Saturday, January 20, 2007

Nigora is coming to America!

Nigora has spent the past few days at my apartment in her quest for a tourist visa to America. And on Friday she received it. It’s a nice-looking visa with her photo on it, as well as commentary that she plans to attend a wedding and stay for two weeks.

“Do they only write that on my visa?” she asked, “or on everyone’s?”

“I suppose it’s in case the police pick you up shoplifting in California,” I said. “When they take you to the station, then they’d ask why you are in California instead of Minnesota and what happened to the wedding you said you were attending.”

She laughed in her high-pitched, girlish voice.

“I’m probably going to be the only American (person with an American visa) shuttling dishes across the Uzbek/Kyrgyz border,” she said.

“Do you think you’ll have problems?” I asked.

“Well, U.S. relations with Uzbekistan aren’t very good right now,” she said. “Maybe they will think I’m a spy or something.”

But it’s a risk she’s willing to take. “I can always try to get across the border without a passport,” she said. She did just that last week, after receiving her shiny, new Kyrgyz international passport, that cost her $150. She wanted to keep it looking new, to not mess it up with stamps.

“When you cross the border, they don’t even look at what kind of passport you have,” she said. “They just stick a stamp in there.” So instead of letting them soil her newest acquisition, she just snuck across the border.

On her way back to Kyrgyzstan, a border agent caught her and called her over.

“He figured I was smuggling gold across the border and he wanted to catch me,” she said. “So he asked to see my bags.” She didn’t even realize that he thought she was transporting gold. And she had nothing in her bags but snacks for the road.

“He asked how I could be crossing the border and have nothing with me. I didn’t tell him I’d given my dishes to someone else to take across the border. I could see the person who had taken my goods had already gotten through and they were waiting for me. I told him I was in a hurry and he finally let me go.”

She laughed. “Then he saw me cross over and retrieve my dishes.”

“You didn’t get in trouble?” I asked.

“No, I was already across, so I was safe. Plus, transporting small quantities like
I do isn’t a problem.”

“Won’t he remember you next time?” I asked.

“No, they rotate all the time.”

I accompanied Nigora to the U.S. embassy for her 9 a.m. appointment. She’d bought a new dress for the occasion, a navy blue velvet that left its gold sparkles all over my apartment floor and even in the corner of Nigora’s eyes, making it look like she was alternately twinkling or tearing up.

Several other people had 9 a.m. appointments. One was an attractive young couple. The male, from Tashkent, was a Master’s student at Northern Illinois University. He met his new wife, a Kyrgyz from Osh, online. Now he wanted her to get a visa in order to join him.

“I’ve been in the U.S. since I was 18 and have already grown used to life there,” he told me in perfect English.

His pretty new wife looked nervous. “She’s afraid they won’t give her a visa,” he said. I was impressed at the state of the world’s communications when an Uzbek in Illinois can meet a Kyrgyz in Osh over the internet and later marry. They seemed like the type of hardworking, well-meaning people that could be a valuable addition to the U.S. population. I hoped her application would be approved.

Everyone waiting out in the snow outside the well-fortified compound looked nervous. After showing one’s passport to a security guard in an enclosed booth, people were let through the first metal gate one by one. They had to go alone. And no bags were allowed. But there is no place to leave the bags, other than with relatives willing to stand out in the snow, or in a car.

Even in her new attire, and leaving off the scarf she usually wears, Nigora looked less modern and worldly than the other people in line. According to my Kyrgyz boss, Maria, that is probably why she was easily approved.

Nigora later told me about going through the second security checkpoint.

“They told me I had to turn off my cell phone,” she said. “And I tried to, but it wouldn’t turn off. I told them I didn’t know how.” She laughed. “Then the woman who checked me told me that I had to push the door handle to the left to get through the next door. They must have figured that if I didn’t even know how to turn off a cell phone, I couldn’t manage to open a door. However, I was grateful. Because it was my first time and I really didn’t know how to open the door.”

I had written a letter in support of Nigora, and she’d come prepared with a complete folder of applications – showing she was leaving behind her children, her husband, her home and her work – enough social and material capital to ensure that she’d be back. They must have believed her, because she was only asked a few quick questions, then approved.

“When he told me to come back the next day at 3, I didn’t understand that meant I’d been approved,” she said. “I should have realized that he took my passport in order to put the visa in it. But I asked him, ‘Have you made a decision yet?”

The Kyrgyz girl had been sent away due to a problem with one of her documents. She’d have to come back. And a Russian woman in line with Nigora was approved. She’d come to the U.S. once before – to visit family or friends there. But she worked as a nanny during her visit, earning $400 a week. Now she wants to come work for another spell, then plans to return to Kyrgyzstan. I doubt she told the officer that she plans to work. However, she seemed to be another example of a hardworking, well-meaning person.

Plenty of people are envious of Nigora’s success.

“I’ve heard it’s very hard to get a U.S. visa,” our well-off office manager said. My friend Zhenya, whose mother lives in New York, said outright that she was very envious. Zhenya has been turned down for a visa herself. She said I was Mother Theresa to give Nigora such an opportunity. And I could see the wheels click in her head, thinking that maybe if I wrote a letter in support of her, she’d increase her chances. And several people on Nigora’s street also unsuccessfully applied.

Nigora was shocked to hear that the interview cost $100. “So those who are rejected still have to pay the $100?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s probably a way of limiting the people who come to those who are most serious.”

“My poor neighbors,” she said.

While plenty of well-meaning people are unfortunately rejected, and thus add to the image of the U.S. as an unwelcoming place, both Zhenya and Nigora’s Uzbek neighbors had intentions of staying for the long term. Zhenya will probably get there eventually. Her mother recently got a green card. And once she gets citizenship she’ll begin the process of trying to bring over her daughter and grandson. But in hopes of speeding up the process, Vika applied this year for the green card lottery.

She’s certain she’s going to win it this year because I helped her fill out the forms.

“That doesn’t make a difference,” I told her.

“I know. But I feel like you touched it and your involvement is going to make it happen.” I’d hate for her to be let down because of me.

Zhenya’s mother’s risk paid off in the end, but at the cost of having almost no interaction with her only grandson and almost completely missing his childhood.

So Nigora is set. At age 48, she’ll cross the ocean for the first time. She’ll see the ocean for the first time. And I hope she’ll collect memories that will last her a lifetime. I hope that I can open my country and my home to her in a way that approximates the hospitality she offered me in Osh.

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