The question I am most often asked here in Slovakia is this: "Why did you come here?" The way that that question is posed does often vary in tone of voice, ranging from skepticism to plain surprise, but always there is a curiosity behind it that prompts most Slovaks I have met to ask me it within the first hour of meeting me.
That question usually makes me laugh, but I will admit that sometimes I even question my own decision to move here to Slovakia. Why did I actually decide to pick up my entire life, fly across an ocean, and begin a new journey in a new culture?
The answer to that question has never been clearer to me than it was a few nights ago.
Last Thursday night (or Friday morning, rather), I found myself walking up to the foreign police office in Bratislava with my flatmate, Carolina. It was just after midnight, and as we approached the doors, we saw a lot of people huddled around the entrance, standing or sitting in groups and chatting. Carolina and I were there to support our friend, colleague, and fellow foreigner Randi, as she had already tried four times just to get in the door of the foreign police to give them her papers, without success. This was her last shot to do so before she had to leave the Schengen zone, and we were determined that she was going to make it through this time, and that she would not spend the night alone.
The first thing I noticed as we drew near the people at the door was the amount of people that were already gathered there. Many of them were fellow foreigners waiting in the cool night air, but the other half of the people there were people I know - students, teachers, and friends from the school that we teach at - C.S. Lewis Bilingual High School.
These friends of ours were standing in groups, and though the night promised to be long, there was an energy there that was undeniable. I could feel it as soon as I walked up to the first group. They all greeted Carolina and me with smiles, and I knew in that moment that Randi and all of us who had to wait for our visas were not alone. Our Slovaks were with us.
That night was long, and I know that I only stayed awake because my students and colleagues were taking shifts with us throughout those many hours, and their offers of tea, snacks, and cheerful conversation kept us going. I did not have to be there either, but I wanted to be there for my friend as my Slovak friends have been there for me. Plus I have to take a trip back to the police next week for my own visa card renewal, so I also wanted to scope things out before I braved the journey.
Despite our good energy and cheerful students, the waiting process was not always positive. By the time 5:00 hit, some people waiting woke everyone up to form a line. Things got tense at that point. I was worried for Randi, as she was right in the middle of two men who were yelling and shoving each other, but thankfully everyone calmed down. I do not blame them for their tension, though. Randi had had to come back for the fifth time, but I doubt that she was alone in that. I am sure that all of those people who had come the evening before were not there for the first time. Who knows how much time they had left? Where were they to go if they had to leave?
Around 5:30 our group of students and teachers started to grow. Our 3:00 to 5:30 shift had dwindled to about five, as the teachers had wisely taken most of the students back to the school so they could sleep for a few hours, but as dawn came upon us, they all started trickling back in. What was a group of five quickly grew to 20, and then to 40, and then eventually to around 100. As we waited, the camera crews made their way around, interviewing us once again.
Around 7:30, the police made everyone get in a straight line, and then they opened the doors and let them in. Two of our colleagues made sure Randi got in the door, and then one of them, Zuzka, went with her to translate for her. As the other, Marian, came back out, he got up on the short wall there and announced in a loud voice that we were successful. Randi had made it in! We cheered loudly, and then started heading back to school.
I was torn in that moment between frustration and deep gratitude. The frustration came as I watched the 100 other people still waiting their turn in line. Would they make it in that day? They were trying just as hard as Randi had to go through the legal process just to be here. Were they not worthy of that too? And, selfishly, what would it be like for me when I went back? So far I had been blessed with good timing, as I usually had to renew my visa in the spring (and therefore had had very few problems with the foreign police), but now that I had to go in the fall, would it also take me at least four times? Is it really worth the frustration and the wait? I mean, I do not mind waiting for a few hours and going through a little bit of hassle. That is completely normal, and to be expected. But is it worth risking my health and the quality of my work just to stay overnight a few times to try to get my visa card again?
Those questions do have a positive answer, and that has to do with the gratitude I felt, and with my answer to the question that so many people ask me when I move here - "Why are you here?"
I am here because I love this country and I love these people. I came here to go on a new adventure, but it turns out that this adventure has been much more than I ever could have hoped for. As I stood there with my colleagues and my students, cheering Randi on, I felt a solidarity with them that I had rarely ever felt in my life, outside of my family and small groups of close friends. They care about us. They want us to stay. We have a special community at that school, and that is what drew me to Slovakia in the first place and what has made me feel at home.
Slovakia does need to better their services for foreigners, as not everyone has the support group that we have. There are rules and laws that we all must follow, but those rules should have clear expectations and explanations, and they should be fairly enforced. Each country makes its own decisions about residence for foreigners, but if they create laws that allow for visas, should it not then be possible to get a visa?
Despite these unsolved issues and despite the frustrating process, I am encouraged by the response of people like my students. Our students are already talking about how they can help and what ways they can make their country better. I have much to learn from them in how I am involved in my own country! These students, who live passionately and want to better their worlds, are the reason I feel that I need to stay.
Why am I here? I am here because I have a home here, among these students and these friends, who have welcomed me with open arms. That thought got me through a long night, and I know it will carry me through any other long nights ahead.
The author is a teacher at C. S. Lewis Bilingual High School in Bratislava