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First, I must apologize for being out of sight for the past 14 days. It had been the longest and most difficult two weeks for me. I know as a blogger, I should keep my readers up to speed with my thoughts and continue my sharing. However, I hope my blog post today would earn your understanding and empathy towards my family and I.I am touched by those who have sent me messages and regards in this stressful time and also grateful for your patience. Speaking of patience, this is the lesson learned that I would like to share with you in this blog post.
As most of you know, as a family we have made the decision to move to England back in January and I took Xavier out of school for three months (March-June) thinking it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity for him to experience learning in a less conventional way. It had proven it was indeed a worthwhile experience for both of us. Hence I have been blogging about our adventures titled, “Golden Opportunity”. The sudden halt of my blogging came when I found out that my visa would not be ready on August 15 as it was verbally promised by the Call center relating to the evaluation of my application being processed in the Home Office Visa section in Sheffield, UK.
Maybe I should also give an explanation of the background of this visa issue. It’s probably fair to say that most of us would not fully understand the complication arising and what it takes to apply to live in a new country. Just a case in point, a friend of mine was at the visa office in the UK trying to renew her son’s student visa and they were there for over 7.5 hours, that was not even counting the hours for preparing all the required documents.
As a HKSAR passport holder, I have not experienced any difficulties in entering any countries and other than a few countries (USA, Australia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos), a visa is not required at all to enter and visit. Although in this case, I am only talking about a tourist visa but given the fact that I am married to a European citizen (Paul is Irish, don’t call him English (!) but sees himself first and foremost as European!). Paul and I both thought and were under the impression that applying for a visa to live in the UK would be nothing more than a formality, especially since our son was also an EU passport holder.
Anticipating a swift process to be granted my EEA Family Dependency Visa (EEA stands for European Economic Area – an entity that includes the EU and several other neighbouring European countries ), we processed a large amount of documentation and supporting material at the Hong Kong International Visa Centre at the end of May 2017. According to the Home Office website (www.GOV.UK), we naively believed in their clearly stated statistics that all such non-settlement Visas are processed within 15 working days from Hong Kong. It would had been June 17 and our flights were scheduled on June 20.
The first sign of potential alarm was raised on June 17th, when instead of being notified to pick up my newly granted Visa, I received a generic email advising that because my application “was not straightforward”, it would take longer than the normal time frame to process. Worryingly, the email came from a processing centre in Sheffield in UK belonging to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whereas we were led to believe that the Visa would be handled locally in Asia, as a matter of rote. Paul took that to be coded language for “we are way behind on our ability to process everything, so instead of missing our much-heralded service times of 15 days, if we re-classify this application as ‘not-straight-forward’, then we can consider her’s to be de facto not included in the normal service times “.
Our immigration lawyer from UK reassured us that everything was submitted and in order. His advice was to be PATIENT. So I did just that for another two weeks, thinking it was only the beginning of the summer in Europe, still have time to enjoy the English summer.
Time marched on, come end of June, and my patience grew thin. With my passport floating somewhere within the UK Home Office Visa system, yet not allowing me to leave Hong Kong as I had no passport on hand.(That was when I wish I had dual passports, another story worth sharing in time!) Instead of throwing a fit, I knew all I could do was to continue to be patient. So I waited and at the same time, I have to say Xavier and I have enjoyed our unexpected extended time in Hong Kong. We continued to explore parts of Hong Kong that we never had been before, such as the Geo-Parks and island hoppings. We also had the opportunity to spend a lot more time with my adult children, Alex and Claire. It was truly a blessing in disguise.
In the meantime, I waited another month patiently again. Come end of July, when there was still no sign of any emails from the UKIV (www.uk.org), we, utterly exasperated, began to repeatedly call the Home Office International Visa call-centre, an outsourced solution that allowed a buffer between the desperate applicants and the aloof Home Office. After Paul explained the unusual delay of my application, the call centre employee agreed that 2 months was way too long, and would escalate the case, meaning ping a message via computer to the Home office processing centre (the people that actually evaluate the cases) to urge a resolution, and again their service targets were 15 working days (it would had been August 15 if they had kept their word). Repeated calls and charges ensued, the 15 days came and went. There was still no sight of any sort. By this time, I had canceled, re-booked and canceled again for our flights 5 times. (Cathay Pacific surely has a way to get your money as each time I cancel, rebook a flight, it cost.)
I cannot explain but I had an ill-feeling during the days leading to August 15. I could hardly sleep, I lost my appetite and my brain went into lock down. It was as though I had no control over my physical and emotional state. I was mentally exhausted. Hence unable to blog.
Unable to stop the lightning speed of time, I began to panic and I had very little patience left. Xavier is due to start school on September 5 and yet we were both stuck in Hong Kong, helpless. We had lost the summer and had lost the chance to have a holiday as a family.
Our stress level mounted with each passing day during these last two weeks of August. I decided we could not just sit and wait any longer. So Paul and I agreed we had to take further proactive actions. I found a new Immigration advisor in Hong Kong (his insights and suggested strategies have proven to be of great value ). I wish I had engaged his service much earlier. Lesson learned no.1 – it is always best to engage services and seek advice from the country of your origin, the place where you submit your application. It is because they have much more experience in dealing with similar cases such as mine, hence their insights and connections are much more in tune and up to date with the current situation or changes in the immigration laws. A case in point: I would not have known that at the time of my initial application on June 1, all cases were processed in Asia but unknown to the layman, effective on June 12 everything was consolidated back to UK. In short, the visa approval offices in Manila and in KL no longer deal with any applications related to settlement cases.
At Paul’s end, he reached out directly to his Member of Parliament in the constituency where our UK home is. (Lesson learned no. 2 is when cases like mine became so unusually delayed, we should have reached out to officials for help sooner. After all, that’s what taxes are for (Each month, half of Paul’s salary goes to the tax office). Luckily, the local MP acted professionally and with integrity. Not only did he reply to Paul’s email swiftly but have acted upon our request by making a call directly to the Home Office to find out what the unacceptable delay was all about.
In less than a week, renewed letters were sent to all corners of the bureaucracy, pointing out that this application was taking far too long, and our family’s right to union was being compromised by this painful no-man’s-land of no information. A court and generic email was received by the same Sheffield office on August the 29th, again stating that the Visa was being considered, but several additional checks were required; what they were and what was under question was never disclosed. Paul’s M.P. engaged directly with the Home office on August 31st and was told that several additional security checks had to be completed. We were told that we had to be PATIENT, and wait for that to complete, and we would be told swiftly once done, cold comfort in light of the ridiculous time take to date.
There are all sorts of theories floating around as to why such Visa’s are taking so long to process. Our Immigration consultant believes that it is driven by a tsunami of application for compliance in light of Brexit, where people are seeking to complete procedures to guarantee their legal status or apply for permanent residency, given the unknown of post Brexit. To add to this, the Home Office International Visa centres are utterly unprepared and under-staffed to handle such an inrush of applications, Others, more conspiratorially, suggest that it is a deliberate slow-down as a negotiating tactic with Brexit, a form of ‘ tit-for-tat’ to remind the world, especially EU members, that their EEA rights can be capriciously delayed at the whim of a faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy.
Today is Sept 1 and it is the first day of a new school year for most of the school around the world. Like other children, Xavier could also have been starting a new school, meeting his new friends but instead, we are still stuck in Hong Kong, waiting as we had in the last three months – PATIENTLY. I don’t know what else we could have done to change the current situation. Or what should we have done differently: Either apply for the visa much earlier ( but with hindsight, that would have resulted in us not being able to travel around Asia as we did give my passport would have been in the system and not in my hands, so in a sense, we were damned if we did, and damned if we did not). Or enter the country with a tourist visa and settle Xavier in school first and travel back to Hong Kong to apply for the visa? Or what?
Of course, I could also send Xavier to UK on his own (he has his frequent flyer membership already given how often he flies on his own!) to start school first. Speaking of school, I am also grateful for Xavier’s new school in UK to be so accommodating and understanding of my ridiculous situation and have assured us that they will hold the place for Xavier until and whenever he arrives. (School fee on hold too!)
The reasons why it is not possible for me to send Xavier ahead are numerous: firstly, there’s nowhere like Hong Kong where help and immediate assistance are all within easy reach (On this note, I must express my gratitude to all the helpers I have had over the years, without them, it would had made my life as a mother much more challenging. So I do think for those Filipinos helpers who have served ten of thousands of Hong Kong families over the years, they should be granted the right to stay in Hong Kong as residents).
Secondly, Paul has to work, distance is far, who can take care of Xavier after school even if he takes the school bus? I did think of hiring an ‘au pair’ but that itself is a process that takes a good while. But this would only be an option to me if I knew how much longer it will take for my visa to be issued. What if it takes another month or two or more? (I am not a pessimistic person by default for those who knows me well…!) This is also not to say that Paul can’t manage to take care of Xavier (He is the best father and husband any woman could have asked for. I am blessed to have found him after being a single mother for 12 years. Again another story worth sharing in time! So to fellow single mothers out there, don’t give up. The right guy will show up at your doorstep!). I also know that if Paul could have it all, he would take off work for a year or two to raise Xavier, to be there to witness and to enjoy the once in a lifetime experience of being a father to his son. The best gift we as parents are given is our children for they make up for all the challenges we have to face as adults in life. They give us joy and fulfillment that no other means can provide. We all have but one life to live, and our children will not be children forever, they switch from that innocent child to the annoying teenager in the blink of an eye. I am speaking from experience here so trust me, enjoy while you can.
Back to reality though, there is a lot more we as parents have to consider and think through thoroughly when our children are starting a new life in a new country in a new school. We must not underestimate the fear and anxiety, the uncertainty and the unknown our children have to face when it comes to uprooting their lives of 10 years to a place where they had never lived before. I think you would agree with me that traveling to a country as a tourist is far different from living in one.
Lastly but not least, It is daunting even for adults to learn and adjust to a new environment, let alone for a child. I might be sounding over-protective or be called a helicopter parent but I do not want to throw my son in the deep-end and expect him to survive on his own. I am not doubting the amazing ability our children possess but I am saying it is my responsibility as a mother to make sure I am there for my children especially in unexpected situations. What would you have done if you were me?
Well, that is the recap of my up to date situation with my visa. I believe I had exhausted every avenue and connection. Once again, I know all I can do is to continue to be PATIENT, a virtue definitely worth strengthening. I think I can be a student of the Zen master at the end of this ordeal if there’s an end.
Looking ahead, it is not about my visa situation that should take priority any more, rather it is Xavier’s education that I need to focus on. I can, of course, continue this extended golden opportunity period but it is time for him to return to school life, to engage with his friends and teachers. I am exploring opportunity near and far right now so once I have good news, you will be first to know…..
In the meantime, I continue to take deep breaths ten to twenty times a day (bringing me back to those days of pregnancy when the nurse told me to take a deep breath!!), continue to practice my PATIENCE and put the work in God’s hand as I believe He has a plan for me.
Despite my own trouble, I do want to wish all the children and parents a great school year ahead. May every day be a great day and that our children prosper throughout the year!
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