Form Letter of Rejection

 

After two years of living in our village and waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, our refugee boys were just told that the home they live in is going to be closed down. Apparently it is too expensive for the government to maintain. The 18 boys still living there will have to be relocated. Dispersed. One option is a rooming house at a highway truck stop – in one half of what began as an overly optimistic brothel. (The other half will continue to be used for its original purpose.) We are working on a different arrangement for one of the boys (“H.”) who still wants to attend my husband’s school.

My husband and H. sat in the kitchen discussing his “options” now that he is about to be . . . displaced once again. They sat in their usual spots – my husband at the end of the table and H. around the corner to his left. I have seen them seated like this many times over the past months, as H. told his life story and my husband typed it into story form. They are up to page 6 now, and the story is long from over.

Mariabad – a Hazara enclave

H. was basically a refugee at birth. His young parents were already on the run from both the Taliban and his mother’s family (!) because of their honor–offending Hazara (Shiite)/Sunni love affair which had led to the birth of H.’s older sister. When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, they had to leave the country altogether. They ended up in a place called Mariabad which is a sort of enclosed Hazara settlement within the larger Pakistani city of Quetta. H.’s childhood took place here. For ten years or so, the normal elements of early life – school, sports, work, games, family celebrations – were interspersed with police raids, an ever-increasing number of bombings and kidnappings. When H. was 13, his two younger brothers were abducted and severely beaten. Shortly thereafter, his elder sister disappeared while on her way to school. H.’s parents could only suspect that the mother’s family had discovered them. They decided it was too dangerous to stay there any longer. His father left first for Australia, hoping the family could follow, but he tragically drowned in the attempt to get there. Three years after that, H. made the next attempt – this time to Iran – only to be caught, imprisoned for a few months, and then deported. He made it back to his family in Pakistan. They made their next attempt to flee (again to Iran) as an entire family and this time they were successful. From there H. and his younger brother set off toward Germany via Turkey and Greece. Once they reached Austria, they decided to stay and try for asylum here. Almost exactly two years ago, H. arrived in our village . . .

 

It was already harsh for him to find out that he would need to move once again, but then he got a second piece of bad news in the same week: his asylum rejection letter with particularly offensive content and wording:

“Concerning the Reasons for Leaving Your Native Country:

The reasons supplied by you for leaving your native country are not credible. It cannot be established that you had to fear persecution in Afghanistan based on the reasons listed in the Geneva Convention on Refugees or that you are confronted currently with a relevant situation threatening your life or limb.

In connection with the existing information of this office on the general situation in Afghanistan, it could be established beyond a doubt that, in regard to the persecution you claim, flight alternatives within that country’s borders exist which are objectively and subjectively reasonable for you.”

 

This is pretty clearly some kind of standard form letter – it doesn’t make sense in light of H.’s situation. He is like the DACA kids who came to the States as babies due to other people’s decisions. And just like some politicians in the States with their “one size fits all” solution for those kids, it seems the Austrian government is pursuing a similar policy for the refugees. Automatic rejection in the first round.

The question is why they needed two years to come up with this answer.

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Schwarzfahren

 

Riding home on the train yesterday, I had a new experience. It was the first time – I think in my whole life (!) – that I rode a train without a ticket. It wasn’t really my fault – neither the machine at the station nor in the train worked, so I had to wait till the fifth stop and its longer stay to get out and buy a ticket. That meant that for those five stops both on the way to the city and the way home again, I was . . . just a . . . hobo hopping trains. Riding the rails. Boxcar Betty. Queen of the Road. A tramp . . .

German speakers call this “Schwarzfahren”. Literally translated, that would be “black riding”. You can find signs in every train car, streetcar or bus warning against it. The most recent campaign imitates warning labels on cigarette packs, listing all the negative health benefits of “Schwarzfahren” – it leads to mood swings and muscle tension, high blood pressure and headaches:

I confess I didn’t suffer any of these consequences, which probably says something less than admirable about me. What is worse, though, is that my daughter accompanied me on my second crime spree. (She has her piano lessons in the city at the same time as my course and we take the train home together.) We met up at the station after our respective gigs and headed toward the train. As we were boarding, an elderly man asked us if we, too, were going to the town in Hungary that was the train’s final destination. I figured he was worried about being on the right one. We all got on, the man turned left, my daughter and I turned right and we took our usual seats.

A few minutes later, the elderly man popped up again. “We seem to be the only people on this train!” he said and then took a seat across the aisle from us. I assured him that we were very early boarders and that more would be coming.

This man was in his 70s I guess and he seemed friendly enough. He took my assurances as an invitation to chat, so in the next 10 minutes we learned all about him. He had been at an art exhibition, but had to leave early to catch this train. It was the last one that would still allow him to catch his connecting train home. He lived in Hungary part time and otherwise in Vienna – where he had many Nigerian friends.  His nationality was Austrian.

He paused while trying to figure out how to formulate his question.

We let him know that I was American and that my daughter had dual citizenship – Austrian American.

“Oh!” he said, clearly surprised. Then followed that up with “That Donald Trump . . . he’s a crazy guy, isn’t he?”

We rolled our eyes and I said “No. No no. We are not going to talk about that man.” And we all sort of half-smiled. There was a short silence as the man looked at my daughter.

He mentioned his Nigerian friends for a second time and was clearly trying to find out the – let’s say “ancestry” – of my brown-skinned daughter. One of us put him out of his misery and said “Ethiopian.”

“I had an Ethiopian girlfriend!” he blurted out excitedly. “For about three years. She was married off very young to a man that her father chose. That’s what those people do. She wanted to stay with me, but eventually she had to go back to her husband.”

I mentioned that Ethiopian customs differed a lot all over the country and then asked a few polite questions to figure out what kind of character we were dealing with here. The “romance” had happened years earlier when he was 57 and she was 25.  And, yes, he had wanted to marry her.

There was a lull in the conversation. He watched my daughter dig around in her backpack for her headphones. He started talking again:

“I saw a documentary once on Ethiopian TV about a young girl who left her family and went to work in a shoe factory. She lived in a tiny, dirty little house and earned just enough to feed herself. I thought, if I knew who she was, I would go save her. She could come live with me. Do some housework. Have a better life. . .”

My daughter piped up: “You know it often seems to us like all poorer people are miserable. But a lot of them know very little about how we live. They don’t have much, but neither do their friends and neighbors. They can still be happy. They don’t want to be saved.”

“Well,” replied the man, “I guess there wouldn’t be enough room here for all of them anyway.”

My daughter and I exchanged glances and then both chose that moment to insert our headphones and start the music (or in my case, podcast). I sat there marveling at my daughter’s grace and composure. She managed to stick up for herself and others confidently without being rude or provoking. She had shut the man down and was now shutting him out.

A new understanding rushed over me of how . . .  simply being in this world must feel to her at times. And then I thought of all those signs again, warning that “Schwarzfahren” can lead to headaches and high blood pressure and mood swings. It occurred to me that the word could also be translated as “Riding While Black” . . .  and the signs would still be true.

A Barn Yarn

 

“I’m stuck!” I told my sister on the phone. “No one wants to read about my morbid obsession with the American pwesident or my current workplace  . . . curiosities. I can’t write about anything in my private life because it is all OPS. And I can’t just keep writing about chickens.”
“Keep writing about chickens! Do!” she answered.  “I love it when you write about chickens.”
Thanks, Sis. Once again.

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I jumped on the chicken bandwagon a bit too late.

Had I been in on our poultry project from the start, I would have encouraged the husband to build our hen house in the style of a traditional Wisconsin barn. The kind I passed on weekends as we drove to Grandma and Grandpa’s house each Sunday. Or the ones we saw on our way Up North for vacation each summer – those yearly six or seven hour drives, first through the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin farmland and then into the Big Woods with its 15.000 little lakes. A cottage on shores of one of these was our usual destination – our own temporary “Little House”. Within an hour of arrival, I was in the water and basically stayed there for most of the day, every day. Any time not in the water was spent on nature hikes and/or steeped in fantasies of being Wisconsin’s most famous pioneer girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I devoured her books (repeatedly!) as a child. She was my link to the 19th century version of myself.

My husband has his own link to his 19th century self and it is much more impressive. His great great grandfather was a famous writer and poet who grew up modestly in a remote mountainous region of Styria. The childhood home of this man, Peter Rosegger, is now a museum. My husband visited this place many times in his childhood and I imagine he also fantasized there about being a 19th century “Forest Farmer Boy”. In any case, he clearly had some other image in his mind as he built our chicken coop. Something more Austrian.

 

Last week he announced that he was going to paint our hen house and started suggesting colors. It was at this point, that I finally got involved in the construction project. Blue?? Who’s ever heard of a BLUE barn?!? Honestly! Anyway, here is the result:

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P.S. Thanks Sis, too, for the compliments on the coop via WhatsApp. As for your curiosity about what it looks like on the inside, I have to disappoint. Chickens are crappy decorators. Literally.

 

The Path of Totality

 

With all of America being in Solar Eclipse Fever, I was reminded of my own past luck to find myself in “the path of totality” for one of these. Austria, August 11th, 1999. My husband (of ten years at the time) and I decided to throw a garden party for the occasion.

It took me a while to locate these pictures in my many photo albums. I had started with the 2001 book because I was convinced that my elder daughter was a baby in attendance; I could picture the buggy standing in the shade and her sleeping peacefully inside. But it turns out that I must have conflated this party with my husband’s 40th birthday bash two years later – the one with the “End of the World” theme. I found those pictures in a later album and there was a baby in a buggy with shades on, it just wasn’t ours. And he had the sunglasses because of eye troubles, not because of an eclipse. While looking through those pictures, I couldn’t find the crazy invitation we had made for this party and started getting suspicious again . . .

More foraging through photo albums revealed that my memory was conflating this second party with his 50th Birthday Bash (also a garden party). That was the one that coincided with some religious prophecy about the coming of Judgment Day – May 21st, 2011. Our invitations for that party read:

(That party was a really good time!)

Now, after all sorts of rummaging through albums and the recesses of my brain, I have it all straightened out. So back to the Solar Eclipse Party . . .

We had a perfect cloudless day and as you can see, being in the shadow of the moon really makes day turn into night. The later pictures in the album show bright sunshine again. This being the days before digital cameras and the internet, I didn’t get a good shot of the ring, but I did look at it for a few seconds with my own eyes.

    

As I look at these pictures, the ugliness of our house and general lack of foliage in our garden at that time strikes me. It is also strange to realize my elder daughter wouldn’t be born until a full year later, and that, at this time, I had no idea we would even be adopting a child. Then I look at all the people in attendance and see her two godfathers. I see the two couples who I later helped with the paperwork so that they could secretly  get married in Las Vegas. One of these two also later asked for our advice about adopting and now are deliriously happy with their permanent foster daughter. I see another woman who would become my daughter’s singing teacher. She and her husband together celebrated their “100th” birthday just two days ago and I was in attendance. My daughter sang there. I see pictures of babies who will be graduating from high school this year, young kids who are now done with university. And of all these people, I see only a handful that I have lost contact with.

I had no idea at the time that these people would stay a big part of my life over the next two decades and most likely beyond. That they would be the same crowd pictured at that 40th bash and the 50th ten years later, and presumably the 60th just a few years from now.

– – – – – – – – – – –

I didn’t see the eclipse today because I was a third of the way around the world from the path of totality. Instead I took a jog down Memory Lane and then livestreamed NASA coverage via NPR. And because the experience wasn’t exactly action packed, I played some Solitaire at the same time while trying to get my head around time differences and where the sun was compared to here and why the moon path went from west to east:

  

 

I was lucky to get these screenshots  – right after the second one, my crappy wifi broke down and the stream was interrupted.

I got up and went out onto my porch just in time to catch the sunset. Ten seconds earlier I had been tracking the sun’s path over Oregon en route to my family and friends in Wisconsin. And here it was, by me, the way it always is.

Things suddenly reset and were back to normal. To the way they should be. There was a feeling. And I want to remember it.

Morning in America

There are two soundtracks running in my head as I sip my hazelnut coffee and watch the sunrise on my first morning in Milwaukee and they couldn’t be more different. They compete with one another for my brain’s favor. First I envision the West Side Story dancers and hear:

I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev’rything free in America
(For a small fee in America!)

 

Suddenly there is a mental scratch of the needle on the record and the music changes to sultry sounds of Nina Simone  – or Muse – singing:

 It’s a new dawn, It’s a new day,

It’s a new life,

And I’m feeling good.

 

I think my brain cannot decide on the soundtrack for this day because it feels there is just a bit more waiting to do before this vacation can really begin. Just as it evades sensory input of people smoking around me, it refuses to accept the reality of our arrival here. So when we passed this view yesterday – one that had evoked the feeling of finally being home the previous 20+ times I saw it – there was no excitement (or at least none I allowed myself to feel.) And last night when we all sat together on my sister’s porch and reeled off a litany of possible activities for the next three weeks, I thought a lot of them sounded nice, but that it was too early to start planning . . .

And all of that is so, because my brain pushed the “Pause” button on receiving this message off my computer screen several weeks ago, along with the subsequent letter telling us to appear for our interviews on July 19th.

July 19th. That is tomorrow. (Wish us luck.)

 

Tomorrow, one of two things will happen.

EITHER . . .

my daughters will officially become certified citizens of the U.S. and this long, at times nightmarish, bureaucratic odyssey will be over,

OR . . .

the odyssey will continue and the vacation will be over (at least for me.)

On the bright side I will probably be able to finally decide on a soundtrack – will it be the lightly cynical but happy patriotism? or the moody and dark irony of a new day dawning?

 

Bureaucratic Baby Steps

So. The deed is done. My application for US citizenship for my adopted daughters is in the mail. My nearly yearlong odyssey to make this happen is nearing its conclusion. Now it is Wait and See time.

I can’t believe how convoluted this process has been from the very onset. And, of course, there were a few more stumbling blocks set in our path through the second to last stretch. Like the fact that permission from the Austrian government for dual citizenship took over six (!) months, meaning that the time window is now very small. (Although, when I picked up the documents, I saw that they were dated October 10th 2016. Seems like we could have had them five months ago, but no one got around to notifying us . . .)

Then, there was a new version of the application form – now 13 pages long instead of the 8-page one I filled out last summer. If I had sent that one in, it would have been immediately rejected. I only stumbled across the new form through sheer dumb luck.

And then came the dilemma of how to pay the (discouragingly hefty) filing fee from abroad? After reading every square inch of the website and consulting its Avatar “Emma”, who answered each of my questions by directing me back to a webpage, I took the desperate step of trying to call our – in this case, frigging useless  – embassy.

Unfortunately, there are only two telephone numbers listed on the embassy website – one for visa questions and one for dire emergencies. I dialed the visa number and went through an endless series of “Press 1 for lahdeedah. Press 2 for weebeejeebee . . . Press 269 for zippowingo. Hold the line to talk to a human being.”  I held. After what seemed like two days – finally! – a voice of a real person. To keep a short story short, here’s what he told me. He doesn’t know anything about my situation except that he knows that I can’t pay the fee through the embassy and, no, he can’t connect me to anyone else there who might know, and, no, it won’t help to come in person.

So how do I pay this stupid fee? The website makes clear that the application will be rejected if the cash is not forked over upfront and that the money has to come from a US bank.

I was without options.

Time to call Sister Ambassador.

We hatched a plan. I filled out the form for credit card payment that is used for different type of application and then wrote a cover letter saying that if it was the wrong one, my sister would write a check. Here’s all her contact information. Please work it out with her!  And then, in a blind leap of faith, I stacked it all up – my cover letter, my G-1450 form, my G-1145 form, my N-600K application form, my thick folders full of supporting documents (with certified translations!) – and I stuffed it all into a bubble envelope and addressed it to the USCIS. I drove to the post office.

May the fates be merciful.

Best case scenario: The payment is accepted. The application is accepted. We are notified. No more documents are requested. No specialized visa is necessary which would require me to visit the US embassy. We get an interview appointment in the Milwaukee Field Office during the time period I suggested. The interviews go well. My daughters are handed their Certificates of Citizenship. We celebrate.

And then, sometime next fall, my daughters and I go to the embassy and we watch with gratification as they hand over the US passports. A small part of the world has been righted: adopted children DO have all the same rights as biological ones. It just requires some extra paperwork. And a flight or two across an ocean.