Home Science Communication Dear Mrs Fernandez

Dear Mrs Fernandez

by Eva Amsen

This is a story Kafka wrote when he applied for a study permit for Canada. Except it wasn’t Kafka, it was me. And it isn’t a story, it is a TRUE TALE of painfully inefficient bureaucracy. If you’ve ever moved to another country for work or study (and many of you have) you’ll probably enjoy this.

I first wrote it in 2003, published it on an old blog in 2005, and then took that entire blog down a while later. I promised Cath I’d blog it here, so here it is once again on the web, as a tribute to everyone who ever had to deal with immigration. It’s slightly rewritten from the original version for style (and to add an epilogue), but the plot remains the same.


It was the summer of 2002, and I was having a blast. I had graduated from two masters programs that spring, and was working a temporary job as a secretary for the finance and control department of the international branch of the Dutch postal service. I learned about international postage and office politics in a summer entirely devoid of science. In September I would start my PhD in Toronto, and I was preparing for the move.

I needed a study permit, but the Canadian Embassy in Holland doesn’t handle immigration issues. Instead, I was referred to their Immigration Department in Berlin, which handled Canadian immigration for several European countries.

According to the website, applying for a study permit was a pretty straightforward procedure: I had to send in an application form, together with copies of UofT’s acceptance letter, proof that I had enough money to move to Canada, proof that I didn’t have a police record, and some other things. It was not _entirely_ clear which papers they needed, exactly, because different sections of the website claimed different things. No problem, I’d just give them a call.

The embassy’s phone number was only open for calls between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, so I had to call from work. Whenever I dialed the number, I got a tape that said that my call was important to them, but unfortunately nobody could take it and I should try again later-click. I tried calling again. I tried ten times per day between 2 and 3 for about two weeks. I never got through. Until one time… I got put on hold!

I waited.
And waited.
And waited.

I waited for 50 minutes, meanwhile working at the computer with the phone clenched between my shoulder and my jaw, like they do on TV. Nothing happened, and I hung up.

I e-mailed them. Several times. I never got a reply.

I tried calling at the wrong time, not between 2 and 3. That gave me another tape that actually had more information than the tape they played in the hour they were supposedly open for calls.

But I was still not sure about some things, so I sent them another e-mail. An angry e-mail this time, saying that it was ridiculous that they were not answering their phone, that I was having no more of it, and that I would just have to come all the way to Berlin, from Amsterdam, eight hours by train, to personally ask them my questions.
I didn’t tell them that I had been planning a “Farewell, Europe” three-week train trip, with the first leg of the trip taking me straight to Berlin anyway. So I packed all my forms and documents in my backpack, and Interrailed it up to Berlin that very next week.

The building where the Canadian Embassy’s immigration department was, was a pretty regular-looking office tower from the outside. Once inside, it looked more serious, and my daypack and I were treated as if we were about to get on a plane: No cellphones, through the metal detector, and lots of rules and corridors to maneuver.

A brightly-lit elevator, a hallway with landscape calendars, and there was the immigration department. For all the importance the department radiated through the tape I had heard hundreds of times on the phone, I was disappointed to find that it was nothing more than a small waiting room with a service window. There were a number of other people in the room, some politely nodding as I sat down. An Irish woman with her Canadian husband, a Bulgarian woman recently married to a Canadian but both living in Switzerland, a Surinamese woman, two middle-eastern men, and a few others, all waiting patiently for their turn.

We waited.
And waited.
And waited.

We watched one person after the other be called up to have their fate determined. The woman at the service window got increasingly more frustrated with people bringing the wrong documents and forms. That was my biggest fear going in, so I had made sure that I had everything with me. Every once in a while the immigration officer shouted into the waiting area “Make SURE you have ALL your forms and documents! I won’t help you if you don’t have all your documents!” Every time she said that, we looked at each other in slight panic, wondering if we had the right forms with us.

The middle-eastern men were up. One wanted to travel to Canada, and the other was his interpreter. Unfortunately, the traveler had brought nothing but his interpreter with him. No passport. No papers. No contact phone number. Absolutely nothing. After he had been yelled at for about fifteen minutes in two or three different languages, he was finally sent away, and the rest of us got another angry lecture about how we really needed to have all our documents!

People started talking about why they were there. It turned out that everyone had traveled miles to Berlin just because nobody answered the phone between 2 and 3. We bonded over the hilarity of people from four different countries trying to call that one phone, one hour a day, clogging up the line for each other, and not getting anywhere. Did anyone ever pick up the phone at all?

There was one absolute worst story. It was the story of the Bulgarian woman and the Canadian man. They just got married, and were living in Switzerland, but wanted to go to Canada for their honeymoon. She needed a tourist visa for Canada, and they applied well in advance, because you know it’s going to take a while. As the day of their trip approached, they got more and more nervous when the visa still hadn’t arrived yet. They had the tickets, everything was set. Finally, the day before they would be leaving, a letter arrived from the embassy. It read “Dear Mrs. Fernandez, we’re sorry to tell you that you’re not eligible for a travel visa to Canada”.

Her name was not Mrs. Fernandez.

She seemed to have gotten another person’s letter, which also makes you wonder if the real Mrs. Fernandez, who didn’t qualify, did get a visa. On the day they were supposed to go on their honeymoon to Canada, they got in the car and drove from Switzerland to Berlin. And there they were now, in the waiting room.

In the mean time, the Surinamese woman was up at the window. She was well prepared: she had all her documents with her! We gave her a good chance of getting through unscathed.

The immigration woman looked at the big pile of papers that this lady had brought in. She turned to her, and said “Could you please step aside for a moment?”

Baffled, she took a step to her left, and the embassy worker held the pile of paper in the air and yelled at all of us: “And when I say ‘Bring all your documents’ I don’t mean ALL your documents, only the RELEVANT ones. Not like THIS lady who brought her ENTIRE BIOGRAPHY!”

A silence fell over the waiting room.

It lasted two seconds, maybe three. Nobody dared to breathe. Then the Irish woman whispered “And this is just the Canadian Embassy. Imagine what the German Embassy must be like!”

*Epilogue* – As you know, I got my study permit. I didn’t have the right papers with me, of course, but my dad faxed the missing documents to the office, and when I returned from my trip my permit to enter Canada had arrived. Renewing the study permit from within Canada was a breeze, and just a matter of mailing a form. In 2007 I started a procedure to apply for my permanent resident card, so that I could work freelance in Canada after my eventual graduation. That was a much more complicated process than getting a study permit. It had me do odd things like taking an official French language exam and getting tested for HIV. But, other than the medical doctor who had me say “Scheveningen” when he heard I was Dutch, that was a far less surreal experience than getting my study permit.

Last year two of my friends from Holland had to get their work permit for Canada through the office in Berlin. They called, between 2 and 3, and nobody picked up the phone. They got on a train to Berlin, visited the office with all their right documents (!) and got their papers right away. They celebrated at a cafe with coffee and cake. An hour later, they went back to the cafe, to ask the waitress if she had maybe found an envelope on their table… She dug it from the trash, and nobody at the Canadian border questioned why there were cake and coffee stains on their papers. They’ve probably seen it all by now.

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Anna Vilborg September 29, 2009 - 6:24 AM

Amazing! Maybe it’s a test – to see how bad you wanted to go to Canada? Only the most motivated are selected?

steffi suhr September 29, 2009 - 6:26 AM

Yup, sounds like immigration! I can faithfully report though that the immigration officer who is responsible for my husband in Lueneburg, Germany – although he looks rather intimidating, being a VERY big man – is absolutely lovely, efficient and friendly.

Mark Tummers September 29, 2009 - 9:43 AM

Oh, then the application for a work visa to the USA was a breeze. The only question that raised an eyebrow was whether I belonged to a tribe and which one.

Alyssa Gilbert September 29, 2009 - 11:30 AM

All of these stories make me glad I was born in Canada – it’s just easier that way 🙂

Kristi Vogel September 29, 2009 - 11:56 AM

Wow, what a hassle! I guess I had an easy time of it at the British Consulate in Houston, when preparing to move to London for postdoctoral work. Of course, I had to provide documentation for the US research fellowships that paid my salary, at the embassy and at the airport, upon arrival. Can’t remember what my official status was in the UK … “resident alien”, maybe?

Mark Tummers September 29, 2009 - 1:54 PM

Going to Finland was easier. I filled out one A4 sized form at the local police station, registered at the magistrate office and that was it.

Eva Amsen September 29, 2009 - 1:58 PM

_”The only question that raised an eyebrow was whether I belonged to a tribe and which one.”_
The tribe of science, obviously.

Richard Wintle September 29, 2009 - 2:57 PM

Argh. Even I, who am passingly acquainted with the difficulties of obtaining favourable “Labour Market Opinions” for foreign workers (do not ask, you do not want to know, trust me) am amazed by this story.
The corollaries, of course, are that (a) there is no accountability – you can’t complain about the phone and lack of answering, and (b) even if you _could_ complain about it… nobody would pick up the phone to listen to you.
Canada. We hear over and over and over and over and over about our skills shortage and how we’ll all have to work until we’re 80 just to make sure the country keeps functioning, and how about making it easier for highly-skilled foreign nationals to come here and work?
I’d complain about *that*, too, but… well, you know.

Darren Saunders September 29, 2009 - 4:11 PM

Knowing how long it can take, I started the renewal process for my Canadian work permit in early April of this year (current one expires in Dec). Between the bureaucracy of a big University like UBC, and the inefficiency of govt, looks like I’ll not even be close to getting my renewal before the current one expires. Muppets

Cath Ennis September 29, 2009 - 8:15 PM

Wow – you weren’t joking about this story!
Why, why, why, do they make it so difficult to contact them? The phone line I tried to call several times from within Canada was useless – you had to navigate several layers of automated menus, and then if all agents were busy (they always were), it would kick you out. No voicemail, no hold option. I had the series of menu option numbers memorised, but I never once got through to a real human being. And when my medical results went missing, no-one bothered to tell me, and it’s only because a random person from another company who I met in our shared locker room gave me a secret email address that I was able to find out what was causing the delay. (And guess what – when I gave them the documents’ tracking number and name of the person who’d signed for them, the results magically showed up).
Most of the people I met in person were alright though, with one exception – the guy who grilled me in London after I’d got my permanent residence card stolen in Madrid. He wasn’t sure exactly _what_ I was guilty of, but he knew it was _something_. (To be fair, I hadn’t obtained a police report, because I’d got on a train to Lisbon about 20 minutes after the theft, and I didn’t know that police from one country could issue a report for a theft in another. I called the Canadian embassies in Madrid, Lisbon, Faro, Paris, and London, and no-one told me this when I asked what I should do). He eventually issued a document saying that my re-entry into Canada was at the discretion of the immigration officer at Vancouver airport, who was (as is usual) lovely, and let me through with no problem at all.
It is soooooooooooo nice to be a citizen and not have to deal with this stuff any more.

Eva Amsen September 29, 2009 - 8:52 PM

I bet it was Mrs Fernandez who stole your card in Madrid! It sounds like a thing she would do, and she sounds Spanish.

Cath Ennis September 29, 2009 - 8:55 PM

It was actually a group of three very clean-cut and well-dressed young men. Maybe they’re her sons?

Lee Turnpenny September 30, 2009 - 11:25 AM

The pettiness of some people when they’re afforded power over other people’s lives, eh? I’ve encountered similar (in another sphere); I wonder that they’re bitter about something.
But, besides you getting your permit, we all here got something out of it also – a cracking read! Thanks.

Tania Hansen September 30, 2009 - 2:07 PM

Sounds terrible!
My husband had to get a different type of work permit visa whilst here in the UK once his fellowship came through and he was no longer “officially” employed by the university. Applied ages in advance, got all the paperwork together and visa came through. Yay! Unfortunately, a few weeks later we got a letter in the mail saying his visa had been revoked and we had 6 weeks to leave the country. Wouldn’t have been so bad, but we were planning a weekend away and were worried he wouldn’t be let in upon our return! Many phone calls and e-mails later and turned out that someone from the Home Office had rung the university to ask if he was still employed. Person from HR, not knowing the situation, said no, not employed here any more. Person from Home Office got very exicted and revoked visa.
I guess at least we were able to do it all via phone and e-mail and not have to make the dreaded trip in person.

Eva Amsen September 30, 2009 - 3:13 PM

That’s scary! My institute had people on payroll even if they had external funding (usually they’d still get a tiny amount through the institute, or the money went through their boss’ account) so that could never happen, but I can totally see how it can go wrong.

Åsa Karlström October 2, 2009 - 9:20 PM

Eva> It’s a crazy story. I never had a problem with my student visa to Canada, apart from being terrified since the only thing I got from the embassy was “you will have to wait and see what happens in Vancouver where the immigration officer will decide if you can enter or not”. Being a slightly more planned person than that, I was stressed on the flight over… (it all went ok).
I do remember the panic attack though when I realised that my current visa for the US was only valid for a year (instead of 3 years as promised). No phone number, nor email but a smaller fax number was found…. they accepted they made a mistake and if i only came by (the embassy in stockholm) they’d be happy to fix it for me. My concern? That I was living in Memphis TN at the time and wasn’t too keen on going home (i.e. leave US without a valid form of reentry in case something went wrong.) Thankfully, all went fast and got fixed when I reentered the embassy for the “reinterview”.
I think the recurring hard part is the the immigration officers when I tick all the boxes “can you work with the following: radioactivity, biohazardous etc” … guess it is in the whoel phd in microbiology that they read as “anthrax”.

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