Ibrahim Essandoh Vrs A Piece of Paper (A Very Special Encore)
Over the weekend, Dr Clement Apaak, an Archaeology professor at Simon Frazer University in British Columbia, Canada, sent me a special invitation to take part in a campaign aimed at urging the Canadian immigration authorities to grant a visa to the brother of a Ghanaian-Canadian who is bedridden at the St Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, waiting for a kidney transplant.
The Canadian Embassy in Accra has denied Thomas, the brother of Essandoh, a visa to travel to Canada to donate his kidney for the transplant. Dr Apaak, who is also the President and Founder of the Canadian Students For Darfur, has drawn substantial public attention to the case by engaging the Ghanaian community in British Columbia in solidarity meetings, and reaching out to Ghanaians and Africans in Canada, and around the globe. The meeting on Saturday is the second since Ibrahim Essandoh's case came to the limelight. While Thomas's application lays in a tray at the Canadian Embassy in Ghana, pending procedural investigations, Essandoh's health is deteriorating in Vancouver. This is the price he pays for working and paying taxes to the Canadian government over a 25 year period. We understand he has no criminal records and has lived a responsible life in Canada. Is the Canadian immigration system endorsing public suspicion that it places too much premium on paperwork than on human dignity?
If Canada succeeds in carving a reputation for herself as the only OECD member country that would rather let a sick person die than risk granting a visa, then the country is confirming the Stanley Kubrik saying that great nations are those that behave like gangsters while the small ones have become their prostitutes. Presently it takes some two years, and sometimes more for immigrants to sponsor their spouses to Canada. A lot of marriages have been dissolved because of the difficulties involved in such sponsorships. It is a complicated process that requires the applicant to produce a lot of documents to prove a spousal relationship. You would think a marriage certificate should be enough. Not in Canada. Where there are children involved, the Canadian immigration system requires a DNA test to prove parentage. After that, the applicant has to demonstrate his preparedness to host and care for the family. There, tax contributions are assessed in addition to money at the bank, which must be proved with a bank account. Then, there is the waiting time, a never-ending period that would see the Embassy delve into the past of both the applicant and the sponsored party. In some cases, the sponsored party may have to show a plane ticket before a visa is issued. But after all these, the entry clearance officer reserves the right to deny an applicant a visa if she doesn't feel like it. Even when she feels like it, an applicant may still have a lot of convincing to do. It is her discretion.
The result of this is that people are discouraged from going through this dehumanising treatment for a piece of paper in a passport. That means a lot of children do not get to see their parents until they are old enough to be parents themselves. And that makes it worse, because it becomes difficult to sponsor them when they are above a certain age limit. Wives have to bear with the discomfort of sleeping on empty beds for decades while their Toronto-based husbands fill their bloated stomachs with shawarma and other fat-friendly fast-foods. Those who cannot cook anything in the kitchen often bath themselves in kenkey and Titus sardines until they smell fishy from a distance. But they manage to stay sane, often by going to church regularly, even if they don't pay their tithes.
Ibrahim's case is also quite complicated. It is not a routine application for a visitor's visa or a sponsorship for a wife to join a husband to catch up on conjugal rendezvous. The man is seriously ill, receiving kidney dialysis at a recognised hospital. Doctors have confirmed in writing that the patient needs a kidney transplant to live. With cocaine addicts receiving free state-sponsored counselling and paedophiles benefiting from legal aid for representation in courts, you would wonder why sheer paperwork should prevent a sick man from receiving a kidney transplant. If human life could be quantified in cowries or Dollars, then the Canadian immigration system is awarding paperwork more value than Ibrahim Essandoh's life, by sticking to procedure while the man is dieing.
Commonwealth may not mean much to President Mugabe, who once proclaimed that there are other clubs Zimbabwe can join if they are kicked out of it, but it does mean something to other member countries. Why must it be so difficult for a proud citizen of one country to travel to another for a short visit? Perhaps, the lexicographer who coined the word commonwealth foresaw a world where those on one part would be wealthy while the rest would be commonly poor. Even so, together we form the commonwealth, with common goals and aspirations for a better world. If a white Canadian applies for a visa from the Ghana High Commission in Ottawa, to visit the Boabeng-Fiema monkey sanctuary in the Brong Ahafo region or walk on the ropes at Kakum, the Ghanaian entry clearance officer may give him couple of years for the trip, even if he wants only a few weeks. Why can we not expect the same favour from our fellow commonwealth member countries? The Ghanaian Embassy would not quiz the applicant on his financial capacity or his familiarity with African monkeys. They would not ask for any travelling experience in Africa or what he would do if mosquitoes feed on his flesh? He may even not join a queue at the Embassy, and may be addressed as Sir, even if he is tattooed all over, with rings in his tongue and nose. It is not fair on Africans that they have to prove the invisible? It offends the very humanity of the poor commonwealth member.
Well, maybe we cannot expect the favour to be returned because not many of them queue for visas to visit Kakum or Fiema. They go for sightseeing while we want to stay and multiply their populations. Most citizens of rich countries are very uncomfortable with the reality that nationals of other countries are in their midst, sharing their jobs, houses and other resources. So, there is the need to regulate the influx of people into such countries. It, therefore, means that immigrants from poor countries would learn to stay in their countries and work to develop them to the level they desire to enjoy in developed world. It is a pathetic sight seeing hundreds of applicants at the Embassies of rich countries, queuing for their turn at interviews for visas. Most of them travel from their villages thousands of kilometres away, to attend the interviews. The desperation on their faces is very obvious, as they pray silently in the queues, waiting for their turn to face the most important moment of their lives. It is often a life changing moment, so folks invest all their hopes in the venture. The interviewers also know this, so they sometimes ask humiliating questions. Does it help the process in any way for an entry clearance officer to ask an applicant to describe how he would trace his home address from the main airport of his destination country? Often, saying that you would be picked from the airport by your host is not a good answer. How do you expect a young graduate from Sakapin, who has no idea what an airplane looks like, to tell the geography of London or New York, when most Londoners cannot tell how to get to Milton Keynes from Trafalgar Square? Many New Yorkers get lost everyday trying to locate the next Wall Mart.
Often those who eventually get a visa may have been 'bounced' three or four times. But it doesn't take away the buzz. Having a visa is like getting published: it always comes with a certain feel good factor, the kind that for some sixth or seventh time applicants can be as relieving as childbirth or as memorable as a eunuch's first romance. So, while many applicants may struggle to remember the day they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal saviour, they have no difficulty remembering the day they got their first visa. Most of them celebrate it with parties while others photocopy the visa page and go round town, showing people the best thing that ever happened to them. Whatever awaits them abroad does not matter. It is an escape from Sorbibor with the Midnight Express: Nothing compares except the incomparable - the visa, that is.
The grounds for denying a visa are many. We are not sure what the circumstances are in Ibrahim's case. The authorities say they are investigating the matter, to ascertain the veracity of the application, in accordance with due process. Very often, an entry clearance officer may refuse an application when he is not satisfied that the applicant has sufficient ties in his country to warrant his return. Ibrahim's application is supported with official letters from the Kidney Foundation of Canada, an authority note from the representative of his Member of Parliament and medical reports from his doctors who have stressed the urgency of the situation. The application, which has been with the Canadian Embassy in Ghana for some six months, is yet to be approved. With a wife and children to feed, Ibrahim, who has been out of work for about two years due to his condition, wonders whether the Canadian government cares about the immigrant Canadian like her own. Meanwhile the Governor-General of Canada is black, and the country prides itself on being an open, multicultural society where opportunities are equally enjoyed by everybody. Why is it easier to fly home a white Canadian convicted of a crime in another country than to grant a visa to an African to save a life?
So, where do all these leave us? Certainly, visa applicants in the developing world cannot continue this way forever. It will be silly to advocate a total open door immigration policy in OECD countries, where any thief can walk in and make merry at the expense of hardworking citizens. At least, not when we in Ghana are expressing discomfort that some of our West African neighbours are breathing down our necks. It is part of a country's sovereignty to protect geographical boundaries and decide who comes in and who goes out. Even so, we should be in haste to condemn the Canadian immigration's handling of Essandoh's visa application, when he has followed laid down procedure. While we cannot tell Canadians how to manage their immigration system, we should be able to suggest that in times of emergency and life-threatening situations, like Essandoh's, the system would quicken the pace of investigations, and also be prepared to risk getting a bad immigrant into Canada on the cheap than watch another lose his life. Then we should also check the discrimination in our own system. While low-ranked employees of the Foreign Ministry of Ghana, such as drivers and secretaries cannot take along their spouses when posted abroad on national service, ministers are free to determine who travels on government business, even if it is their girlfriends. Still, Essandoh's is a compelling case. Suddenly, a piece of paper is worth more than a kidney and indeed, life.
Benjamin Tawiah, Ottawa Email: [email protected]