Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Week 2-4 Let the Good Time Roll!

Okay so I have been really bad at updating my blog. Things are just kind of hectic and crazy all the time plus I am not use to updating it all the time. I am going to try my best to recall from memory the happenings of the various weeks.

So during Week 2, the executive director of VOICE Ms. Lisa T.D. Nguyen was in town. With the complete turnover of the expat staff there was a lot of room to grow and mold the office. The office had a meeting and we kind of set guidelines for our respective roles. I am sort of the intermediary between the local staff (Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines) and the office managers (Thi and Jared). I get to manage the process of getting everybody out of the country from the point that they receive their Red Cross letter all the way up until they enter the security checkpoint of the immigration.

This may be a little dry but I am going to outline the entire process so you can kind of see what I do.

First step-International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Once their application for resettlement to Canada is approved the Canadian Embassy will issue a letter asking the International Committee of the Red Cross to assist in the resettlement process by issuing a Red Cross Travel Document. Whereas, almost everybody when they travel carry passports, our clients are unable to obtain passports because they are stateless –they have no nationality, no legal papers or rights.
We work with a fabulous gentleman name Bayani who makes the process as quick and seamless as possible. Usually, we have to call ahead for an appointment the next or following day. Then we take our clients to ICRC to fill out application forms and return a couple of days later in order to pick-up their travel documents.

Step 2- Visa from the Canadian Embassy
Take the Travel Document + Flight Reservation to the Canadian Embassy at 7:30AM. Yes that is right line up at 7:30AM. For those who are forgetful… the time I normally wake up in the states was never before 11AM =P Now I regularly wake up around 8:30AM to be ready for work at 9AM. Okay so back to step 2. I wait in line to turn in the document until about hmmm 10:30AM. Then I go home and return again around 4PM to pick-up the documents by 5:30PM. Yeah this is a long one but at least we get our visa in a day! =)

Step 3-Endorsement from Department of Justice
This step is actually relatively easy as well. We take our clients to the DOJ in the morning and turn in a request for an endorsement letter from the DOJ. The endorsement letter basically says that they are who they say they are and they do not have a criminal record aka good people and should be approved to leave the country. Our clients briefly introduce themselves to the very nice Attorney Fondevilla and explain any special circumstances they have in regards to their names being similar to another Vietnamese people who may have visited the Philippines. Then an office staff member returns another day to DOJ and then travels with a DOJ liaison to the Bureau of Immigration.

Step 4-Bureau of Immigration (BOI)
So the DOJ liaison and VOICE staff member have to deliver the endorsed letters from the DOJ to the Board of Special Inquiries. The Board of Special Inquiries will then draft an endorsement letter to the Commission of Immigration in support of our clients being granted an exit clearance (permission to leave the country).
After the BOI endorsement letter is prepared and signed by the commissioner we take our clients to the BOI in order to fill out the Exit Clearance applications, paperwork, get fingerprinted. This is usually a whole day process as well from about 9AM to 5PM. Once that is completed and we have paid all the necessary fees we go home and return another day to pickup the exit clearance.

Step 5- Airport
Three days before our clients are to leave we have to request permission to accompany them into the airport. This is because some of them do not speak English nor Filipino very well.
We then accompany them to the airport and translate and explain to the security guards why they don’t have passports and are instead using travel documents. We also talk with the airlines. However, we get stopped right after the airline counter and are unable to translate for them once they reach immigration. Hopefully all goes well with immigration and they board their plane and are on their way to freedom and a new more promising life.

So that was the long version of everything. Inserted various places are celebration parties, our clients being overcome with tear of joy, our staff being overcome with tears of joy and smiles all around.

We just had our first three families leave this past Thursday and Friday and it was a very powerful experience. One of our greatest staff assets Niem Le and his mom were the first to leave on Thursday, March 6. He is a very bright and hardworking individual whose natural talent has only been held back thus far by his inability to obtain an educational degree and his inability to work legally. He was instrumental in helping the next office staff get up to speed on essential information and processes. As a stateless person, his potential for growth and happiness was greatly hampered. As a new Canadian resident, the possibilities for him are limitless. He is gearing up for his Toeffl and SATs and I’m sure he’ll rock them.

The other two families Co Lien and Chu Tin and then Co Bai and Chu Be are extremely warm individuals. Chu Tin has assisted the office as a representative of the stateless Vietnamese for quite some time now. As our first clients to go through this process, they were very understanding of the learning curve we were facing. They remained positive throughout the entire process and I really don’t know how to describe it. I could identify with them all because they make the staff feel at ease, at home, like we were family.

I didn’t cry when they leave but I’ll be honest, I almost did. I could see how overjoyed they were that their dream of leaving was finally turning into reality. Each step seemed so surreal. It wasn’t we were in the airport about to part ways did it finally set in.

Haha the airport itself was a fun fun and very interesting time. It involved us trying to simultaneously fill out immigration forms and move forward in the line, the luggage being about 3-5kg per box over, us unpacking and repacking and then boxing stuff to take back, unsuccessfully begging the security guard to let me accompany them through immigration so I could translate, explaining to the airline representative (who was talking to somebody over the radio) what a travel document was, why our clients were stateless and a myriad of other things. But in the end they made it on the flight with minute to spare!

Okay that is my update for now. That is kind of a summary of everything of merit that I have been doing the past couple of weeks. Now it starts again with another batch. Let the good times roll!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Week 1

So I am going to try to update this blog on a weekly basis. We will see how this goes.

Monday, Feb 11
I arrived in the Philippines right before midnight. I was thoroughly confused as to where and what I should do in order to meet up with whoever was going to meet me. I had tried e-mailing my office manager before I left the US in order to see what was going to happen but I didn't get a response back so I figured just go with the flow. Once we arrived, immigration was a breeze took about 5 minutes. The only problem was that I couldn't understand a thing the immigration office was saying... the real pain came when everybody and their mother was pushing and crowding around the luggage belt. After 40 minutes, I finally lugged my 70 lb box of food + my 70 lb suitcase with more food and some clothes. It was kind of crazy but I had arrived.

Thi, the office manger, Co Hue ,the office cook, and Niem, a local staff volunteer, met me at the "waiting area." Basically, they have a couple of signs for grouped letters of the alphabet and people line up under their respective sign. Then across the street the people picking them up are suppose to spot them and wave. However, things were easier for me because Thi snuck across =P

Then we got into a shady taxi that wouldn't go all the way to our city so we kept asking him to pull over and let us out but he ended up dropping us by a gas station with more taxis. So things worked out from there.

The office is basically a mini house. We have a little front entrance where we do our laundry and stuff. Then you enter the door and there is a living room type area that serves as our office. Then a door connecting to a small kitchen/dining room in the back of the house. Then in the middle of the living room is a staircase that leads up to 4 bedrooms. One small bedroom is for Chu Thai, our most senior local staff volunteer. Then there is a larger room where I share a room with 4 other boys. Then there is another room that had the majority of the expats. Then the last room is for Co Hue and her family. It is really cozy.

K more update for week 1 later. =)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Time is Now

I am not the most spontaneous person in the world. However, I have been recently given an opportunity that I could not pass up. Right now I am typing this from Manila, Philippines.

I boarded a plane yesterday at 11AM in LAX. It was a difficult goodbye because I feel so guilty for leaving my mom and my dad at home by themselves for 6 months. But I think what really hit me hard was that on Saturday my dad's side came over to my house and I could see my grandma's eyes water. It was really heart wrenching because I know as time goes on I will have less and less time to spend with my older family members. I don't know if it was the Johnny Walker or the myriad of Chinese films but periodically throughout the flight from LAX to Hong Kong I would be overwhelmed with sadness when I realized I would be gone for so long. Then I thought of how little 6 months is compared to refugees who left their homes not knowing how much time would pass before they would see their loved ones again... some have been separated for decades and I realized the luxuries that I have been afforded in life. I am going to try to call home once every couple of days.