Nichols has checked off most of the "to-dos" on her list. Line up medical treatment for Merita: check. (Surgery on her elbow is set for August 1 at Spokane's Shriners' Hospital for Children.) Find a place for Merita and her female translator, Genta Hysaj, to stay during their five months in Spokane (for surgery and physical therapy): check. Arrange transportation from Tirana (the Albanian capital) to Spokane: tentative check. Obtain U.S. visas for Merita and Genta: that's a problem.
According to Nichols, a U.S. consular officer interviewed the two last Wednesday at the embassy in Tirana (75 miles south of Ulaj's village, Boga).
"They were asking how many cows did Merita's family own. Why does this American interviewer need to know that?" wonders Nichols.
Two days later word came that their request for the visas was denied. A frustrated Nichols worries that will unravel the whole trip. The case isn't closed yet, but barring some sort of breakthrough, the two won't be allowed to come to Spokane.
Away from Albania
This story started last summer when Nichols, a gymnastics teacher by vocation, received an invitation from a relative to visit Boga. She eagerly accepted and spent three weeks teaching tumbling classes in the village schoolyard. She remembers Merita "because she couldn't bend her elbows when she was doing back bends. I photographed her arm and cute little face and didn't even know her name."
After she returned Nichols sent the photos to a cousin in Oregon who collects medical supplies and sends them to Albania. He convinced Nichols they needed to help the girl since Merita's family, which lives on a small farm, can't afford treatment for her. Nichols was trying to figure out how she could bring Merita to the U.S. when she mentioned this story to Genta, a female translator in her early 20s whom Nichols had met in Genta's nearby home city of Shkoder. Genta agreed to visit Merita, taking a two-hour bus ride into the mountains ("the last seven miles take 40 minutes," says Nichols) and then walking another mile-and-a-half to the family's house. After an emotional visit in which Merita's parents consented to let her go to the U.S. without them, Genta agreed to leave her job and become Merita's companion for the five-month journey to the U.S.
"Would any of us do that for a child we had not even met?" asks Nichols. "Give up five- to six-months' salary? Go to another country? What an awesome person she is!"
Last fall Nichols started the process of gathering all the documents she thought Merita and Genta would need to obtain visas. She worked here while Genta, a college professor and a high school student in Shkoder collected documents in Albania.
"[The] Shriners' Hospital administrator provided letters of support sent for each of them," says Nichols. Merita's doctor in Boga wrote a letter and copies were made of her birth certificate and immunization records. Genta had letters from Merita's parents notarized, giving their permission for Genta to escort Merita to the U.S. Genta also had a letter from her employer stating that she had permission to temporarily leave her job as translator.
It has taken months to compile all of these, with the need to translate the paperwork into both Albanian and English and the slow process of communication between Shkoder, Boga and Spokane. "They had to wait for Internet cafes to open and get to one and pay to send me what was being done," says Nichols.
Nichols' friends in Spokane have donated money to help pay Merita's and Genta's visa and passport costs. They've also pledged money to help the young women buy new clothes here and they've offered to show them Spokane and give them places to stay, if needed.
The Big Interview
Armed with their paperwork, Genta and Merita took the 75-mile trek south from Boga to Tirana for last week's appointment with the consular officer. Genta reports, via e-mail, that things started well. "The first question made to us was why we wanted to go in United States, and my response was for Merita's treatment in Shrinners [sic] Hospital for Children." Genta handed over the documents from Shriners. Then the tenor of the interview changed.
"The consul asked me about Meritas problem with her arm and asked me to provide the doctors diagnosis from here," writes Genta. "I gave her the doctors diagnosis but she told me that she was unable to read that because it was written with hand writing machine."
Then, Genta reports, the officer began asking questions that she thought were irrelevant. "[S]he asked me about my monthly salary when practically this was not important because Marvel Nichols was paying for everything regarding our trip. ... She asked me provide Marvel's Proof of sufficient funds over transportation, and accommodation of us. [T]hen she asked me about Meritas family. She asked me about Merita's [parents'] job. I explained her that Merita's parents live in the north of Albania and their only incomes come from stock raising. [T]he consul asked me about how many cows did they own? ... [S]he didn't even ask no question to the child. [A]sk her how she feel or directly about her condition."
After the meeting Genta wrote to Nichols that she was upset.
"They don't even respect [our] difficulty to go in Tirana. [W]e went there a night before just only for the interview because [it's] impossible for Merita come from Boga due to their difficult position," said Genta. "[S]he frozenly spoke to me as she was considering me a liar and like I was a cheater. [T]his was not told to me directly but it [was] the meaning of the conversation and her face expression."
Genta reports the embassy took her visa application money but didn't return it.
Dena Brownlow, the acting public affairs officer at the embassy in Tirana says people like Genta and Merita, who need visas to visit the U.S., start with one strike against them. "Basically, under U.S. law, all non-immigrant visa applicants must overcome the presumption that they are intending immigrants, outlined in Section 214 (b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. To do this an applicant must demonstrate strong ties to his or her own country that show clearly that he or she will return following a temporary stay in the U.S.," writes Brownlow.
Apparently Genta didn't convince embassy officials that she would go home at the end of Merita's recovery period. They cited that in turning down her visa request. "In Ms. Husaj's case, she has a short record of employment at a low wage [job], and she is young and single. There are few ties that link her to her home in Albania," writes Susan Lively, the embassy's chief of consular section.
Lively told Marvel Nichols that Merita's visa application was also denied.
"The consular officer requested Ms. Ulaj to submit a legible diagnosis from an Albanian doctor, as well as proof you had the financial means to cover expenses of her travel and living expenses and proof of Ms. Ulaj's family's financial situation in Albania," Lively writes. She says Merita could "come at our office any day between Monday to Friday, from 9:00 to 10:00 AM to provide the requested information and documentation."
Nichols says she's stunned and angry. She has appealed to U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers' office for intervention; it has made contact with the embassy in Tirana, but there's no word yet if that will be successful. Nichols says she has also written to the staffs of Sen. Patty Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell, but has received no reply.
Nichols says she and her Albanian friends are collecting the documents they believe consular officials want to see. "We (she and her husband) are sending information about our income, but not bank statements or our Social Security numbers," she says. "Merita's mom is getting a new doctor's statement and information about their household and their cows and Genta is taking care to show she's solid in Albania."
Nichols hopes the process will be finished soon. They need to buy plane tickets for the young Albanian women and Merita's first Shriners' appointment is scheduled for July 27.