Don’t Forget to File Your Paperwork

Laura had made an appointment to get the thing from the place for the thing. (That’s about the level of understanding I’m at when it comes to these sorts of… well… things.) It was 10:30 AM, and we were headed to the city for the 11:00 AM appointment. Laura was driving, and because she was in the middle of the intersection when the light turned yellow, she got pulled over by a police officer. Twenty minutes and a $15 fine later, and we were on our way. We were 15 minutes late to the office, which the sign outside the door informed me belonged to the friendly local immigration department. Being late wasn’t a problem, however, since the woman we were meeting arrived closer to 12:00. At least Laura and I had time to try to think through how we might be able to get ourselves out of this pickle.

The gist of it was that we’d overstayed our work visa. In case you’re wondering, no country looks on that kindly. How’d we manage that? Well, let me tell you the tale. When we arrived back in Central Asia on June 30, we applied for a temporary one-month work visa. The woman at the window asked and asked if we needed a one-month a three-month temporary visa. To save $60, I chose the one-month option. That gave us 30 whole days to file all the paperwork (i.e. “things”) to all the appropriate offices (i.e. “places”) in order to extend that initial temporary visa into a year-long visa issued by the… well… “place” that’s into doing that sort of thing.

No problem. Thirty days is a long time. We’ve been here done this before. Two days after arriving in country, we met with the accountant of our nonprofit organization. She was going to do our documentation for us. We gave her our passports and explained we had a month. What could possibly go wrong? You’d be surprised.

How do you extend a temporary one-month work visa? It’s simple, right? If only. In order to legally reside in this country as a worker, in addition to your valid work visa, you also need a work permit, which, naturally, is issued by a completely different governmental department. You’re supposed to submit all the right “things” (whatever documentation the work permit guys require) to the right “place” (I think it’s the office of immigration), and you pray they approve your petition. If they approve your submitted documentation, you’ll get a pretty piece of green paper stating you now have a valid work permit good for one year. You’re then supposed to take that document to the other “place” (I still don’t know the name of that office) nested in a completely different department of the government and petition that your temporary visa be extended to a year, set to expire on the same date as your recently issued year-long work permit.

(If you’re lost, don’t feel bad. I just wrote that paragraph, and I still don’t fully understand it.)

So no problem, right? You fill out a few forms, make a copy of your passport, make an appointment online, visit your local work permit granting office, and bam! You’re in business, ready to take that magical green piece of paper to the place where all foreign workers’ dreams come true, a.k.a., the visa extension office, or whatever the real name of that “place” is. Right?

If. Only.

For starters, the accountant didn’t actually start applying for our work permits until just a few days before our visas expired. (Remember, as I’m desperately trying to do, that you need a valid year-long work permit to get your temporary one-month visa extended. Or something like that.) So, naturally, there wasn’t enough time for us to get our pretty piece of green paper. July 30 came and went. No work permit. Which meant no extended visa. And just like that, Laura and I joined the ranks of that elite group known as illegal aliens.

So what’s a guy and a gal to do? Well, you start by meeting with your accountant at the “place” (the immigration office) to get the “thing” (the pretty green work permit) in hopes that, with that piece of paper in hand, you can begin to rectify the fact that you’re in the country on an expired visa. Laura and the accountant had already been to the same office twice the week before to get this green piece of paper. The only problem was that the guy who had to sign it was out of the office, so they kept getting told to come back later.

That morning (after Laura got her traffic ticket for being in the middle of an intersection when the light turned yellow) as we waited for the accountant to come, we talked about our options. We knew for sure we had to leave the country. New temporary one- or three-month work visas are only issued at the airport. So we’d have to leave (by land, air, sea, donkey, or otherwise) and return by plane. With a new, non-expired visa in hand, we could take our work permit to the visa “place” (with all the other necessary “things” ) and get that temporary visa extended. So where would we go? When would we go? We both had a lot of balls in the air. It just wasn’t a good time to leave.

The accountant finally arrived and we went inside the office. Just what we wanted to hear. Our non-profit organization petitioned two work permits, one for each of us. The powers that be decided to grant us only one. The problem all came down to wording in the petition. Because our non-profit organization is not a school, we can’t operate as such and give courses and classes. I can host English conversation clubs, which is exactly what I do, but not classes. Because I was listed as a “teacher” in the petition instead of “a volunteer that organizes English clubs,” that raised all sorts of red flags for the office of… whatever “place” we were at, and they denied my work permit.

It was kind of like thinking you were almost to the top of a mountain only to have the skies part and you realize you’re only about half way up. We walked with the accountant the seven or eight blocks to the visa guys’ office and talked as we went. She’d have to submit a new work permit petition for me. Who knew how long that would take. We decided to go ahead and go to the other “place” (a.k.a., “the visa guys”) that afternoon and see if we could make any progress on our illegal immigration status. What we needed amounted to a provisional visa, what they call an exit visa.

(Just nod your head and believe me.)

Well, by the time we got to the visa guys, they were at lunch and wouldn’t be back for another hour. But wouldn’t you know it. As soon as we walked into the office, I recognized a woman sitting in the waiting room. She was the woman who’d issued us our temporary one-month work visas at the airport back in June. I probably recognized her so easily because I stood waiting in line for over two hours watching her issue all the visas for the people that had gotten to the window before us that morning. She remembered me. She gave us her advice and told me I should have gotten the three-month temporary work visa, and I got her name and phone number. She insinuated she could make things happen. We’d need to think before it came to that. But always nice having friends in high places.

Since we had an hour during the visa guys’ lunch break, we had enough time to walk the ten or so blocks to the national bank. We needed to go there because even though you submit your paperwork and pick up your provisional visa at the visa guy “place,” you have to pay for the provisional visa at the national bank. So we walked to the bank. And we got a number. And we waited. And we paid. And we got the receipts to prove it. And we walked back to the visa guys. (By this time they’d reopened.) And we got another number. And we waited for our number to be called.

And that’s when the young woman at the window informed us we were missing a very important document.

Like I said, no government looks kindly on illegal aliens. There are fines when you break local laws, and for local standards, they’re steep. In our case we were fined 10,000 som per person for overstaying our visas. That translates into just under $300 dollars, and that’s in a place where an average monthly salary is less than $200. We’d paid that fine already (and we had the receipts to prove that we’d paid it), but the all important document we were missing was supposed to come from the police station stating (as near as I could tell) that they had seen the receipts and approved of us paying the fine. Or something like that.

(We’re getting great at nodding our heads and smiling. Join us. It’s fun.)

So the “visa guy” woman wouldn’t accept our application paperwork for this provisional visa until we had that additional piece of documentation. And no, there would have been no possible way for us to have this information beforehand. So we decided to go to the police station and get yet another piece of paper to add to our stack.

(In case you’re superhuman and are actually keeping up with all the details, the fact that we only had one valid work permit at this point wasn’t an issue since we were getting a different, provisional visa due to the fact that we’d overstayed our original one-month temporary visas. We weren’t trying to extend our temporary visas into year-long ones based upon the fact that the other governmental office had given us year-long works permits, so only one valid work permit was no problem. I know some of you would be on pins and needles if I didn’t offer that clarification.)

So Laura, the accountant, and I got onto a mini-bus and headed to the police station. Laura and the policeman were old friends by this point. She and the accountant had visited him the week before to pay the fine in the first place. But wouldn’t you know it, he hadn’t thought to give them that wonderful document stating he’d given us his blessing. Or whatever it was supposed to say. And of course, neither Laura nor the accountant knew that such a blessed piece of paper existed. When the three of us finally sat down in his office, the police officer blamed us for not getting the piece of paper from him that we needed. (Really it’d been a secret plot on Laura’s part to ensure she and the accountant would get to see his sun-shiney face again and to provide me the pleasure of meeting him for the first time. Luckily, our plot went undiscovered.) Finally, two pieces of paper appeared in the out tray of a printer in his office, he scribbled on each one, and we were free to go back to the visa guys.

We got back on another mini-bus and made our way to the other side of town. I didn’t even have to touch very many people for most of the way. We got another number at the visa guy office. We waited. We admired the accountant for how collected she remained at every step. We wanted to break things. She said we needed to pray. We have a lot to learn.

We finally talked to the same young woman we’d talked to before. Turned out we wouldn’t be given the provisional exit visas that day. In fact, we’d have to wait nearly two weeks. Something about a local holiday coming up pushed it back a few additional days.

We waited the two weeks. The accountant went back to the office. Glory be. They’d given us a sticker in our passports stating we could leave the country. We had ten days. We plotted our trip. Two days in the country to the north during which the provisional exit visa would expire, meaning we could come back in through the airport with a new letter of invitation from our nonprofit organization and get a new temporary work visa, which, before it expired, we’d have to for sure get our work permits and extend those temporary visas into year-long ones.

(You’re nodding and smiling! That’s just great.)

As of now, we’ve left, come back, and gotten new three-month temporary work visas. We’re hoping for a much more positive part two. Like a sequel in which the magical green paper is granted (to both of us) and we don’t have to pay any more fines and it really is just a matter of taking the green paper to that “place” with all the other “things” and hopefully getting… well… the “thing” that lets us legally live and work here. And maybe if we’re lucky we’ll even get to see the police officer again. And he can sign something for us. Just maybe.

We can only hope. We’re thankful we don’t need a single document to keep on doing that.

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