Our last trip out of the country was at the end of October to get student visas that would allow us to stay in the country for a full year. (Of course, things are never that simple here. They really were only for three months, but they could be extended to a year. We just finished that process this month. Or, I should say, the government just finished it for us, causing us to be “illegally” here for a day in the process of waiting.) So you would think we could at least rest for a while and focus on ministry, right? Not so in Russia.
We’re now working on temporary residence permits, an option that we didn’t think we were eligible for last year. I met with a lawyer to discuss the details in January, and it sounded great: jump through some irritating hoops, and you get to live in peace for three full years. Here is the blow by blow, which may interest some folk as an example of their red tape.
Jan. 16. Meet the lawyer, who gave me the name and number of another American whom he helped last year to talk to for details. (2 hours)
Jan. 19. (Mon.) I go to the local office of the Federal Migration Service (FMS) at his advise to see if their list of things I had to do agreed with the one he gave me. Each section of the city has one, and ours was at least close by, so no big deal. (You think I should have just called? Don’t make me laugh. That never works around here.) The waiting room was daunting: a mass of people standing around. No lines, no information desk, no signs indicating where to go. I asked someone in the gathering near one of the doors who was last in line (they don’t form lines here; people just ask who’s last, or either it’s mob, and it’s every man for himself. But here they had to answer with a question: what was I here for? I hapened to have asked at the right door, and so the guy with the same need whom I was behind identified himself. When I finally got in, I found out I was at the wrong place. I needed to go to the central office, since I need to find out if I can get in under the city’s quota (the Federal government only allots each area a certain number of people from each area of the world to come in by certain routes). (1.5 hours)
I spoke with the other American (Susan) who had a wealth of knowledge, and she suggested I go to the central MFS ASAP to get in under the quota, since it’s still early in the year, and they only do temporary residence permits on Mondays. (1 hour)
I arrived there that afternoon to find a mob style line. The reason there was no real line is that no one could find out where the keepers of the lists were. Keepers of the list are regular folk in line themselves who maintain a list that FMS uses to let people in – sometimes. I was too late for today, but I found out that my window next week was only from 2-4pm, and it would be a “live line” – meaning no list, at least so I understood it. (3 hours standing in the cold).
Susan disagreed. No, there is always a list. Go early in the morning. She sent a bunch of docs to read over and answered a bunch more questions (1 hour).
Jan. 20. Diana and I and two of the kids go to the U.S. Consulate to get fingerprinted for our FBI background check. Simple process (these are Americans; I just had to call ahead for an appointment.), but it was a long walk there. (2 hours)
Jan. 22. I take our passports to get translated and notarized. (1.5 hours).
Jan. 25. I pick up the passport translations (.5 hours)
Jan. 26. (Mon). I arrived again early at FMS and found the keeper – several Afgani guys who were taking turns sleeping in a car. I signed up on the list (#97) while we talked about Obama (thumbs up!) and their desire to immigrate to the West. They told me I’d have no chance of getting in today at 97, especially since there were people on a list from last week. Since they work 2 hours a week on this issue, he figured they’d get to about 40. “But come back about 3:00 just to see how it’s going.” (1.5 hours including transportation)
I decided not a bad idea, and when I got there, there was the familiar mob, though I didn’t understand why, since there was a line, right? Nope. I’m told they “destroyed” the list – back to a live line, meaning a mob. And boy did it get pushy. With about 30 people squeezing on a porch about 4×6, it was tight. I was on the top step, getting dripped on from the overhang for a while before managing a space for myself under “shelter.” (Someone tell me if you can imagine this scene at the US immigration office?) When people were let out, they had to push through the crowd like through so many matresses. 4:00 came, and we eventually found out that, since only a small number of us in my category of person were (lucky enough to be) there then, they decided to go ahead and let us all in. I was in shock. I didn’t have any paperwork, except passports. I was literally the last one in. Went to the desk of the officer, who asked for my passport, and said, “You can come back on March 30th.” What about my family? “Family? They are not here, so I can’t help them.” I explained, patiently, “first of all, I didn’t know anyone else needed to come. Second, my wife is at home with our three kids. Would you please have mercy, since I do have her passport here?” Praise God, she did, and wrote all our names down in the register. I was happy, but I didn’t even know what I had just been given. “Bring all the paperwork, with your wife, on that date. You are on our list now, so we will call you in by last name.” And the quota? “You are in under the quota.”
Victory! Thank you, Lord! (2 hours)
In another God moment, I got a call while in line asking me to help voice over a video in English for a Christian TV channel (TBN Russia). A rather odd request, but I decided to help and went there after FMS. While there, I found out one of them was going to the US this week so could same me time and a lot of money and take our FBI request with him.
We quickly got everything ready to go that night. (1 hour)
Jan. 27. I delivered it to the station. (1 hour of transit time)
Feb. 13th. They actually make me go to the Post Office and buy stamped envelopes. Bought them today while picking up a package.
Plus, you don’t pay the application fee at the office, you pay at a bank into their account. Got that covered today when I had to pay 1) our utility bill, 2) phone bill, and 3) Lydia’s art school tuition. (15 min.)
Feb. 16th. Usually calling some place, especially state institutions, is a waste of time, but going to the two hospitals I needed to check out for the sake of our medical tests is such an out-of-the-way trek that I had to try, and after many many attempts, I got one and found out that we have to go to one hospital for testing kids, and the other for me and Diana. It’s likely to have to kill two full days to do this. (15 min.)
Mar. 3rd. Phone calls with the lawyer and a couple of others who have gone ahead of me (30min.)
Mar. 6th. Diana and I went today to get our battery of medical testing done to prove that we are healthy enough to live in Russia. The sad part is that they won’t do the kids’ testing in the same hospital. The even sadder part is that Lydia has to get a urine sample for her part, but they won’t do that at the children’s hospital, so she has to go on both trips. I’m beyond even reacting to such stupidity by now. We arrive at 8:30am after dropping the boys off, pay and register. The process is that you go through what they call a “commission” – a series of medical personnel in different rooms testing for different things, each with it’s own line:
- room #1: the blood test (AIDS and syphilis)
- room #2: the skin test. We called it the naked test. Take off your shirt, drop your pants, and spin around, getting poked a few times. I bet she hates getting asked what she does for a living.
- room #3: the tinkle test
- room #4: to TB test. We had a brief scare here, as they called Diana back for a more serious x-ray after saying there was some question about her first. After getting visions of returning to the States to die from cancer, we found out it was just a function of the poor quality print-out of the photo.
Total time consumed, including transportation: 6 hours.
Mar. 10th. The kids tests were at a hospital that would have been bulldozed a hundred years ago in the States (if you think I exaggerate, read Lydia’s blog about our visit here). Our house helper Tanya came along since Diana was teaching online, and after going to the wrong hospital, we figure out where to go (the other hopsital had no idea, even though it was only several blocks away). Pretty much the same battery:
- blood test – they were troopers!
- naked test – the other reason for Tanya
- mental health test, consisting of the psychologist filling out the paperwork. No questions, no testing. I guess they just looked mentally stable.
- TB test, which for kids was a skin test
Total time: 4 hours
Mar. 11th. Diana went to pick up our test results (1 hour out of the way).
Mar. 13th. We can’t just go get the kids’ results. We have to drag them back again to get their skin looked at. Time: looking at skin – 1 minute; waiting for them to finish the paperwork – 2 hours. Total killed: 5 hours.
Mar. 20th. Drop off the kids’ birth certificates to be translated (30 min).
Mar. 24th. Pick them up (30 min)
Mar. 29th. Fill out application (1 hour) and compile our file (about an inch thick – another hour).
Mar. 30th. Our big day at the federal migration office. Since they require both me and Diana there, we got a babysitter for the boys (Lydia was at friends for a sleepover) and left shortly after 1pm. We had to be there between 2-4 and wait for them to call our names – a much more civilized process than the way you first get in. Got in fast, but we were there about an hour and a half as the officer painstakingly reviewed our documents and found more problems than we ever imagined. It was maddening:
- we had an official copy, but not the original of our registration cards
- we were missing our marriage certificates (though they had told me before not needed)
- we needed the kids’ birth certificates “legalized”
- Diana’s name and “Virginia” was inconsistently transliterated by the document translators
- answers on the application were incomplete (“No” is not sufficient, for example.”)
The blessing of it all was that the officer was very patient and generous in showing us exactly how to fix all the problems. As we left, I took a step of faith and committed to a date barely two weeks out (April 14) to get everything done, the main issue being obtaining what we needed from the States. (3 hours)
Diana were going to go on a date to celebrate, but we came home instead and started working on ordering our marriage certificates and the kids’ birth certificates with “apostilles” ASAP (1 hour). The good news is that the marriage certificates can be obtained in a few days. The bad news is that the birth certificates are supposed to take from 15-19 days. We need a miracle.
So far our running total hours spent is 41.
Apr. 6th. After various calls, to check on things over the last few days, I found out that God had indeed worked a small miracle: the birth certificates are done after 1 week and out to my parents (who took care of the marriage certificates).
April 7th. My parents send everything to a colleague associated with the Harbor (Alex Krutov), who has a friend at FedEx who offered to give us a break on shipping.
April 9th. For some reason they didn’t get it out until today, and, what’s worse, FexEx now says they can’t guarantee delivery until the evening of the 14th. Not only is that late for our interview, it doesn’t give me time to get everything translated in advance. Now we really need a miracle!
April 13th. After being stuck in “sorting” in Frankfurt for over two days, the package suddenly shows up in the tracking system in St. Petersburg! Rush to finalize our other paperwork, corrections, etc. (2 hours)
April 14th. I call FexEx when they open at 9, and they tell me the package is in, but they can’t get it to me until evening. I can, however, come pick it up. Victory is in sight! I rush across town from dropping the boys off at school, then back across town to the translation bureau by 10:30. They finish their work by 12:30, in time for me to get to the immigration office to meet Diana in time for our appointment at 2:00. However, more errors and errands to run, and another week inbetween appointments. The good news is that they are all small enough to manage in that time, but we had hoped for a full victory today. The other assignment is totally stupid. They want some doc from the consulate to help them not worry about Diana’s name change at marriage. (5 hours)
April 16th. I go to the hospital that did our medical testing, because they misspelled Diana’s middle name in Russian.
I run to the translation bureau to have them fix yet another of their mistakes in how they spelled Diana’s first name in Russian (but I did get to witness some to the lady who was handling it for me!).
I run to the Swiss Center, which is the organization under whom we get our student visas, to leave them my registration papers which they have to take to the immigration office in their district to correct. There was a mistake in my birthday. How could we have missed it?? I’ll tell you: the volume of papers. This is already the 4th or 5th mistake that one office has made! (6 hours)
April 17th. I go back to the Swiss Center to pick up my registration (1.5 hours)
April 19th. Diana and I go over all our papers with a fine-toothed comb to find mistakes. Fortunately, nothing that requires going anywhere else. (1 hour)
April 21. Our third appointment at immigration. We were most nervous about one doc they had demanded for Diana from the consulate about her name change. It was nothing more than a generic letter saying women in the US do what they want to when getting married and signing papers. But it worked, as did everything else. Our papers are now officially out of our hands! Now comes a 5 month wait for the final decision, then one month of getting registered. (3.5 hours)
Total time to date: 60 hours, not counting the blessings of others, like our parents, who helped out, and Clifford at FedEx who didn’t even charge for shipping. Thank you!
August 9. Having just arrived back in the country from staff conference in Hungary, our landlord called to inform us that she had decided against allowing us to register where we live. Thus began a series of panicked calls to my lawyer, her lawyer, people who have have either traveled this road ahead of us, and trips to the local immigration office to get some holes filled in our knowledge about whether this could jeopardize our applications and what to do about it all. The long and short of it is that it is not as big a deal as we had feared, and it should not be a big deal to register ourselves with anyone who is willing. (5 hours)
August 18. Pastor Igor himself today offered to register us at their house, a tremendous blessing.
September 22. Having been told when we turned in the applications on April 21st that 5 months would be the review period, and having found out from a person in line ahead of me one day that to wait for a letter was pointless, I decided to go check for myself if our applications were done. The way it works here is that you have to go really early in the morning to sign the list that someone standing outside is holding to get you in line. I arrived at the immigration office at about 7:30 in the morning. One lone guy who had nothing else to do with his time was there ready to put me down as number 14 (already that many ahead of me!). But at least I could leave until 11pm.
I arrived at about 11:30 and learned 1) that only the first person was in line, and 2) that I was in the wrong line. I needed the consultation line, instead of the document line, so I found the lady holding the consultation line and got on #5. So I left again and came back shortly after it opened at 3pm. This went a little faster, and so before 4 I had gotten to the front, but only to learn that not only were there no docs for us, but I should have had no reason to expect any before 6 months, despite the clear word from the other immigration office where we had applied. “You can try back in 2 weeks if you want, though.”
I was told to go to yet another office to find out more about the visa situation, as this news gave me cause to worry about being about to complete everything we need before our present student visas expire on Oct. 21. At the other office, I learned that I can just extend our student visas.
Called our educational center, the Swiss Center, and found out that they could just barely pull this off for us in time, as it takes 20 days for immigration to complete the application. So I quickly scrambled to complete everything they needed, nonetheless bothered by the fact that it might all be in vain (including the $100 fee) if we do still get our temporary residence approved in time. Alas! (6 hours)
October 5. Our Russian tutor called Diana this morning (while I was slumbering in bed after a two-day visit to the hospital for a disk in my back that took me totally out of commission from a conference I was attending on fatherhood) and informed her that the Swiss Center had called to inform that our temporary residence had been approved! For some reason the approval had gone to there instead of the one here where we live. But who cares. Now it only remains to find out what our next steps are to finish this all up.
October 6. I go to the immigration office (UFMS) from which our letter came, only to find out that it had indeed come to the wrong place, so they sent me back to the UFMS for our region. The only good news was that they actually arranged for us an appointment to go get our stuff, and they gave us a list of things to work on for the next steps. (3 hours)
October 8. All 5 of us show up at our appointed time, and then still wait a half hour to be seen. “Have you gotten your fingerprints done?”
“No. We thought that was to be done here.”
“I don’t think we can do that, certainly not this late in the day.
Nervous moment while the official checks if they can. I prayed boldly for it to work. Yes! We wait for the guy another half hour. By the time he’s finished, the office is closing, so they asked me to come back tomorrow. At least the kids don’t have to! (3 hours)
October 9. I go, expecting to get our passports stamped on the spot. But expectations are a dangerous thing in Russia, even when others tell you how it happened with them. No, all I got today was 2 pieces of paper in exchange for our passports, saying that we would get them back in 10 days! (1.5 hours)
Meanwhile, we work on the paperwork for getting registered and for applying for exit visas (4 hours, not counting the work others did on our behalf)
October 19. Every celebration is only the initiation of a new trial here. We got our passports back today with the official stamps: we are temporary residents! However, although we were ready to apply for registration, which is necessary to apply for exit visas (our biggest personal goal at this point), we were now told that because we wanted to change place of registration from the city to the “county,” it would take 2.5 months review. This was the last straw for Diana. Poor thing just fell apart.
But wait: they offered a solution: get the Swiss Center to extend our registration with them. Well, they refused. I went to the leadership meeting at church tonight plumb exhausted and totally baffled about what to do, and how to proceed. Our registration ends in 2 days, after which we will not be legally here, and will have no basis to apply for an exit visa. (2 hours)
October 20. Pastor Igor’s wife, Angela, who agreed to let us register with them, found out this morning that we could go talk to their local UFMS, so she took me there right after we each dropped off our kids at school. This office thought that our UFMS had screwed everything up, and they said I needed to go back to them and work on the visa first, which made no sense, but what could I do?
So I went all the way across the city back there to a different window that does the registration and visas, and they gave me a totally new option: just go find anyone registered in this region who will be your “receiving party” and you can get on the “migration account,” which is like a 2nd class registration, as near as I can tell.
I thought of 4 people I could ask, only one of which was actually registered here, and her parents wouldn’t let her do it. At this point I pretty much just decided to let go of it. I have learned by now that there are times when the work needs to be turned over to God. I thought at best I would stay up all night and pray, but I wasn’t going to work the phones and try to find anyone “by hook or crook.” Besides, time was running out anyway. I came home after my marathon day just in time to sit down to the computer and teach a tele-class by Skype that Igor and I am leading for coach training. While in class, a call came in from a friend of a friend who herself does barely know us, and she was willing to lend us her name. Thank you, Jesus!
So, of course, we stayed up a while longer to do the last-minute paperwork. (11.5 hours)
October 21. Met our savior this morning and went to UFMS. Fortunately for her, they really only needed to see her passport and have her sign the docs then excuse her. I stayed there 3 hours working with the Oksana, whose name I know because I’ve been working with her so much, and because she is so incredibly gracious and helpful to me and everyone who comes to her. The good news, we got back on the “account” (учёт) on the last possible day.
Then came our visa applications, and even after all Oksana’s help, there were still enough mistakes in to force me to go home and re-do them, largely because she herself was corrected by her supervisor on what was required. You can’t even trust the bureaucrats themselves to know what you need around here. (5 hours)
October 22. I paid yet another visit to Oksana today to turn in our visa applications, and this time it worked with only a few minor corrections (she actually lets me get away with white-out, which I’ve never seen tolerated by the government here). One of those corrections was that she said we would have to back-date our application to yesterday, since our former visas also expired then. I don’t even understand fully why that is important, but I am grateful for her doing that for us, or else we would have no basis for applying, apparently. So when can we buy tickets to leave, I asked? 20 business days was the answer. Yesterday the answer was 20 calendar days. Things change around here. Hold things very loosely, or you go crazy. Everything is in God’s hands. I gave Oksana some chocolate and told her how much we appreciated her special care and treatment of us. I told her I could see her attitude was so unusual and marveled at how she did it under the circumstances. I think she was really moved, so it made my day as much as the relief of it all. She took the chocolate, but told me she wasn’t supposed to. I assured her it wasn’t for a bribe to do anything, just to say thanks. (1.5 hours)