Yes, it’s true. I was/have been deported. My plan to spend an full year in Spain was, well, derailed. Oh the stories I have to tell, though!
Safari for Christmas? YES!
So, the reason that I was deported was quite simple. I had spent too much time in Spain; just shy of 4 months. A tourist visa, for Americans, lasts for 3 months within a 6 month period. Not only had I spent too long in Europe, but I decided to meet a friend in Africa, to go on Safari and I basically had bum luck at customs on the way back into Spain. Now, I knew that this was a risk, leaving and trying to come back into the country, and after much debate, worry and online forum reading, i decided to risk it. Going to Kenya on Safari with my friend Rebecca was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was going to take that risk. So, after a fantastic week in Kenya chasing hyenas, gazing at lions, (dreaming about) napping with cheetahs, fending off bats, feeding giraffes and lots more, I boarded my plane in Kenya and headed home.. to Spain.
Do not pass go
As I headed towards customs, I was actually quite calm. I had worried about this moment for months. I took a deep breath and approached the customs desk. It’s amazing how within seconds you can foresee your fate. He started flipping slowly through my passport. That’s when I knew I was screwed. He asked me about my stay in Spain and trip to Africa and did the math, having found my entry stamp (with the date) into Spain. After a chat with his colleagues, he told me to wait and that I needed to be interviewed for having overstayed my visa. That is when my heart sunk-knowing that it was very likely that I was going to be on the next plane…to the U.S. I did not realize, at that moment, that it would be so much more complicated, confusing and frustrating then that. For I was about to go to the detention center.
After my initial interview with a female police officer, my passport and boarding pass (from my flight from Cairo) were taken away from me. I was asked to wait in a room with a family of four, from Bolivia I would later find out, an older Cuban gentleman and a woman from Honduras. There was no talking amongst the group, just anxiety and shock. The real interview took place with a police officer and a lawyer (provided by gov’t). They basically explained what I had done wrong, asked me some questions, and I signed some papers. It was fine, expect the police officer, well, was a jerk. Although I said that I did not need an interpreter, he took that to mean that he should and could talk as quickly as possible. Luckily, my lawyer was patient and I directed most of my questions towards him. He was actually apologetic stating that it was just bad luck that I was stopped, because usually Americans’ passports are merely glanced at by customs officials. It was then that I received the blow, however. I was not going to be sent back to the US, as I had originally thought. I was going to be sent back to Cairo! The rule is that they send you back to your last destination. If you want to go elsewhere, you have to find a flight, direct, that leaves before that flight (in my case, Cairo, at 3 pm the following day), and pay for it yourself. Now, I had actually met a very nice woman from Cairo, on my flight to Kenya, and had enjoyed the Cairo airport (or what I saw of it) but I had NO intention of going back…not now, in this political climate. So, the social worker was trying to go home and I had maybe 1 minute to talk to her. I bought a phone card from her (luckily I had euros on me!) and she mentioned that there was another American woman, leaving that night on a flight to Mexico City and then on to the States. At this point it was getting late and the police officer had not released me and it seemed like I was waiting-for nothing. So, I explained my situation to a very nice Portugese interpreter who spoke to the police officer on my behalf (since the social workers only work from 10-6). My concern was that I didn’t have much time if I wanted to get a seat on that flight to Mexico, and/or to contact people in the US to help me find a different flight back home. The police officer was not sympathetic at all, and it took a fair amount of explaining to get him to understand my predicament. I was finally allowed to go to the detention center, accompanied by police officers.
Our little community
So, the detention center was very interesting. I was basically one big room. Off of this room, were maybe 12 rooms with bunk beds. The rooms at the two ends were bigger and had bathrooms en suite, for families. There was a kids playroom with lots of toys. There were chairs and tables stacked at one end and facing the main doors, was a row of public telephones. These only accepted phone cards, but we could receive incoming calls. There were bathrooms with showers. That was it, besides a TV, which was constantly on, for noise. When I arrived earlier, before my interview, my hand luggage had been taken away, except for my purse. It was locked in a room. As I entered the main room, I must have looked at shocked and overwhelmed as I felt. There was a group sitting around a table, and a man quickly called me over and told me to relax and to chose a bed! That was a moment of panic..since i was not aware of the rules, yet, I didn’t expect to be there overnight. He told me what to expect and everyone welcomed me into the group. It turned out that this man, from Romania, was like our mayor as I called him, or president, his nickname from others. As people came in, he would try to calm them down, explain how things worked, and organized the sleeping arrangements. What surprised me about the group at the table, the first day, was that people were smiling. And laughing. There was a sense of community. When the phones rang, people would run and grab it and then call out to the person receiving the call (even into the night). We hid a pen amongst us, since we technically weren’t supposed to have one, since we might use it to harm ourselves, or others. People let each other use their phone cards, if they had time remaining and listened to each other talk about how they got there, what went wrong, etc. Another interesting feeling that I perceived in that place, was hope. People kept on thinking that their situation would be “fixed” and their families or a judge would be able to make it possible for them to enter into Spain. Most people had forgotten (as they told it) a piece of required paperwork, or didn’t have enough cash on hand, per their visa requirements. Most of the people in the center were from Central or South America. It was hard because most of them had family waiting in the airport below us, and they weren’t allowed to see them, before they were eventually flown home. There were tears of frustration and anger, but the group tried to rally and help each other.
One ticket out of detention, please
So, when I made my way upstairs from the interview, I was able to use my card, with help from the Romanian, the mayor, to call my sister. I left her a message. I was told that I could get additional numbers from my cell phone. So, I did that and called my brother-in-law. I was getting anxious. Then I plugged in the number for a good friend in California. She picked up..heard my story…was shocked, but quickly helped me a) contact my sister and b) find me a flight and gave me the #s to call to make the reservation. I was able to call about the flight, but then my phone card ran out before I could give my credit card information. I wanted to make SURE that I was getting out and heading home. One of the many frustrations encountered, was that the phone card machine neither took coins nor gave change. So, although I had the money to buy another card–i couldn’t. The police, I was told, “were not there to provide change”. Luckily I was able to exchange coins for a 5 euro bill (the cost of the card) from the other American. In the end, that wasn’t even enough, but I convinced/begged a police officer to let me use the landline. I bought my ticket, had my reservation #, and made sure that everything was ALL set for my departure the next morning. Even though the ticket was extremely expensive, i was going home. I felt calm, at last. I even remembered that I had a set of clean clothes in my carry-on luggage (we were not permitted access to our luggage…so people washed things as best they could, in the bathroom sinks) and a small, disposable toothbrush. Our mayor organized a “family dinner” by putting all the tables together and I helped buy sodas for the whole group, with my leftover change, since I thought I was leaving! We learned how to say a before and after meal blessing by a Japanese woman who had joined our group. Things were..okay (except for the small fact that the chicken they served me was raw). A small group of us chatted into the night about silly things, laughing, and joking. The older cuban gentleman, there because the Embassy in Cuba had messed up his paperwork, read our palms. I had made my bed just after “lights out” and decided to retire, and said goodbye the American and a man from Mexico who were flying out that night. For some reason, however, at 2 a.m., I got up, got dressed, thinking it was the morning and joined the group that was still laughing and chatting in the main room (the phone still rang, all night). When I realized my error, I returned, chuckling, to bed.
Houston, we have a problem
So, the next morning, I got up early and showered. I got dressed (borrowing a smothered comb from someone) and had breakfast. At 10, I reminded the security officers that I had a flight that left at 11:25. They said fine and not to worry. Every half and hour after that, I reminded them about my flight, since I had a bag that needed to be checked. They either asked me to wait or said not to worry and that they would call me when it was my turn to leave. As I watched a woman being processed (getting her luggage back) for her 11:15 flight, I started to panic. I asked to speak to the social worker and was told “what does she have to do with your flight?”. I went up every 15 minutes to remind them..to no avail. They told me..there must be a delay, as the time for my flight came and passed. When I approached the social worker at 11:30 about my flight…she said “what flight?”. At which point I almost screamed. I explained to her my situation. She wasn’t worried about it at all. Saying there must be a delay since she hadn’t heard from the police. But she didn’t make a move to see what the situation was with the flight. I should mention at this point, that the Madrid airport is old-school, and does not have WiFi, so even had I had my laptop (which would have been removed, I imagine), it wouldn’t have mattered/helped. So, I decided to speak to the officer on duty. That was not helpful, as he decided to blame me for booking my flight at night. Huh? He also said that my ticket probably hadn’t gone through since I didn’t sign the receipt. Huh? So, after being told to calm down, I went through the whole process of buying the ticket, why i didn’t want to go to Cairo, how I was allowed to use the office phone the night before to call, and how the police officer on duty had made sure to write down my information for the social worker, so that she would have it on hand, the minute she walked in, at 10 a.m. Did i mention that all of this was in Spanish?! What seemed to make the biggest impression with this bloke, however, was that I mentioned that I could have left the night before, to Mexico, but that I had bought this ticket instead, and now that flight had departed. Although all he did was tell me to talk to the social worker, again, to see what could be done, he realized that I had followed the right steps, and seemed almost sympathetic. I must admit that it was the second conversation with the social worker that did me in emotionally. I will say that came out of the gate, strong, but I was tired and frustrated. I told her that I had missed my flight, that I was NOT going to Cairo since i had done what I needed to do to not have that happen, and the it was NOT my fault that I had missed my plane and that i was not going to spend another euro on another ticket. She…shrugged her shoulders. Yup, and said that it wasn’t her fault. She said I would have to take it up with the airlines and that there must have been a problem with the flight/paperwork. So, I once more explained everything to her…it was at that point that I saw a flicker of “OMG, i know what she is talking about…and i messed this one up” cross her face. I also said that I had the number for continental so that she could call from the office (I was not going to use my phone card for that) handed her my notebook with the number, and walked away. It was then that i cried-well bawled. I felt powerless and voiceless in a place where the people responsible…didn’t care. Didn’t care that their ineptitude had caused this situation. I hadn’t cried that long or hard-for something other than grief, in a year. Then I pulled myself together and decided to call the Embassy. I hadn’t thought about calling them earlier, since I knew that I had “broken” a rule (visa) and had made plans to get out of dodge, on my own, thank you very much. But this was crunch time, and I didn’t want to go to Cairo. So, I called the number and spoke to a representative there. She was very nice and sympathetic to my situation. As predicted she couldn’t change the rules but I did ask her to advocate on my behalf and to give me more time to find a flight home, rather than to go to Cairo. She said she would call me back and see what she could do in the meantime. The social worker approached me at this time, and said that I had a seat on the same flight (#63 to Newark, NJ) the next morning. When the woman called back from the Embassy, she, too, was relieved that a solution had been found and that I wasn’t going to Cairo. So, I settled into another day in the center. Listening to new “members” of our community, share their stories. At this point, however, it seemed that our mayor’s good mood was dissipating. At one point I was talking to him and he started crying softly. He had been in the center close to the limit allowed (72 hours) and it was wearing on him. I told him that he had spent a lot of his energy trying to make the rest of us feel better and that he needed to take care of himself, too. At this point he shared with me why his case was taking so long. He wasn’t a legal resident of Spain and was caught re-entering after going home to Romania, to his father’s funeral. A bus would have taken 2.5 days, so he decided to fly. It was a risk he was willing to take. But, his case was complicated, he told me, because he had had a run in with the law. At this point I was thinking of jaywalking or maybe a parking ticket? No, this guy had been arrested for aggravated assault. He and 4 friends beat up someone who owed him money and broke his arms and he had spent a year and a half in jail. yea. So, as much as this guy was sweet…this made me uncomfortable. He had spent 3,000 Euros on a lawyer to work with a judge to clear this up, and it hadn’t work. They said yes, he could enter Spain, initially, and then changed their mind. But he was getting restless and angry. Not a good situation. The next day, as I said my goodbyes, he just waved from his bed. He had been there longer than 72 hours.
On the day of my departure, the security guard came and got my luggage receipt to get my checked bag. They told me that nothing had been said to them about the cost of the ticket and since I hadn’t authorized anything on mine, I hoped it was all taken care of (I have since checked and there were no additional charges on my card) and got my stuff together. I had breakfast and chatted with my companions until I was called and a young man from Brazil (he hadn’t purchased a return ticket, which looks suspicious). If I was not d.o.n.e with that place, I would have loved the goofy police officers who came to escort us to the plane. At one point they left me alone, in the lobby, of the airport. OOPS. Had I decided to make a run for it… They took us to their car on the tarmac, after joking about how i loved Spain too much, and had stayed too long, and joked and poked fun at each other while trying to find my plane. I was not amused…and was again anxious that I would miss my flight. The walked me up to the plane door, said goodbye and handed my ticket to the flight attendant.
After taking off and landing safely in the US, I have had time to ponder this experience. I saw firsthand the inside of a detention center and heard about the various rules that exist for some people…and not others…that determine how easy/hard it is to travel to Europe. As uncomfortable as we were, I can imagine that a detention center in, Sudan, let’s say, would have been a lot worse. I had food, I was warm and I was safe. I learned that in situations like this, if you are lucky and have a someone willing to be the “mayor” that you might have a community willing to listen, share and help. You might even smile and laugh. I also learned how to advocate for myself, in Spanish, and to not give up easily. On a more lighthearted note, I will forever carry clean clothes in my carry-on, as well as a toothbrush and currency, of wherever I am visiting (a bar of chocolate wouldn’t hurt either). I will also stay within the rules. However, at the end of the day, after all of this, I would have gone to Africa again–in heart beat. I do not regret that decision, at all. Bum luck, that’s all.