You know how travel junkies pack their bags, walk up to the airport, close their eyes, flip a coin and hop on a flight to a random country? Well, I’m probably never going to be able to do that because I hold a Nigerian passport and I need visas / embassy appointments to enter most countries. I do not remember my first experience at an embassy…I was very young and was likely plucked up from the floor by my parents to be shown to the interviewing officer and then sent back to a chair in the waiting hall while my parents answered questions. Since then, I have visited embassies dozens of times — everyone from Tanzanian (before I realized the existence of visas on arrival) to Japanese to American to Maltese. These are some of the ‘blessings’ that come with holding a Nigerian passport.
Time is surplus at the embassy. Applicants are often kept waiting like chickens queuing up to be slaughtered. Sometimes, I die of second-hand embarrassment for those who are denied visas and the ensuing announcements over the microphone. While I await my turn to be called up and asked a bunch of largely redundant questions, I watch people. After 25 years, the clothes are different and the way the interviewers phrase their questions have changed but the people at the Embassy are still the same.
- The Applicant with 100 Cheat Sheets: She is incredibly nervous and might have to read through a list of documents to remember her own name. She has crammed a list of responses recommended to her by her brother ‘in the abroad’ and she reads out the responses like a formula. When she is asked what she will be doing in New York, she retorts: “Ever since I saw America on TV, I have wanted to visit. I will visit the Statue of Liberty and Central Park. America is God’s own country and my senior brother has told me about Times Square.” And what she does in Benin? “I am a beautician and cosmetologist running the biggest beauty parlor on Ekehuan Road in Benin City. I am only visiting my brother and his family for three weeks. My brother has been abroad for more than fifteen years but I will come back because I have to stay and develop my country. I don’t even like cold so I cannot stay for too long.”
- The Desperate Applicants: “Please ma, please sir, we have spent so much money and traveled all the way from Bayelsa for this visa. Please, I cannot go back home without this visa.” As they wail at their denial, the woman pulls her husband to the ground, “let us kneel down and beg them.” The interviewer coldly calls for security to assist them out of the building and closes his interview window. As they realize the horror of their denial, they pick their stack of documents and follow the security officials towards the gate all the while shouting, ‘I am finished o. I am finished.’
- The Professor: His list of qualifications is lengthy and seems to impress the interviewer. His visit to the embassy is simply a formality. “So, you were awarded a national award last year?” He nods quietly, like it is no big deal. “Congratulations”, the interviewer says. He is granted his visa in 15 seconds.
- The Shady Businessman: He swears that he an importer / exporter worth 60 Million Naira and that his goods from Austria and China are authentic. But he cannot specifically say what these goods are. “My business is in imports and exports” he says, producing a statement of his last dollar transaction. “Spare parts,” he continues, when asked what kinds of things he imports and exports. Dissatisfied, the interviewer asks him to specify what these spare parts are. Instead, he defensively produces another receipt for the last house he built for his mother in his hometown. “Just yesterday, I sold 1 million Naira worth of parts. Just yesterday.” Fed up with his poor responses, the interviewer denies his visa and welcomes him to apply again at a later date.
- The Over-prepared Student: “So, what program are you admitted to study?” The question is an opportunity to regurgitate information from Wikipedia: “I am admitted to study Business Management at Northwest Iowa Community College. Northwest Iowa Community College was founded in 1966 and is fully accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. The college is located on a 269-acre campus one mile west…” He is cut of by the interviewer’s next question: “Do you plan to return to Nigeria when you have received your degree?” He smiles and presents his manifesto to the interviewer: “No Sir. It is my dream to live and work in America and I will not come back.” The heartbreak is felt by the entire hall when he is denied his visa for not wanting to return.
- The Frequent Travelers: They are confident in their responses and answer to only what they are asked. Some questions irritate them like“how many times have you visited the US?” Before they have a chance to respond, the interviewer chips in: “I see you’ve visited a number of times.” They deviate from the interview and have a conversation about the beautiful Smokey Mountains and the Houston heat in the summer. After giggling together for a few more minutes, the interviewer asks them to return for their visa in two days.
- The Fake Couple: She produces an album of photos in which a man is poorly photo-shopped into her family photos. She is requesting a visa to meet her husband. “Are you married ma? You know how important it is for a man and his wife to be together” she adds, imitating the interviewer’s accent. When the interviewer tells her that there is not enough proof that she has a husband in the country she would like to visit, she flashes her brand new wedding ring set and calls out his house address — one she likely found during one of her internet searches. She is eventually denied the visa even though she calls out a phone number and asks the interviewer to call to confirm.
- The Man with Two Birthdays: He visited the embassy ten years prior to this visit and came under a different identity and birth date. He claims to have never visited the embassy and swears that he is 21 years old. But when the interviewer flips her screen and shows him information from his last visit, he breaks down in tears. “Please, help me ma. My people are chasing me, they want to kill me. Ever since my father died, they have taken all our properties and my father’s wife is a witch.” As he continues his heartfelt story, the interviewer types away ruthlessly and sends for someone through the intercom. He continues, “I changed my birthday so that they will not find me. Help me ma, I am only safe in America.” When two security officials approach, she hands him his documents and announces, “I am sorry Sir. You have been permanently banned from entering the United States.”
I bet I missed someone that you’ve encountered at the Embassy. Share your experiences with ‘people at the embassy’ by leaving a comment below.