Time Magazine, Thursday, Dec. 02, 1993
And Still They Come
By David van Biema
In Warsaw the visa entrance to the American embassy is on Ulica Piekna -- Beautiful Street. And it has got prettier. In the past four years, the Americans have installed flower beds and wooden benches for the people in line for visa interviews. Perhaps the amenities are meant to soften the disappointment: now that the communists are no longer playing watchdog, it falls to embassy personnel to limit the traffic to America. And although roughly 10 times as many people will be granted visas this year as were in 1987, veterans of Ulica Piekna say half of those waiting here will be turned down.
It is a lovely, mild day, and the line is about 150 people long. There are matronly women and miniskirted girls, jeans-clad students and a mustachioed man in black suit and white socks -- a peasant in his Sunday Mass outfit. Robert, from the town of Plock, is among those in line. "I came to seek a visa because in Poland, there are very limited prospects of acquiring anything by work," he says. "I expect a different existence in America. I make about $200 a month. I wonder whether anybody would work for $200 a month in the U.S."
Elsewhere, the lines and the motives for standing in them, are much the same. In Beijing another line of 150 represents a far smaller slice of the general population, in part because the regime continues to frown on emigration. Still, a young lawyer explains why he wants to go to Meiguo, the Beautiful Country, the Mandarin name for America: "My colleagues tried to discourage me from going," he says. "But I feel I have to improve myself." In a displaced-persons camp on the outskirts of Nairobi, a cheery Somali is also waiting patiently to go to America, but he is in luck: he already has a visa and a seat on an upcoming flight. "There is no tribalism in the U.S.," he explains as a motive for his move. "There is a state of peace."
Embassy visa lines delineate America's outermost border; they are where cultural diversity begins. If America is a braided rope, its strands lead back to a hundred countries, each strand a line. Sometimes the line to reach America is metaphorical; more often it is as tangible as a battered suitcase, fear sweat and molded plastic furniture.
In the middle decades of the century, there was an apparent consistency to the kinds of people who waited in line and their reasons for being there. But the massive expulsions and migrations of the 1970s and '80s, combined with the recent geopolitical switch from the cold war to the new world order, scrambled all that. These days, by the time people get permission to leave, their initial motivation might have disappeared, sometimes replaced by another. Nonetheless, the longings themselves are familiar: to escape war, to find religious freedom, to join relatives, to make an honest buck.
Here are some lives that have been deeply touched by the powerful desire to realize those longings:
-- Americans, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, "have all a lively faith in the perfectability of man . . . They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene." Tesfa-Michael Tayae keeps those buoyant words and the orientation pamphlet that contains them in a place of honor in his tent, along with pictures of his two "favorite musicians," Elvis Presley and Kenny Rogers, and the autograph of nearly every U.S. citizen he has met on his desperate odyssey from the mountains of Ethiopia to a Kenyan plateau. "Americans are ahead of us in so many ways," says the 32-year-old Ethiopian gravely, "in terms of knowledge, in terms of culture."
Tayae, along with the thousand other Ethiopians, Somalis, Zairians and southern Sudanese huddled in this fenced-in tent city in the Nairobi suburb of Langata awaiting transshipment to various destinations, has heard that America is less than perfect. But what is American poverty and racism against the famine, murderous tribalism and blood politics that drove him to leave his wife and child behind in Addis Ababa? What is a mugging compared with the regular assaults, rapes and other crimes common in the vermin-plagued shantytowns that serve as collection points for the victims of the region's natural and man-made disasters? Tayae, who has waited three years for the flight that will finally take him to Cincinnati, Ohio, in a few weeks, is sincere when he says in labored English, "I am happy and all my friends are happy to go to America."
Whether America will be happy to see him is something else again. American attitudes about the "perfectability" of immigrants may have changed since Tocqueville's day. And Tayae's life experience is much farther from the average American's than were those of the Europeans who assimilated themselves into the "changing scene" of 1835. His "training" in Ethiopia's crippled economy and in the camps, where the U.S. is seen more often as a source of free grain than as a center of free enterprise, may have weakened any natural drive and self-sufficiency like those shown by such peers as a Mexican border jumper, a Haitian boat person or a passenger on the Golden Venture. Asks Julie Johnston, an American who has screened refugees like Langata's who apply for immigration: "What are they going to do in the U.S.? They've done nothing but wait in line -- for food, for water -- for years. They'll go on welfare."
Tayae still wants his chance. He has learned the lingo of the orientation films he has been shown, and will dutifully recite a list of things he must not expect in his new land: that he will become rich; that anyone will speak his language (Amharic); that Americans will greet one another Ethiopian-style, with a hug, a kiss and an extended five-minute chat. Once in America, he says, he will try to locate his wife and children and bring them from Addis Ababa.
-- Not far up the line from where Yuri Khamov waits outside the American embassy in Moscow, an expediter advertises his unwelcome street wisdom: "The Americans let in only those who have sponsors in the U.S.," he says. "Otherwise, they stamp your file with a black stamp, which means, 'Forget about America.' " Khamov, 25, an electrician who wants to settle in Orvado, Colorado, ignores him. Not that the self-appointed expert is wrong: ever since communist control ended, the U.S. embassy has been cherry-picking, allowing only a small fraction of these sweat-stained, hope-driven applicants through. But Khamov and his extended family (13 in all), who have joined the visa line straight from their 55-hour train ride from Siberia, may actually have a shot. They will be applying on a time-honored ground: freedom from religious intolerance.
"We are Baptists," Yuri explains matter-of-factly, his gaze direct and intense."We have always been persecuted here for our religious beliefs. We always will be." Some Americans, familiar with the Jewish exodus from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and '80s, assume that religious discrimination in Russia ended along with mandated Marxist atheism. But the Khamovs, whose fellow Baptists make up less than one-half of 1% of the population, say otherwise. The motherland, they say, has simply exchanged a state credo of godlessness for an older tradition: the hegemony of the Russian Orthodox Church. Yuri smiles as he recalls that under communism, his parents were denied permission to build a house because it might be used as a religious meeting place. Under the new democracy? The same: "My wife, who taught Sunday school, couldn't rent a place for classes. My relative is a pastor in Barabinsk in Siberia. The local mayor told him to get out of town. He said, 'We don't want any religious dissent.' "
So the Khamov clan is looking to Colorado, where one of Yuri's brothers has gone. Probably people will need electricians there; Yuri has never wanted for a job. "I'm not running away because I'm in dire straits. I have a two-room apartment in Novosibirsk for my wife and kids," he says. "I have skills and a job. I can make a living." Gently, he arranges the family's bags so that his wife Victoria and their son Maxim, 2, can nap on them. "But I want no constraints on how I bring up my children. If I move to America, the degradation of this society will not affect them."
-- Anyone surveying the road outside the American consulate in New Delhi in the 1980s would have espied a sea of turbans. The Sikhs were leaving, fleeing a plague of anti-Sikh terrorism in Punjab and the poisonous sentiment that had seeped into other parts of India as well. "Why not join us?" Sikhs who had made it safely to New York and Toronto were asking relatives back home. That question was certainly weighing on Satbir Kang, when at age 21 she first applied for a visa.
Her sister had been in Hayward, California, since 1981, married to an engineer. After the troubles began, they sponsored her mother's trip, then that of her father Jagdish, whose strategy was to emigrate and bring in five of his children behind him. He hired a caretaker for the family's 35-acre farm in their village of Panam. Then he bought an apartment in Chandigarh for the sole purpose of housing his son and four daughters as they wait for their visas.
The waiting is longer than anticipated. When last Satbir heard, it would be at least two years before she could leave. Overwhelmed, the embassy is still processing visa requests from 1989. The waiting has also outlasted the terrorism, now seemingly under control again. She could stay now, if she wanted.
But an entire family cannot do a U-turn in the middle of a mass migration. Satbir is enrolling in a computer course that will come in handy when she helps at the store her parents run in Hayward. Her father, back in India on a visit, testifies that America is a rich country, with many "gadgets" to make life more comfortable. "I would hate to look and behave like an American," says Satbir, even among Americans. Perhaps sometimes she will wear slacks or a skirt, instead of the traditional salwar kameez tunic. Beyond that, she knows little, but expects the best. Problems? She is sure there must be some. "But is life any better here?" she asks sharply. "One can enjoy a finer life- ^ style in the U.S."
The sun never sets on the line, but it is setting now over Ulica Piekna in Warsaw. Robert from Plock has been turned away, as have half of his companions. But Andrzej Zdanowski, 22, a Warsaw office clerk who has not reached the visa office, is still prepared to try his luck. "I have heard that Americans are friendly and tolerant, and one may meet an unselfish smile there," he says. Then he adds, "There are things there that don't exist here, unique things. And a man is always attracted to something new."
He may be right or wrong about the smile. But if he should succeed today, the country he meets at the end of the line will not only be new to him but also make him new. And, if the U.S. is lucky, he will return the favor. Although it is hardly a goal he is entertaining now, his arrival and those of millions like him will serve to make their adopted country a stronger and more diverse place to live.
With reporting by Tadeusz Kucharski/Warsaw, Anita Pratap/New Delhi, Andrew Purvis/Nairobi and Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow