"It's a dangerous business, going out your door.
You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet,
there's no knowing where you might be swept off to..."
--J.R.R. Tolkein

Friday, July 8, 2011

Djibouti Calling

We have some news at our little school: three of our students have been selected to attend a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts. Two girls to work on future programs for girls from Muslim countries to attend, and one boy will be spending his entire junior year attending this school on a full scholarship.

Naturally, the kids are over-the-moon excited. None of them have ever been on a plane before, or have even left the region. The boy grew up in a refugee camp and has barely a penny to his name (he actually stays on campus during the school vacations and does manual labor for a bit of pocket money). This trip to the US is an incredible opportunity for them all, and I, for one, couldn’t be more excited for them.

But then there’s the problem of the US visa. Trying to get a visa to my country is difficult for anyone; it’s expensive, time-consuming, complicated, and a bit invasive.

Now trying being from an unrecognized republic inside Somalia, the world’s favorite failed state. Citizens of Somaliland cannot get a valid passport, so the well-connected father of one of the students helped get them Somalia passports. With that comes it’s own problems, namely proving that these hard-working, dedicated young people aren’t terrorists. To compound matters, there is no American embassy in Somaliland or Somalia, so we had to send the kids to Djibouti to submit their applications and undergo an interview, in which they convince the official that they don’t want to overstay their welcome in the US.

So, here’s the mission: get these kids to the embassy in Djibouti. Assist with preparing their applications, communicate with my boss who is doing promo work in the UK, and with the former teacher now in Malaysia. Also, book plane tickets, get the kids to their various medical appointments, and gather as much information as I can to help the kids through the process.

And here’s what happened:

Work through vacation. Hurriedly scan passports for the nearly late application. Break into someone’s room to find a key to someone’s room to find the last passport. Take the kids to the hospital to get chest x-rays and vaccines for American school. Down the hall, a mother loses a child. Be haunted by the screams. Doctor calls us in. Says one student has tuberculosis. Recommends further tests.

Next day, take the kids to meet with a Somali man who has lived in the US for many years. Sit through a lecture on American culture (That was hilarious! More on that later.). Get picked up by the school car. Have a minor argument with the guards. Minor argument turns into a near hostage situation. They say they’re going to shoot the car. So much screaming. Somehow, it ends and we head home.

Coordinate meetings, get parent signatures (some who can barely write their own name) prepare meticulously organized application packets, work a 20-hour shift, get two hours of sleep, put the kids in the car, send them off to the airport.

I should say that my boss decided against sending an American staff member with the kids on their journey to the embassy. He had his reasons, I’m sure. Instead, we sent the mother of one of the students, who turned out to be nearly illiterate (could barely write her name) and nearly caused the kids to miss their flight.

Kids arrived in Djibouti. Two kids were accepted, one told to wait for “additional processing.” She was heartbroken, but we’re doing all we can. I told her over the crackly phone call not to give up yet.

Anyone who has ever been at the mercy of the US government knows this feeling. The feeling that someone doesn’t trust you, and doesn’t give you a chance to prove otherwise. Why reject one girl but not the other? What did she do? She is a member of the student council, has some of the highest marks in her class, and dreams of becoming an engineer. She has so much to gain and so much to contribute.

At this point, we’re calling Djibouti every day.


  1. Yeah..i could understand, it must be very frustrating. You have had a lot of experiences there

  2. This is where I always butt in and say "call your Congressman" -- has Jonathan requested help from a Mass. Senator or Representative? If not, it could really help.

  3. hard life, but it will be experience of a life time for the kids. hope all goes well for them.

  4. hey - what ended up happening with your student? Did she get to go?