Before telling the story of the bad debacle with the UK border control, here is a photo of a rainbow I saw today while driving. This is definitely not a wannabe rainbow, but a full-blown-pot-of-gold-leprechaun-type-rainbow:
Alright, and on to the bad news…
At 8:57 am Monday morning (3:47am EST), I stood in a long line at border control.
“What are you doing in Belfast?”
“I am a traveling student.”
“Where are you studying in Belfast?”
“I have contacts at Queens but I’m not an official student there. I’m doing independent research.”
“Well then you are not a student. Do you have paperwork?”
I scrambled to pull out my folder with all my contact info. On top were papers from Habitat for Humanity, “Here is email from Habitat for Humanity… I’m going to volunteer there a few days per week as part of my research.”
She examines the papers with a scowl and then with a condescending flavor says, “So you’re actually a volunteer worker.”
“I guess so? I’m really just a student. I’m only volunteering part-time.”
“You need a visa to be a volunteer worker.” She loudly stamps a few papers with ink. “Sit down in the corner. I will have to ask you a few more questions.”
She hands me a paper stating that I am liable to be detained. I wait in the corner for about half an hour with three other people including an autistic woman who is confused and angry, a younger girl unclear about whether she studied in public or private school, and a boy cursing about everything because he just came over to work for his uncle.
She calls us each up again. Eventually I am the only one left. I sit for another two hours. Finally she called me into a back room. “You have been denied entrance to the U.K. because you are a volunteer worker, which means you need a Visa. It is clearly stated on our website.”
I had poured over their website for hours and had never read that! The websites just said over and over again that US citizens are allowed in the UK for up to 6 months without a visa… and somewhere I read that it included volunteers! (Later I found out that they changed the law in late April and my Habitat contact did not let me know because she had been on holiday) I felt my eyes well with tears. She fingerprinted me so thoroughly that it took about 15 minutes. Then photographed me sobbing. Then sent me away with my bags on a 24-hour temporary allowance until a flight home the next morning.
After a few frantic phone calls, I checked into the hotel next to the airport. Then my cell phone rang. It was my Great Aunt Renee. She insisted that she pick me up from the hotel and bring me to her house. She had even called the airport and convinced the Chief Immigration Officer to allow me to stay in Northern Ireland until Friday on a “Compassion Allowance.” Within an hour, I found myself driving through the Irish countryside with two women who were at least over seventy… and the entire way, they were arguing over the directions and laughing, or as they would put it: “fighting the peace out of each other.”
8 cups of tea, one bowl of porridge and 3 homecooked meals later, I was being hugged by multiple Irish students in my Great Uncle’s meditation and healing class. Who knows which country I will be in next week, but one thing is for sure: Excluding the one woman at border control, I have never felt such warmth and comfort from strangers in my life. To me, this seems unique to Ireland.
So what this experience attempting to teach me? New views of inclusion and exclusion? The dichotomy between the Irish people and the British border control? How bureaucracy’s growth can demolish common sense? Watch out for the fugitive charity-worker… Or perhaps, this represents how many people often feel trying to enter the US even just to visit? Despite a few traumatic moments this past week, I feel very blessed. Now the question is: how can I return to Ireland ASAP?