followed. Shocked into humility by the realization that baking in the sun for half a day to get your police certificate, and paying 2,000 or so birr as an authentication and medical fee wasn’t the worst that could happen to one; I offered help in the form of a question: “Can’t you go first and take them later?” I asked.
“There is an expiry date,” he said, hopelessly “It’s as if they are making it impossible for you to go. But offering you the chance so it eats you up your whole life if you don’t use it”
The young man behind us, who confessed to having missed his interview and was told to wait until some official showed up, was trying to lean into the conversation. He appeared to have found the chance now. He told us non-immigrant visas weren’t any better. The government has passed a new law where every organization sponsoring his employees for a trip to America is asked to show an overseas medical insurance coverage of 50,000 USD in blocked account. I was about to ask if that was dollars or Birr when the guy with the fancy binder interrupted.
“Maybe Obama would give us tax-exemption” he said, smiling, “that way, DV lottery would live upto it’s name”
The name, or the promise, seem to cheer up all his hearers except one. She was watching the half a dozen kids, two on the chest of their white adoptive parents, flocking in. “Orphans!” she said, when we registered their presence, “coming to give blood sample, incase their parents died of HIV!”.
“Well, you know Americans” I said playfully, sensing this was something she felt strongly about, “To them we are creatures of the wild you can’t be too careful with. Animals that may drag germs into the house! It doesn’t matter how bad their economy is, and if the rest of the world knows it, as long as we are begging to enter their country, they reserve the right to treat us as inhumanly as they saw fit”
I’d have continued with my observation in a learned language, and impressed my listeners with my insight into “the evils of poverty” or living in a poverty-striken country: how it makes you voiceless, letting others decide your present and future for you; how you can’t afford to be proud when you are begging for alms, can’t demand as to how you should be treated or not, etcetera, if a small scene hasn’t presented itself in front of us.
Interviewees whose appointments were for 8:00 in the morning were exiting the building at this moment. There wasn’t half the drama I heard one gets to see at the American embassy. There was no fainting, no screaming, no shaking of the hand. No dazed looks from those who sold their earthly property in the hope of entering the promise land. There was only one girl. A young girl between the ages of 19-24. A girl on whose lips the glossy lipstick seem to have dried and cracked. She wasn’t making much noise either. But her eyes were red. The skin underneath looked wet and puffy. A young man we saw crossing himself when passing through the door had his hand on her shoulder. He was laughing a self-conscious laugh. To show us, it seems, he knows how ridiculous this was. “Min yasleQsishal?” he finally said, forced into audibility by our undivided attention, “Gennet aydel!”.
Isn’t it?!, I silently wondered. Why, then, are we pretending as though it is?
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