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Getting to the US as a Wife and Mother: Sarah's Story

We hear from many students who have faced unique challenges in studying in the U.S., but Sarah's story is one we haven't heard before. She wrote to us to say that she was "over the moon" to receive her acceptance to Notre Dame University, but "the big question? How will we take the children calmly through a 17hour flight?"

With a husband and two small children hoping to accompany her to the U.S., Sarah had some extra stress during her journey to start school this fall.

“You are never too old to dream or pursue your passions; it’s never too late no matter what; hope should never die; one must never give up.” Those were just some of the things I told myself when I was nursing my unfulfilled desire to pursue a masters in international human rights law. I thought to myself, “I believe in a big God able to do impossible things, so eventually, no matter what, this Master’s will come my way.”

Lo and behold there it was in front of my eyes; an email from the University of Notre Dame accepting me into their international human rights law program for 2013. I was stunned. I was breathless. I read it over and over again savoring every word, especially "pleased to offer you." I, a wife, mother of two energetic toddlers and public prosecutor, was about journey across the globe to fulfill a seven-year-old dream!

University of Notre Dame (Creative Commons by Gbozik)

But first I had to get there.

Step one was easy: accept the offer by email and relish in telling friends and family, especially my mom who was living vicariously through me, that finally it had happened and what a prestigious university I had been accepted to.

Step two however, getting the visas, was something of a mission. All the spook stories I heard of people being turned down for some unattainable unidentifiable reason loomed large as my family and I waited for our interviews to come. Would they allow us to go together, or would they decide that I didn’t need my family to be with me on this journey?

Will my family be allowed to join me?

I agonized at 2 a.m. over how to respond to difficult questions I might be asked, like why the whole family should go instead of just me. My husband, on the other hand, slept like a baby and every answer to me was, “It will be fine.”

Finally, the day came and my family and I got bundled up against the cold and assembled outside the U.S. Embassy in Harare. We handed in our papers and waited outside patiently. Then, our first encounter with bad luck. I hadn’t booked interviews for my toddlers, and each and every applicant, yes even the 15-month-old, needed to have an appointment. So here was the choice: either go in alone or come back with your whole family on another day. I chose to go in alone.

After being ushered through security, I started questioning my decision. What if the immigration officer thought that if I could go to the interview alone I could certainly go to America alone? I figured they had some expert psychology training that would make them reach such conclusions - watching too much 24 was making me paranoid!

As I sat and waited with other visa hopefuls, we discussed in hushed tones what could lead to a denial. I had my I-20 form, full tuition and a living allowance, but the horror stories being exchanged started to fray my nerves. Finally my turn came, and to my surprise the officer spoke in a friendly tone whileasking what I was to study and my plans after that, and looking at my papers. This was not the interrogation I had been anticipating all week. I was a little thrown off but relieved. After a few other personal questions, and furious typing of my responses into his computer, he took my passport, gave me a yellow receipt, and told me to come and collect my passport the following day. I was elated! But what about my family?

My husband and children’s interview day came about 10 days later,and I wasn’t allowed into the embassy with them – a fact that was communicated to me by a lady sitting behind a glass window – so I went to attend my pre-departure orientation and switched off my phone. As soon as it was lunchtime, I called my husband. It had all gone well; they had visas. A wave of relief swept over me.

So we all got our visas, mine and the children’s expiring in May 2013, and my husband’s visa expiring in July 2014. Why his visa is longer than mine when his was only issued because I had one is some inexplicable outcome that I just couldn’t fathom, except that God has a great sense of humor.

Small children on a plane

Creative commons photo Shai Barzilay
Creative commons photo Shai Barzilay

It was the third step to getting to the U.S. that I was most dreading – getting two small children 1,000 km on a combination of buses and planes.

I packed “teddy” and a multitude of snacks for the first leg of the trip, a bus journey to Johannesburg. Twelve hours later when we finally made it to Johannesburg (thanks to a seven-hour delay on the border because immigration officials were on a “go slow” protest), I had run out of snacks, it was stifling hot, “teddy” was no longer an interesting distraction and my 15-month-old had gained at least 5 kg in my arms standing in that long, winding queue at the border!

Now it was on to a grueling 18-hour flight. This time I would pack a double multitude of snacks; I wasn’t going to be caught unawares! Sadly, “teddy” was forgotten on the bus and was not to accompany us to America.

The Johannesburg-to-London flight was uneventful, with my precious children obediently falling asleep upon take off and sleeping all the way through. As we took our seats for the Heathrow-to-Chicago flight, an unassuming woman in her mid-forties was ushered toa seat next to ours. When she beheld my 15-month-old daughter and three-year-old son, her face morphed into a mixture of pain and absolute horror at the idea of spendingeight hours on a plane next to two screaming toddlers. They were angels now but surely they would scream, and soon.

She immediately, gruffly and quietly, though not quietly enough, told the flight attendant, “You have to find me somewhere else to sit. I am not sitting here.”Once her seat was moved andher anger had subsided, embarrassment began to creep in and she apologetically told me, “You know, I am a mother too and I have children.It’s just that I can’t really deal with this today.” I smiled coolly and told her I understood, but when my two children fell peacefully asleep on takeoff, I smugly thought, “Take that you rude American woman!”

Would all Americans say the first thing that came into their minds without considering the listener’s feelings? I certainly hoped not. Sadly, my smug victory was short-lived, as after a power nap of 30 minutes, my two woke up and became a riotous pair of uncomfortable crying babies.

We eventually made it safely to O’Hare Airport, but not without one final adventure. Just as the fasten seatbelt sign had been turned on for landing, my daughter decided this was the perfect time for her to have a long overdue bowel movement that was punctuated with loud passing of wind and a stench to match, which left me absolutely sinking in my seat with shame! All I can say is that was the longest descent and landing of all time.

After changing my daughter in the plane’s lavatory and going safely through immigration and passport control, I felt a sense of excitement and relief. I had arrived into the United States of America and my path to a long unfulfilled dream was on its way to realization – a Master’s degree from Notre Dame and a better future as a human rights lawyer. But for now I was pretty pleased with just surviving my journey across the globe.