A cat had kittens in our building about a month ago. We were alerted to this by our neighbor. The cat is fiercely protective, constantly foraging for food and growling lest one of us gets too close to her precious offspring. There are three kittens – two jet black and one with some orange stripes in the black mix. They are as cute as you can imagine. They have begun to roam the hallways and scratch at our door. We sneak food to them when their mom isn’t looking- small bits of chicken, bread crumbs soaked in milk. They are resilient, they are cute, and they are fun – Kurdish all the way.
I find myself feeling a fierce protection toward this mother cat and her kittens. I want them to survive, I want them to thrive. It’s symbolic of a story I want to share with you. It’s a long story of disappointment and frustration and falling down and trying again. It’s a small story of what it takes for Kurdish students to succeed and the barriers that stand in their way. It is my story and it is their story, and I am so privileged to tell it.
It was in early June that I first found out about a group of Kurdish nursing students who had submitted a research paper to a conference in South Africa. The paper had been accepted and they were invited to attend the conference. After speaking with others at the University of Raparin, I set up a fundraiser.
I naively thought that this was just about fundraising. We would get the money, the students would go and have an opportunity to speak with other students and faculty from around the world. They would come back encouraged and share what they had learned. In my head it was all so easy. In my head I was also probably a bit of the story’s hero. I saw a need, I did something. Small in the big scheme, but big in the lives of three students and a faculty member.
That was almost seven months ago and my naiveté has been trampled under the boots of bureaucracy, my role as a hero has evaporated, and my eyes have been opened to some important truths. I want to write about it, because it has taught me so much. As I write, I hope I can help give you a glimpse of what it has been like to fight, fail, and fight again.
About the students….
The students are delightful. They are new graduate nurses having graduated in October at a ceremony held at a large stadium here in Rania. Their names are Sima, Didar, and Sarhang – two young women and a young man. The women are beautiful, and smart. Sarhang is a handsome and engaging young man.It can be difficult to find jobs here in Rania as nurses so they all work at pharmacies, a common occupation for nursing graduates. They are joined by Bewar who is an amazing staff member at the University of Raparin. Bewar is beautiful, fluent in English, and a tireless advocate for anyone who has a need. Bewar has helped me through many things these past few months as I learn to navigate life in Rania and in Kurdistan.
About the process….
There are only 21 countries where Iraqis can travel without visas, among them Malaysia, Ecuador, and Haiti. All other countries require visas. Although Kurdistan is an autonomous region in Iraq, they are considered as from Iraq on the world stage and by other governments. All laws and policies that apply to Iraqis apply to Kurds. If you have ever had to apply for a visa, you know that even in seemingly easy situations, it is not easy. You need pictures, you need to fill out the application with exact information, you need to have documents and letters and reasons for why you need the visa, and you need buckets full of patience. Kurds need even more patience.
South Africa and disappointments…
The first disappointment was South Africa. By the time the students had the required university and family permissions, they could not get the visa. The conference came and went, even though the paper and presentation had been accepted and the registration fees paid. I met with all of them and with Bewar. Could we submit the abstract somewhere else? Was there another conference that they could go to? We worked together and developed an abstract that we submitted to a nursing conference in Lisbon, Portugal. At the same time, we began the process of getting visas for the students to travel to Portugal. It was a long, tedious process. Finally all the documents were in order and they traveled to Erbil. Because Portugal does not have a consulate in Kurdistan, the Dubai Consulate in Erbil handles all the requests for Kurdistan and the applications are sent to the Portuguese Embassy in the United Arab Emirates.
Portugal and disappointments…
First we heard from the conference – the abstract was accepted and they were invited to do a poster presentation at the conference in early December. The conference wrote a letter on behalf of the students letting the Portuguese Embassy know that the students were presenting a poster. We waited anxiously to hear from the Embassy. We finally received a call that the passports had been sent back to Erbil but we did not know whether the visas had been granted. Late afternoon in early November I received a call from Bewar. The visas were refused.
I was so angry and I was so sad. I couldn’t believe a country would reject visas for students who were going for an academic conference. Bewar and I spoke later that evening. “Let’s appeal!” we said. We have nothing to lose. So I wrote a letter. I wrote a letter and I began calling the Portuguese Embassy in U.A.E. Each time I spoke with Habib. First they wanted more information from the University of Raparin. Then they wanted more information about finances. Then they wanted a bank statement. The requests seemed endless. Finally, after ten phone calls and multiple emails I convinced them to send in the appeal.
At this point I was no longer in Kurdistan. I was in the United States to be with my daughter for the birth of our grandson. Each day I checked email. I called U.A.E some more and spoke with Habib. Had he heard anything? Would he let us know as soon as he heard? No, he hadn’t. Yes, he would.
On November 28 at 5:40 in the morning I couldn’t sleep. I had terrible jet lag and was tossing and turning when I decided to check my work email. I had to read the message three times before I believed it:
The Embassy has the pleasure to inform you that the VISA for the 4 students are approved.
The Embassy needs the original passports to stamp the VISA.
Embaixada de Portugal em Abu Dhabi
The appeal worked! The visas were granted! Glory to God! I could hardly contain myself. At this point, the work day in Kurdistan was over. I texted my husband and emailed Bewar and the Director of International Relations at University of Raparin.
“The visas are granted! You need to get the passports to the embassy in UAE immediately! The conference is on December 3rd. We have only a couple of days.”
We were frantic in our emailing back and forth. Could this actually be happening? Could they actually get to go?
I had to let it go. It was now in the hands of my husband and University of Raparin staff. I would eagerly check my email whenever possible, but at this point the Portuguese Embassy and the University were both closed. I slept fitfully, and woke up to the news that Cliff and Araz had both been calling the Portuguese Embassy repeatedly only to find that the Portuguese Embassy would be closed because of a UAE holiday until December 3rd. The conference began on December 3rd and would be over by December 4th. There was no way we could get the passports to UAE, visas stamped, sent back to Erbil and have them attend.
I felt physically sick to my stomach. So many people working on this and thwarted because of a holiday? It felt so wrong, but I realized this is what Kurds go through all the time. This is only one example of hundreds of disappointments that the Kurds have felt for many, many years. I was so angry and hurt. How could this be?
Bewar and I communicated by email a day later. We would send the passports anyway and get the visas stamped in. We would look for another way for the students to go to Portugal and share their research.
It was unbelievably complicated. We couldn’t even get DHL to pick up the visas in UAE. I will spare you the nightmare, but finally the passports arrived, the visas stamped in them. The visa expiration date was on January 3rd. That was a few days ago. At this point over $2000 had been spent on visas, travel, registration, and translation to get to events that the students didn’t get to attend with no refunds given. It was a dark, dark comedy.
When do you give up and say “this is not meant to be.” I was at that point. All the work, all the minute details, all the ups and downs and disappointments – it all felt like way too much. We needed to just give up.
Bewar and I talked. I would try one more thing. If a group in Portugal was willing to sponsor and meet with them, then maybe this could still happen. But there was also the matter of money. We only had a bit over $3000 to cover airfare to Portugal and hotels while there. There was no way we could do this. The students don’t have money, and we had no more money in the fund.
And then we received a lovely message from a group in Portugal. They would love to meet with the students. They would love to hear about their research. They would love to share ideas. We began working on the necessary documents from the university and I began searching for tickets.
It all feels like a miracle but we were able to find affordable tickets and a basic hotel where they will be able to stay. All the necessary documents are obtained and tickets are booked. It all feels a bit anticlimactic because I’m so, so tired. But the reality is that this is a miracle. From acceptance to funding to denials to appeals to the granting of visas to the flexibility of the students to the advocacy of Bewar to the invitation from the Platform fo Women’s Rights to the unbelievable price of tickets to the cheap bed and breakfast in Lisbon to the upcoming trip – it’s all a miracle. Life in Kurdistan is hard. I can attest to this at the core level because of the last few months. From lack of infrastructure to lack of basic amenities to lack of university funds – it is all hard. This difficulty is met with resilience that is recognized worldwide, with hospitality to strangers, and with incredible laughter and joy in living. So this miracle is not just about these students – it’s about the University of Raparin and Kurdistan.
The University of Raparin is home to some of the brightest best students we have ever met. Rania is home to some of the brightest and best people we have ever had the privilege to meet. The opportunities are so few and it gets so discouraging that people stop trying. This situation is a witness to not stop trying, to continue fighting and advocating, to not give up….and to expect miracles.
Learning and more learning…..
What have I learned? I have learned about barriers beyond my (or the students) control. I have learned more than I thought possible about perseverance and about wanting something so desperately for someone and something completely unrelated to my well-being. I have learned about visas and appeals and belonging to a country that is not welcome in most countries of the world. I have learned about my own privilege and my own sense of entitlement, I have learned that I am not the hero in any story – nor do I want to be. I have learned about advocacy and trying and failing and appealing and succeeding, and trying again and failing. I have walked only a few steps in the shoes of a group of people who face this at every, single level. Whether it’s through Baghdad, the United States, or the Portuguese Embassy, there are forces that are so far above and beyond our control.
I’ve learned about trying and trying again and I have learned about miracles.
As I write this, I hear the kittens running through our outside hallway. They are oblivious to miracles, to Christmas, and to how much they represent survival and joy. But they are there and they remind me that in a few days, I will celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation, the miracle that is Christmas.
Merry Christmas and may miracles abound in your life.
If you would like to donate to other projects at University of Raparin College of Nursing, here is the link – and thank you!