Sunday, June 13, 2010

We got VISAS and I applied to MEDICAL SCHOOL





If only we could all get along like my cat (Mona) and dog (Karmous)

We still try to keep some people out of some countries by imposing large hurdles to their travels. I believe that in many ways it is because we’re afraid that they might take some of what we, in developed nations, have, and that there may not be enough of THIS left for us. I believe that THIS is money, THIS is political freedom, THIS is security, THIS is the possibility of moving freely throughout the world, THIS is the opportunity to move out of the bottom tier of our global society and take on a more privileged position.

Harvesting wheat in Hakim's family's oasis plot

The Wheat Harvest

I don’t believe in forced inequality. Your born nationality should have nothing to do with how you can move through this world. Neither should it determine your comparative income internationally. Working eight hours in a clothing factory in Morocco should pay the same as in France. I understand that the world is changing and that ten years ago, or even maybe ten days ago, we couldn’t say this. But today we are TOO CONNECTED as a global society to maintain such inequality. The concept of nationality must change to reflect an ever more connected world citizenry. The global environmental crisis is making international cooperation necessary, but before necessity creates change, we must take initiative and define a new concept of global culture. To exemplify this, we; two Moroccans, two Spaniards, and one American (from the United States), are sharing experiences and culture between Spain and Morocco, actively engaging in a dialogue about how WE THE YOUTH imagine our future. Ultimately we hope to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar together as an example of how we can swim across very waters that divide.

Mirleft Monday Market

Carlos and Marga, the two Spanish swimmers, had already come to Mirleft, each of them spending the better part of 10 days in this small town on the southern Moroccan coast with me, Hakim and Bachir. It was easy for them to come to Morocco; they simply bought a cheap ticket and boarded the plane with their Spanish passport. On the other hand, the process of Hakim and Bachir trying to go to Spain has been a somewhat long and complicated process- I’ve learned that obtaining European Schengen visas for two Moroccans is not easy.

Filling out papers with Hakim

A Schengen visa is valid for most European countries. You acquire it through a single country’s consulate abroad, but it opens the doors to most of Europe for a limited amount of time. We’ve been working with the Spanish Consulate in Agadir, a large city some 140 km north of Mirleft, and had asked for a Schengen visa valid for 40 days within a period of two months and with an allowed two entries into Europe. Our plan was to go to Spain, swim the Strait of Gibraltar, hang for a few days, but then return to Mirleft and present our project here before going back to Spain to present our project at the Spanish-Moroccan Cultural Center in Madrid. As I’ll explain later, we didn’t get the visas we had asked for, even with letters of support from the US Embassy, an invitation from Marga, travel insurance, and a whole array of other papers. But we did get visas, and so will go to Spain (and soon- on the 23rd of June!), and so I can’t complain, but do feel that these restrictions are somewhat unjust.

Epic sunset on a large rock hill

It has taken a lot of foresight and active communication between the United States Embassy in Spain, the Spanish Consulate in Agadir, Marga in Madrid, Hakim and Bachir here in Mirleft, and me, to round-up all of the papers needed to even ask for the Schengen visas. It began way back in March when I was still in Peru and told Bachir and Hakim that we would be going to Spain and that they needed to get passports, that without their passports we wouldn’t be able to start the visa paperwork. A sudden change in Moroccan law made it necessary for Bachir and Hakim to get new national ID’s before they could get a passport, and this ended up taking a lot longer than getting their actual passports.

Hanging in Gillel's beach cave. Gillel is the Sand Shaman of Mirleft

I had to take a quick course on Schengen visa requirements before figuring out how we would get together our application. I read through the details of the visa requirements online and called the Spanish Consulate in Agadir about every other day. Each time I called I said that I was working on a swimming and cultural project with the US Embassy in Madrid, something that gave a little more importance to my call than it otherwise might have had.

Ahmed is the Patron Saint of Mirleft...here he is feeding my dogs

When I went to Madrid for 68 hours, I gathered the missing pieces of our application. I took the letter of invitation Marga had prepared to a notary, a letter which says that she will pay for all of Hakim and Bachir’s expenses while in Spain- which is not entirely true, because I’m going to pay for their trip, but me not being a European citizen would have made it much harder to produce such a letter. When I visited the US Embassy I picked up the signed and sealed letters that I had drafted for them and that they had later polished. The letters were of formal support and recognition of our project, asking that the Spanish Consulate in Agadir grant Schengen visas to Hakim and Bachir. In Morocco we filled out the visa application and went to TIznit to buy travel insurance.

Marga helping Bachir fill out our visa papers

Waiting at the Spanish Consulate in Agadir

We were with Marga when we dropped off our paperwork in Agadir on May 19th. We awoke at 4:45am to catch the 5:15am bus, arriving at the terminal at 8:15am, having breakfast, and then going directly to the consulate. It was easy to see that Hakim and Bachir were nervous, and together we talked through the different questions that they may be asked by the consulate. As we waited our turn at the consulate, I even began to feel my heart beat quicken, and the scene of us four behind the bullet proof glass windows of the consulate, Marga sitting with Bachir and me sitting with Hakim, will never be forgotten. In the end, it was all very quick. They turned in the papers, got their fingerprints and pictures taken, and that was it. Because the letters from the Embassy had come in sealed envelopes, they were seen as official documents and the consulate himself had to open them. I asked to speak with him, and did, in a very brief conversation where he said that there should be no problem with the visas, that all the paperwork was in order.

Breathe of release after submitting our papers

Following the turning in of paperwork, we went to the beach to walk around for a bit and breathe easy. After midday we all went to Bachir’s uncle’s home for a celebratory meal that included his younger brother Mohammed, who had come to Agadir to ask for a Schengen visa through the French consulate. A nice French family who visits Mirleft a few times every year (and financially helps Bachir’s family) had invited Mohammed to spend a month with them at their home in France. They helped him fill out all the papers, similar to what we had to do, but in the end, the French denied him the visa. A few days later, a friend of theirs, Lahsen, who’s sister lives in Sweden, was also denied a Schengen visa through the Swedish consulate. While I was still confident about our visa situation, this shook Bachir and Hakim- they didn’t want to get their hopes up for nothing.

All we want to do is swim

A week later I called the Spanish consulate and they said that we had been granted Schengen visas and that we could pick them up at our convenience. When I shared this with Hakim and Bachir, they still didn’t believe me- they needed to see the visas in their passports before they could imagine going to Spain. When we finally did pick up the visas on June 1st, I could see how happy they were. Planning our presentation in Spain and training so swim the Strait of Gibraltar as all become much more productive and real. Going to Spain isn’t a distant dream anymore, we now even have tickets to leave Morocco on the 23rd of June.

Bachir and Hakim, trying to figure out how to tie-up their donkey on Wheat Harvest Day

We were granted single entry Schengen visas for a duration of 30 days over a period of six weeks, beginning June 1st and ending July 15th. Not at all what we had asked for, but we’ll have to make it work. The problem is that we’re presenting our project at the Spanish-Moroccan cultural center on the 16th of July, which obviously falls outside the duration of our visa. I’ve asked the Spanish consulate in Agadir to change the dates, but as of now they’re not budging. We’ll have to extend the visas at a police station while in Spain, or just be somewhat clandestine at our presentation.

Max Baumgarten, fellow friend from California, doing a back-flip into the oasis watering hole

I don’t believe that these restrictions in travel are fair, and in many ways see them as a means of maintaining inequality by keeping some people out of other countries. I do believe in the fluid movement of people and ideas and imagine a future where this is facilitated by greater international cooperation. The idea of a Schengen visa works because the countries involved share similar immigration and labor laws, and I would hope that these rights will also be developed in other countries, ultimately allowing for more countries to fall under a single global visa.

Night view of Mirleft from the hill-top French ruins

Considering that I’ve been talking a lot about paperwork, I guess that the last part of this blog entry should include the fact that on June 4th I submitted my application to medical school. It is something that I’ve been completing on and off for the past four months, beginning in Peru, then in Spain, and finally here in Mirleft, Morocco. The actual act of clicking submit wasn’t all that romantic, but it did come as part of an epic week that included getting visas for Hakim and Bachir and painting a giant mural of a worldy whale at the beach (details in next blog entry).

My/our rooftop terrace, sight of long breakfasts and grilling sardines

I applied to UCLA, Stanford, UC San Francisco, UC Davis, USC, Harvard, Yale and Cornell. It has been hard to gather information on each of these schools being so far away from home and being so involved in a totally separate reality. The other day Hakim asked me where I wanted to study medicine, and to simplify the conversation I said Harvard, because I figured that he had probably heard of that school. He had no idea what I was talking about but said that insha allah I would go there. I laughed, remembering how aside from a few conversations with my dad, a friend/fellow applicant from Bowdoin, and the health professions advisor at Bowdoin, I’ve been alone in this process, and have had juxtaposing moments of self doubt and intense fervor throughout.

Flying through the air at the oasis watering hole

Opportunities in global medicine, or family practice, or rural nutrition, or sustainable agriculture, or even just the California location are all reasons for my applying to these seven schools. I’m excited to see what happens, and even more excited to see where I go with medicine. In many ways I want so study medicine because the world still feels like a grand place and I’m not ready to specialize. In studying human health my perspective will continue to expand, yet being a doctor gives me a concrete way to interact with and help in the world.




Painting the Worldy Whale of Mirleft....finished product in the next blog entry



And another playful match between Mona (cat) and Karmous (dog)

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