A journey to the US – My experience (1)

Rafat Salami

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The 7 IVLP participants. The author, Rafat Salami is third from right.

We were at the customs and immigration in Dulles International Airport, Washington DC, where I was tempted to scream out loud: ‘I am in the US!

I had planned on screaming as loud as my vocals could accommodate but I restrained myself because, no one would understand why I was super excited.

Thankfully, I did not, because if I had, it would have been premature. The trip to the US was not as eventful as the activities in the US.

Will I get selected?”  I was quite apprehensive, repeating this question over and over, after my nominationhad been approved by the Nigeria Union of Journalists, and following the subsequent meeting with Russel Brooks at the US embassy, to discuss the details of the programme.

He had told us what the requirements were, and how we needed to do due diligence to reflect on the things that matter to Nigeria – ethnicity and religion inclusiveness, and the things that matter to the US government – gender and equal opportunities.

He told us then that they would have the final say in the selection, to ensure that only those who were qualified to be on the trip, were selected.

While the selection process itself was going on at the embassy, the anticipation was intense among journalists in Abuja.

Within the ranks of the officials of the Union, there was palpable unease and at some point, outright hostility.

Many journalists questioned the criteria for selecting the 7 journalists and why they were not included among the shortlisted persons.

Within the union, the crisis in selecting seven from over two thousand qualified, cerebral and intelligent journalists was a huge task, and the consequence of that selection is still with us.

For me, the turmoil was both external and internal. Within my head, I created several scenarios.

Scenario one, would be that I was selected; everything goes smoothly and I am in the US.

Scenario 2: I am selected but denied a visa. I reckoned that if I was denied a visa at my first attempt, it would mean that I would never be able to get an American visa – or it would be more difficult the second time, if what I have heard people say is correct.

Scenario 3: I get a visa and then I am unable to fly as it happened, when I got a South African visa.

And scenario 4: I don’t even make the list at all. Somehow, scenario 4 became the most acceptable, to be escapist, and returning to a comfort zone where one expects anything. No heartaches, no hassles and I am fine.

Selection

When the chairman of our Union Paul Ella called me, to tell me I made the list, I sounded calm, ‘Oh, thanks, that ‘s nice.’ But honestly, I was struggling to contain myself.

I locked myself in my room and screamed for joy. I danced to Korede Bello’s “Godwin”. What more could I have done?

I finally made the list of those who would be going to the United States of America on the ‘IVLP-on- demand’ programme, initiated for the FCT Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists by the chairman Paul Ella Abechi.

I grew 15 inches taller – at least in my mind. The IVLP! The alumni of this programme in Abuja are wonderful and extraordinary people doing remarkable things. I really do not know when they became extraordinary – before or after the IVLP.

Thankfully, my selection meant I would be associated with them even if I do not end up being an extraordinary person.  I marveled at what I would become once I returned from the programme.

It was just too good to be true that I would soon join the elite group of outstanding personalities. But then I had to return my head from the cloud. I had just scaled one hurdle. There were many more to be scaled.

People have told stories of how they were denied visas though they had genuine reasons to be in the US. Some have told stories of being invited to deliver lectures, to be part of programmes or even vacation but were refused visas. I have heard of people going to churches and mosques to pray and fast before going for a visa interview, for an American visa.

Some have even alleged that the officers in the Embassy could just unexpectedly dislike ones’ face and so deny the person a visa. So where was I going to start from? I started by searching for those who had been given visas and they told me there was nothing to worry about.

They advised me to get my papers and all relevant documents together. That was not all.

The other advisers had different things to say. ‘Do not tell them you have anyone in the US. If you do they will deny you visa’, a few told me. I responded that I actually have people in the US and I would have to see them before returning. ‘No!!!, it will not work. Just tell them you don’t have anyone then when you get there you find your way’, they told me.

Dilemma

Then the search for a travel ticket and visa appointment began. I really cannot remember which was more stressful, but they were both intense and many times I gave up.

Which should come first, the visa or the tickets? We needed sponsors for the trip since we demanded a special IVLP event, so we were going to pay for our tickets and we had assured the US Embassy here in Nigeria that, it would not be a problem for us.

It turned out it was a huge problem as institutions that had agreed to sponsor the purchase of the tickets were not forthcoming. It was a big dilemma, especially with constant reminders from Mr. Suwa Bartholomew at the US Embassy that we were due to submit our tickets and reminded us that our date of arrival was June 3.

The tickets were eventually purchased and now we had to go for visa interview. I was more than anxious.

Then I had advisers. Some said I should not even let the embassy know I had anyone in the US. According to them, it would stall my chances.

That was perhaps the most preposterous of the all the tips I got. How could I possibly deny the existence of my family in US when I am constantly in touch with them?

I spoke with my family and they told me there was no reason why I would be denied a visa. They assured me that the US would only deny you a visa only if you were contradictory.

Coincidentally, the question during the visa interview was whether I had relatives in the US and if I had plans of seeing them during our programme. Of course, I told the cheerful lady that I have relatives in the US as I already filled that in the form, and I intended to see them, though not during the programme but afterwards.

A few more questions and the lady said ‘Congratulations…’ That was all I heard. I almost broke into another dance.

I looked over at my other colleagues and there was Victorson Agbenson with a visa officer.

He was now standing at an empty cubicle following the disappearance of the visa officer after Victorson told him, he had been to Somalia in response to being asked to name the countries he had once travelled to.

The visa officer took nearly 30 minutes during which we joked about Victorson being on the wanted list. It was perhaps the only tense moment during the visa interviews.

The officer apparently went to do a search on Victorson’s name. It came out well and all 7 of us would be given visas.

America, here I come!

Concerns

The news went round: ‘Rafat is going to America!’. To some people it was ‘Breaking news’, announced with a lot of funfair. Then the calls started pouring in. ‘Congratulations!!! Finally, you are going to America!

Those who knew why I had been home bound and not attempting to venture out much, asked who would take care of my son while I was away or if I was taking him along with me.

It was convenient to break from the ceiling I had set for myself in terms of travel hours and ease of returning in case of an emergency because my son was now very stable, largely independent and was also in diligent, safe and loving care of Catholic nuns on the Plateau.

For my other children, my friends began to ask about visiting day in school, how and where they would spend the Sallah break.

Many of them began to ask about visiting day in school, Sallah day vacation and what they would do. There were clashes on where one of my boys would spend the Sallah holiday which I had to resolve without disrespecting any of the parties.

Now, a rehearsal of some sorts began, especially the wardrobe rehearsal. A pre-departure brief from the Embassy in Nigeria indicated what the weather condition would be like when we arrive in the US on June .

It would be warm; but for us it might still be too cold, so we were advised to take warm clothing with us.

Rafat Salami (L) with colleague Victorson Agbenson

I toyed with the idea of getting a few clothes and possibly tone down my dressing which easily gave me out as a Muslim.

I was worried about the reports in the media of rising Islamophobia and assault on Muslim women wearing  the hijab.

Concerned as I was, I believed that since I would not be travelling alone and would be given protection as a guest of the US state department. I will be a Nigerian, a Muslim Nigerian woman for that matter.

I was also concerned about food. I am such a very local person that I rarely can make sense out of continental dishes. So here I am on my way out where I might not have access to my traditional meals. The dry food I took with me gave me renewed assurances.,

Also, significantly, I worried about the size of my tea cup, I don’t use small cups. My tea cup is at least half a litre! I was concerned about the impressions I would leave with my hosts when we go for home visitations, as included in our pre-departure brief.

My mum, in her majesty, had to travel down from our village to see her daughter going to America for the first time. She came with everything she thought I would need.

I had told her I wanted to take a bit of Nigeria for everyone we know in the US and she came prepared with such items. The problem was how to convey them as I had more than the allowed luggage specification.

According to airline regulations, I can only travel with 2 luggage weighing not more than 23kg each.

Now I had 4 bags which I could not easily ascertain their exact weights.

To ease my ordeal, I reached out to my co-travelers since I knew they all would be travelling light, appealing to them to assist in tagging some of the luggage in their names.

One of them agreed but 3 hours later he called me to say he changed his mind because he was advised not to help anyone take luggage across borders.

I was heartbroken. I turned to the others, but they were just not picking my call. Then I called Emeka, who agreed to tag the luggage only if he could ascertain what the contents were. I agreed.

Airport arrival

I arrived at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja at nearly 7 hours before our scheduled departure time at 23:00 hours.

At the car park, Emeka and I went through the things I wanted him to have in his luggage. I opened the bags and saw the clothes and stashed my clothes into the ones I was going to tag his name with.

Then I tagged the other ‘suspicious’ items in my name. Phew! Luggage was checked in and the wait for boarding began, 5 hours before my scheduled take off time.

It was only after I had successfully checked in that my family members who saw me to the airport decided to take their leave. They had all come along should I need to return some of the items but thankfully, everything was going with me.

Air France was scheduled to depart Nigeria on June 2nd at about 21:00 hours but the wait was agonizing.

At 10pm, there was no Air France plane on the tarmac and we are well past the scheduled time. I looked at the clock for the umpteenth time.

It was during Ramadan. Even though I had broken my fast, if I had not been at the airport, I would have been in the mosque or asleep. We strained to make the wait an exciting one, as we chatted about nearly everything.

By midnight, we got apologies from airline officials who promised that the plane would arrive ‘soon’.  Exhaustion took over us all and we began to find ways to catch some sleep. I was downcast. I had read stories of how people sleep at the airport, how flights were canceled.

I was alarmed.

I overheard two people conversing and wondering why the airline would not lodge us in hotels while we waited for the arrival of the plane. I shook my head and muttered to no one in particular, ‘No way. I am not going back home; I have come this far and I must go to America.

“If it takes them 3 days to convey me, I will be seated here waiting. I got a free visa.

“The combined team of Voice of Nigeria, STARTIMES, Mrs. Ahmadu, Mr. Muhammed and many others, contributed to the purchase of my ticket and to letting me have a few dollars in my wallet. An all-expense paid trip to America where the US State Department is waiting with open arms to receive me and one airline will make this trip impossible, no way!

I said to myself… “We Die Here!”