Where your journey begins…matters


Cameroon’s position on the globe. Image: via Wikipedia.

Born in the U.S. or Canada? India or Australia? Sudan or Argentina? Ukraine or Japan? For all the control or intentionality we try to exercise over our lives, the most important determinants of what direction our lives take are where we were born, and the economic status of our family.

So, here we are, patting ourselves on our backs for our education and work accomplishments when a big percentage of our personal “success” is the result of random geo-location at birth.

Where am I going with this? Well, recently I had a significant reminder about how much I take for granted because of the serendipity that gave me U.S. citizenship.  (I could easily have born outside of Kiev had my father not emigrated early in the 20th century.)

For several years, I have provided a home base for Pierre, a young Cameroonian from very modest means studying electrical engineering at SUNY Canton. Over that time, I have heard more and more detail about what it took Pierre to get over here to pursue his education–including negotiating surreal bureaucratic red-tape and obstacles that would have daunted most people. Plus, Pierre does not have a wealthy or even middle-class family for a safety net or to support his aspirations.

United States placed on the globe. Image: via Wikipedia.

United States placed on the globe. Image: via Wikipedia.

Indeed, when I asked friends who do a lot of animal conservation work in Africa if they had ever led projects in Cameroon their answer underscored what I knew of Pierre’s experience: “We can’t work in Cameroon. After decades of dictatorship, it has one of the most corrupt bureaucracies on the continent and we simply can’t work our way through or afford the maze of bribery required to get anything done.”

Yikes. An exaggeration? I doubt it. Last week I tried to help Pierre through a piece of that maze and was left feeling incredibly grateful for American bureaucracy. Yes, grateful that renewing a passport as a US citizen is a relatively straightforward and simple process: you send in your old passport with a check for about $100 and a few weeks later your new passport arrives in the mail.

For weeks, Pierre had been calling both the Washington and Ottawa embassies maintained by Cameroon in an effort to find out what was required to renew his passport before it expires in May. Neither embassy EVER answered their phone. EVER. There was no email address for either embassy. The websites provide a form that has to be filled out and presented in person at an embassy. Okay, we’d visit an embassy.

We decided to go to Ottawa–much closer than DC. From the website, we knew the embassy would be open from 9-3:30 weekdays. We arrived on a Friday at about 10 am. We were greeted by a young woman who never smiled, never offered a bit of helpful energy. She resented us, clearly. And, she immediately informed us that passport renewals are only handled Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, by appointment only.


Pierre makes it to Parliament, but no passport renewal back at the embassy.

Too bad that information wasn’t on the website, but so be it. We informed her that Pierre’s passport would expire in May and asked for an appointment to do the renewal. She looked at her calendar and without a bit of irony or suggestion for a solution, told us she could schedule Pierre for an appointment in November.

Could she understand our concern about waiting until after Pierre’s passport expires? Could she offer us any guidance or advice on how to handle the situation?

The best she could do was suggest that Pierre return to Cameroon and renew his passport there where it would take less time. (Here’s where class comes into the story: obviously this young woman came from a more privileged and wealthy family in Cameroon than Pierre does–he is foregoing any visits home until he completes his degree because he has had to piece together every bit of money to pay for his tuition and living expenses. No $2,000+ for a quick plane trip home.)

We accepted the November appointment. We left the embassy and decided to try again in Washington. Perhaps at the larger embassy there we would do better.

Pierre began the phone call routine again but after a couple of days of no answer, no voice message, no voicemail option, we were getting desperate.

I mentioned the situation to a neighbor whose sister has worked with African students in the US. She recommended we contact a “passport expediter” she uses in situations like this.

I had no idea there was such a thing as a “passport expediter.” Did you?

We are currently awaiting a response from our newly engaged passport expediter to find out if they can serve as Pierre’s agent with the Cameroon embassy in Washington–or if Pierre has to actually travel to DC to do it in person, with our expediter close at hand, I hope.

I’ll keep you posted on our progress. The takeaway for me? Gratitude comes in strange packages sometimes. Right now I want to take back every time I’ve grumbled or complained about poor service provided by public employees at various agencies and bureaucracies. Within some kind of reasonable time frame, I’ve usually been able to accomplish what needed to be accomplished in spite of surly or unhelpful staff. I am grateful that we do not live in a dictatorship–and now I have one more reason for that gratitude: a driver’s license or passport or birth certificate can be obtained relatively simply and does not require bribery.

This, too: my admiration for Pierre’s determination has grown exponentially. He let nothing get in his way or discourage him. He persevered..without any kind of expediters.

6 Comments on “Where your journey begins…matters”

  1. Hank says:

    Wow! As a former public servant in Canada, I would not be so calm in the face of such obvious incompetence, inconsiderate ness or worse!

  2. Pete Klein says:

    When you get right down to it, none of us have much to be proud about.
    Even the very successful who came from low expectations and managed to succeed, didn’t get there totally by themselves.

  3. jill vaughan says:

    What a mess- I didn’t have proof of citizenship for years- my parents died in Canada, and I moved to the States. Had no papers. For years I paid for long distance calls to where my mother was naturalized in US, contacted John McHugh and Hillary Clinton’s offices, wrote letters. I had a copy of my social security card- which I passed off for employment- would never work today- never had any luck. I was detained at the border, post 9-11, and when I finally got back in US, didn’t leave again, because of my kids and farm, etc. Live just 15 miles or so from Canada. Finally had the good fortune to find a metal box I had forgotten about – within two weeks I had a passport- did a commentary about it for NCPR. But the fact remains, had I not found the box, I would never have been able to change jobs. College took me 18 years as an adult because I couldn’t get financial aid- had to pay for 3 credits at a time, until I got my papers. It’s a terrifying life, keeping under the radar. much more so for someone like Pierre. Good luck.

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    “the most important determinants of what direction our lives take are where we were born, and the economic status of our family.”

    You can see this effect in cities where you find taxi drivers and street vendors and janitors who had been doctors and engineers in their home country before conflict began. They were the ones who had money and the proper papers to leave and find their way to a safe destination. Others lacking those resources usually end up trapped in conflict or, if they are lucky survive a difficult journey to a refugee camp where they will probably spend years or decades.

    But it is similar here, though less dramatic. If you are born to a wealthy, educated family you are far more likely to retain wealth. If you are born poor to uneducated parents you are likely to remain poor your whole life. Still, better to be poor here than in many places.

  5. Ellen Rocco says:

    Quick update on Pierre’s status: he now has a mid-March appointment in Washington (obtained after three days of non-stop calling the embassy). Waiting to hear from the passport expediter about whether or not they can represent Pierre at the embassy and save us a trip to DC. More when it happens…

  6. Knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Was the expediter helpful in getting the appointment?

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