Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What Just Hit Me?

My dream of living in the Czech Republic came true. It just didn't last.

As of Friday, I will no longer have legal status to remain in the Czech Republic. I must leave immediately or risk a large fine and a ban on being inside one of the fifteen Schengen countries for the next five years.

I have no idea why this happened. When I signed up to teach in the Czech Republic, one of the reasons I chose the school I did was because they advertised "full visa support" to everyone. Wonderful. Moving to a foreign country is overwhelming enough. Having a knowledgeable local handle all of the paperwork in a way that is in accordance with all laws gave the whole school a value-added appeal. I relied on that.

I arrived on November 6th. I took a TEFL course and was offered a contract in December. My school applied for my visa in Berlin at the Czech Embassy on January 21st, almost three months later.

Did that leave the government enough time to process the visa? I don't know what is enough time. Is there a visa department benchmark statistic somewhere that shows how one country gets it done in two months but another country takes longer and isn't getting it done fast enough? I have no idea what is a reasonable length of time and have no way to judge. Wait, yes I do. I have to leave the country so I guess it's not fast enough!

I started to get some inkling of how serious the situation was thanks to a fantastic article in the Prague Post. I have appreciated the journalists at the New York Times for years because of how they affect the life of my nation, but this woman and this paper published an article that directly affected my life! I can't thank them enough. Being a new expat, and having relied on my employers to secure my required paperwork, this article helped me understand the danger I was in of losing the life I had built here:

Since I have no idea if my visa will be approved or denied, I could leave the country and fly back to the States and find out as quickly as one day later (if that's when an approval comes through) that the job, friends, apartment, neighborhood, and church I had to give up was a big "oops, you can come back in now."

The government sent registered letters to the Americans in my TEFL class to come to immigration (what the Czechs call the foreign police). We each spent an entire day there. I kept thinking surely Czech taxpayers have something better to spend their money on then harassing Americans who are here to help Czech people improve their English so that Czech people can compete more effectively for multinational jobs? Yet this seems like some city-wide or country-wide initiative trying to make some sort of political point.

The day started out very scary. All of these men had muscles the size of a Zizkov bouncer and the jail cells were right behind the door. One of my fellow teachers, who regarded this as one big lark to tell the grandchildren about one day pointed out, "look there's an American in there already!" Thanks. Not helpful.

There wasn't enough staff to process us quickly. It took from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. to get out of there. The foreign police made us sign documents in Czech I didn't understand or we couldn't leave. I know my father was rolling over in his grave because he always said "read everything thoroughly before you sign it." Sorry Dad. I couldn't read it.

The foreign police told us we were lucky the deportation prison was full otherwise we would have to go straight to the prison. Given this was the Thursday before Obama's visit, if we had gone there, do you think the American Embassy could have spared a staff member to come get us? No.

Even with the prison remark (which I couldn't tell if it was a joke since this was translated secondhand), the men in this office treated us with professionalism and kindness. They were nice. This seemed such a poor use of their time and taxpayer's money! They gave us a one-month extension to our tourist visas which I thought was to give the government more time to finish the paperwork.

So one month later, there is still no visa. I must leave. I have done all of the wailing, raging, and asking for help a person can do.

I asked all of my expat friends if they could help. I have asked Czech friends for help. One of our teachers went to the American Embassy and asked for help (they said, "sorry, we can't help that these schools lure Americans here with false promises. There is no answer.")

But I'm not sure the blame is so clear-cut on my school. The minute the way they were doing things proved not to be effective, they changed their procedures. They loophole they were using to apply for our visas in Berlin is the same one used by the American government when they apply for visas for their employees at Radio Free Europe.

My school, which is a different one than the one mentioned in the article, is not making us whole but at least they are paying for the ticket home. I spent about $5000 to come here having rented my house, sold my car, and all of my possessions. They know we have a right to be angry and have said as much.

Czechs ask me, "couldn't you just stay here and work illegally?" I can't do that. If a person works illegally, they are not free. Lately, I've been reading about a Czech patriot named Michael Kocab. He said, "a nation that does not value it's freedom, does not value itself." Well, doesn't that also apply to us as individuals as well? I need freedom.

The hardest part was trying to say goodbye to my English students when it all came down to "there is no answer." I was devastated and they couldn't understand my too-fast, emotional English! But each and everyone of them taught me something and I will value the time I had with them for the rest of my life. I will value the time I had in this beautiful, amazing country for the rest of my life. I only wish the dream could have lasted.

I want to give the last word to the journalists and paper who helped me understand that this was a bigger story than just me and my little TEFL class. Here's their editorial about the situation, aptly titled "The Dream is Over."


Michael Carøe Andersen said...

What, what? I dont get this... You are on your way out, there is nothing else to try? I have a friend from Latin America who is in the process of getting a Zivnostensky Lists (Czech trade licenses). I don't know if that would be relevant for you.

This is so sad

annuca said...

I never met you but read your blog and heard about you. I was looking forward to possibly meeting you when I come to prague...Hope this will be for the best for you

Sher said...

Hi Karen,
You have done a great post here...I know how hard it was for you to write. I sure hope we have a chance to get together again before you have to leave. And I hope that you and I stay in touch...we have been through a lot together this past, in the virtual realm, and then in the real world in Prague!

I'm going to miss you...and hope that somehow you'll find out you can come back.

All the best with your new move and future,
Sher :0)

MiGrant said...

Wow! That's such a shame. Dealing with the Cizinecká Policie was probably my least-favorite part of living in the Czech Rep., but at least I never actually got kicked out. I suppose it's not much consolation knowing our own visa policies and procedures are no better. :-/ If you had a little more time you could probably work something out, but at such short notice....

Well, whether you somehow make it back to Prague or find some other dream to chase, I know you'll go on enriching the lives of the people you touch both in person and through your writing.

Karen said...

Thank you so much my dear friends for the support, not just today, but this whole entire year!!! I don't know yet if this is the end of my Prague story, but I sure have the most wonderful people encouraging me and hoping for the best. Michael, I will take a look at that link and Ann, please know I was looking forward to meeting you too!

Karen said...

Michael G., your business looks very interesting. I appreciate your kind words. I do take pride that I enriched my student's lives and did my part to help the Czech Republic continue it's transition, however short it may have been!

Anonymous said...

Karen, First off, I'm really sorry that this happened to you. It sucks and it's wrong...wrong in several ways. It makes me angry and I can definitely say „there but for the grace of good timing and a crappy marriage go I“. I understand your frustration and I feel for you. I mean all this earnestly and honestly, so don't think any of the rest of what I write is schadenfreude or trying to minimize your problems.

There are just a few things I feel like pointing out when I read what's happened to you (and many others).

First off, the Czech system is full of red tape, the beaurocrats are NOT helpful at all, and it's usually impossible to get a correct answer even from the authorities the first or even second time. Even schools that WANT to do it correctly will lose teachers to this new crack-down, and then there are lots of schools who have always operated “under the table” with their non-EU teachers. I guess they'll be hiring ONLY EU citizens from now on. Even when you get legal, they randomly throw up obstacles now and then (change the format of the long-term-residency Ids but don't tell people who have them, so a couple years later they're stopped at the border and fined for having out-of-date ID, for example). Each year the system gets worse and worse.

That being said, it brings me to the second point, and that's that this treatment is NOT unique to the Czech Republic. Your comments about the Czech government wasting time and money harrassing people who are here to help their country are right on. But the same thing happens in the US all the time. (I'll say again here, my point in saying this is not to tell you, Karen, “Suck it up,'s about time you got what you dish out,” as someone always responds to this type of post.) There are entire industries in parts of the US that are kept afloat by illegal workers, and they can be picked up, treated like criminals, and then deported at any time. And the ones who try to become legal have to jump through all kinds of hoops, or can find themselves trying to do everything right but screwed by a third party. It's a shitty situation for everyone. It's important not to judge or be bitter toward the people (and it seems like you aren't, so again, this isn't a slap at you, Karen), because the average Czech has nothing to do with this system (and probably doesn't even know about it) Americans probably never give much thought to the people in similar situations in the US.

As for your specific situation, Karen, I'm afraid there's not any choice for you now. Even if you fly home and then are contacted with the “oops, it was all a mistake, you can come back” scenario you mentioned, it's not a sure thing, because when you “get” your visa, you still have to GO to the Foreign Police to pick it up, and there's a good chance you'd go there and they'd look in your passport and say “wait, you've been here too long, your visa is voided and you have 24 hours to get out of the country!” Seriously. And a Zivnostensky List won't help you, because you ahve to have a visa (a different kind, I think) to get one of those.
If you really want to come back, you'll probably need to go through the 100% by-the-book procedure (if you can find it anywhere!) and do all the applying from abroad BEFORE you come. Or do the same process for a country that seems to have its act more together...that's what I'd do if I didn't already have long-term stay rights. I'm very sorry that this has happened to you, not that that helps.

On a vaguely related note, there's a very good film called The Visitor, which shows shows just one small aspect of how unfair and unfortunate the US Immigration situation is.

Karen said...

Dear Anonymous, thank you for pointing out that my own country's immigration process doesn't measure up to the standards I found here in the Czech Republic. I lamented losing a day to the foreign police. I know immigrants in America who have gone day after day to what they hope is the right office. I assumed my own country's red tape is so well known and cumbersome to immigrants that I didn't even mention it. I should have. That said, this experience HAS made me think about what it must be like for people trying to come into my country and it HAS made me grow in compassion. I don't think I will ever look at immigration and illegal immigration again in quite the same way. I now suppose that illegal immigrants are usually people who would love to follow the law if the law was aligned to help them.

*lynne* said...

A little late, I am reading this post - my heart goes out to you. TO be at the mercy of the government -- any government! -- is not pleasant. I am struck speechless by your situation, though - to just have to up and leave everything in a few days?! Difficult.

I hope it all works out in the end - maybe the paperwork will come through and you can head back -- if you want to, by then.

In the meantime - look at this as an unexpected new chapter in your life :)

Take care!!

Roz Andrews said...

I'm so sorry to hear about what happened. It must have been devastating to have to pack up everything and leave so quickly, especially after you had invested so much in your new life.

I feared that something like this might happen to us soon after we arrived in Australia, as our visa was delayed for reasons beyond our control. Fortunately, we were finally allowed to stay until our visa was granted.

I hope that things work out for you. It would be wonderful if you are allowed to go back to Prague, but, if not, I'm sure that you'll have many more adventures somewhere else.

Take care and stay positive!

Best wishes,


William said...

Ihad been living in the czech Rep. for 16 years i came in 93 and had to return to the USA, all because when i went to the us embassy, they refused to issue me a new passport which i had done in prague 2 times over the last 16 years with no problem, but this time they said i owed child support for alot of money, so i stayed in cz. rep with a cancled passport tring to get help fix this
i knew i had no children in the US, but after some time i was controled by the police, so i could get a temp. passport from the embassy to come back to the US, i have been in the US for a year, homeless and jobless, in prague i had a trade license s.r.o. and a business but the embassy would not give me a new passport, well when i came back i when to the state child support office just to find out 4 women were using my ssn.# to colect money for several years, they did'ent even have my name to get money, so the state cleared me and said sorry it was i.d. theft told me i'm free to go and i got my new 10 year passport, and now i stuck in the US tring to get back to the cz. Rep. and now i don't know if they will let me back in the country, i have a czech lawyer in chicago that i will see to help me
i'll see if i can come back next week, but i don't know,

Karen said...

Michael, what a horror story you have! I'm so sorry you went through all that. It's sad it took going home to get that taken care of - it seems like the U.S. authorities should have been able to take care of that with a phone call. I hope your situation rights itself.

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