When I first heard about beyond tellerrand a few years ago, it seemed like an event that was not only well-run, but well-loved by those who have attended. Every time I hear about it, I hear such great things that I knew that I wanted to be a part of it some day. I'm happy to report that it lived up to even my wildest expectations.
Why you never should give up
When you start organising events with the intention to create a fun experience for everybody, you might not see all the issues that pop up during the process of planning it. This year – after 15 years of running events and in the fifth year of running #btconf – I invited Sara Soueidan to come and be part of the family in Düsseldorf. I knew that she was going to need a visa to travel to Germany, but hell, I did not even think for a second that she wouldn’t get it from the German embassy. Why should I? She had spoken in Italy, Netherlands, Spain, and even in Germany in 2014! So there was no reason for thinking she wouldn’t get her “yes” from the Germans, right? I did not see what was coming …
In July 2014 I invited Sara to be part of beyond tellerrand // Düsseldorf 2015. I was happy that she agreed and
sent her the questionnaire I needed answered to arrange travel and announce her speaking at beyond tellerrand etc. Sara explained to me what her plan was for getting the visa and what she needed from my side to support her getting the visa.
I would need an invitation letter and hotel and flight bookings, so these things come last. I’ll need to apply for the visa in March, and I should have all conf plans ready by then.
Well, if you know me, you know that I really take care of these things. So I directly booked her flight, got the hotel confirmed and wrote a detailed invitation letter. I even got a formal letter of the hotel manager proving that Sara is staying there for the claimed duration.
The invitation contained
- the purpose of visit
- a proposed itinerary
- description of activities during her stay
- intentions after departure from Germany
- description of my financial support
- Sara’s details
- the local contact info (mine)
- information of visa support for other people in the past – if any
I signed the invitation and added it to the rest of the material. I thought “Damn, are we well prepared. Feels good. Waterproof. There is nothing that can go wrong.” – except that my self-confidence and my belief has proven to be wrong.
On March 18th, one month ago(!), Sara posted this on Twitter:
WHAT? … I mean … WHAT?!?
Of course Sara and I had a long conversation about what happened. She was describing the whole experience as something that wasn’t fun at all. She said she was exhausted and the responsible person in the embassy had a body language during the interview that already said “you won’t get the visa”. When she mentioned she had been to Germany just 6 months prior, he said something like “But you didn’t get the visa from our embassy”. After listening to her description of the interview and seeing the reason that was given for refusing the visa, I was ashamed. I simply couldn’t believe this was happening.
What a ridiculous reason! I – and I think Sara as well – thought, how arrogant it is of someone to assume that someone like Sara was going to stay in another country than her own country. Where she lives. Where her family is. A simple search for her name would have shown the many countries, in which she had shared her knowledge before. Never ever thinking of not going back. Part of me was angry and furious and part of me felt helpless and small. “What now?” I thought. But I immediately explained to Sara, that I won’t give up.
After she and I tweeted about it people were speechless. But their following support was tremendous. If you know the energy that can be created if a community stands together. Knowing the community we work in, with and are - you can easily guess what happened next. I love the community for this. People started writing letters to the embassy, asking the corresponding person of the embassy to reconsider their decision and grant Sara the visa. M. E. Stevens even created a website, stating why it is important to give a visa to Sara and what she has to do in comparison to others to travel to an event. I am not sure if this issue Sara and I had with the embassy was the reason or if he already did this before, but it is just lovely of him to create a site like this. Wonderful. Thanks to everybody who has written, posted, and helped in any other way – you are the people!
A few of the people then even got a reply from the person who was not giving the visa to Sara and in one it said that he can’t give any information and none of these letters can help change the decision. The only thing that would have a chance to change something would be an objection in written form by Sara.
Not giving up
In my initial outrage I thought that everybody writing a letter to the embassy was a good idea. Until someone realized that the only chance was for Sara to write a formal objection, a remonstration, to the embassy. He said we better stop flooding the embassy with letters until it is really sure that she does not get the visa. I had that feeling before, but was feeling so helpless. So I did not ask for any more letters and wrote a polite, formal objection for Sara in German, which she signed and sent to the embassy.
If a visa application is rejected, the applicant has one month to appeal in writing (“remonstrate”) to the mission abroad. The mission abroad will then reconsider the application. (Visa Regulations, Federal Foreign Office of Germany)
In parallel one of my friends, also volunteering beyond tellerrand, said that he might have a good contact in politics who might be able to support our cause. Through them he got me in touch with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs who helped make this issue a priority at the embassy in Beirut. Huge thanks, Tomas!
Furthermore I spoke to my contact at the City of Düsseldorf, supporting beyond tellerrand for many years now, if and what they might be able to do. He asked the city’s responsible department of the city and got back to me with an official letter of recommendation for Sara from the City of Düsseldorf, stating how important it is to have her speak at beyond tellerrand in Düsseldorf. Many, many thanks to you, Jürgen!
I also already got an appointment at my local office for foreign affairs to get something called a “Verpflichtungserklärung”, which is something you can translate with “ formal obligation”.
It means that I, as Sara’s host, pay a deposit or show my income of the last two years to the office. With this I guarantee to cover all costs incurred by the applicant during the stay in Germany … don’t ask me what this actually changes, but I heard that this is a way that can help getting someone the visa. In the end we did not need it …
This is quite a long text, I know, but it still does not show how much effort it actually was. Not just from me, but with help of many people and many little puzzle pieces building the whole picture. But yes, this morning Sara sent a DM:
I just got a call from the embassy and he told me to go go the embassy next week (Mon thru Thurs) to take it on the same day :D
YES! We finally got the visa for Sara which is nothing less than great news. Sara was at a point not believing that this is going to turn into anything with a positive end and I, to be honest, had my doubt at some points as well. But I always stayed positive, tried several things, kept Sara up to date and really believed in the little chance we had. The people I was in touch with in Berlin said that they heard, the letter of the City of Düsseldorf was the key to change the visa decision.
You won’t believe how happy this makes me and Sara. Honestly. This was a lot of time which I, as a one man band running this event, usually need and use for other things to be done. But I considered it my job to prove that Germany is not what Sara experienced at our embassy and that there is a way to get her to beyond tellerrand. I felt angry and ashamed of the arrogance, the hubris with which somebody could think that she – that anyone – wants to stay in our country instead of their home country, because it is better to stay here. I thought it was not right, especially with no real reason.
For some people, family bonds are a way stronger tie than any formal or official paperwork – and I am sure in Sara’s case that is absolutely the case. Sara and I agree, that countries/governments need to have more faith in people and not treat everyone the same way because of stupid stereotypes. And one thing Sara said is – and I totally agree, particularly because of this story – “they should use the internet more”. One quick search would have shown how much she travels to speak at events in foreign countries.
I think we did the right thing in not giving up. And I also believe that you should do the same. Never lose trust in what you do and want to achieve. If you see the smallest chance that something could work out and you really want it: don’t give up!