Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Welcome to Israel
It was bound to happen. I really should have expected it. I don’t think that as an American I could be equipped to handle it no matter how much I mentally prepared myself. On Sunday I had a day of Israel.
Let’s start with the back story. I arrived nearly 10 weeks ago. When I entered the country I was given a tourist visa, which allowed for a three month visit to Israel. My company hired a lawyer and started the process to get me a work visa. Until I have my work visa, I cannot be paid by my company. The visa process seemed simple enough – the company here needed to submit a bunch of forms and I needed to supply my resume and my diploma to prove that I was a technical worker that the company needed to hire. It took me a while to get my diploma to Israel since it turned out that the copy I brought was not sufficient. I got my diploma to the company on October 3rd and was certain that the visa would soon be in order.
As the weeks past my savings that I brought with me to Israel were eaten away, and I became increasingly anxious about the visa and when I would get paid. I continued to ask my company for updates, but everyone seemed to be relying on the lawyer and had few answers. Last week when it dawned on me that my tourist visa would expire on November 17, and I would be in the country illegally or have to deal with the hassles of extending the tourist visa, I reached a new level of frustration. When everyone still had no answers for me, it was suggested to me last Wednesday that I go to the Misrad Hapanim (Ministry of Interior) to try to work things out at their office face to face. On Thursday I was out of the office and received an email in Hebrew. When I read it, it stuck out to me that the email said the process takes six weeks. Without reading further I called my office. It was clarified that the process generally takes 6 weeks from the start, not from where we were now, which was in the 5th week of the process. I asked if I should still go and was told it could help.
When I moved into my apartment on Friday, I mentioned to Iain my Australian roommate that I did not have my work visa and I described the complex process my company was working through. He looked perplexed and explained to me that he has been in Israel for three years now on a work visa called a B-1, which is very easy to get. He told me he has been able to renew it each year in a quick office visit. I figured I’d figure it all out at the Ministry’s office on Sunday.
So, Sunday morning I head to the office in the center of Jerusalem to go get my visa. I asked my brother-in-law Itay to come with me so that I’d be able to negotiate the language barrier. I arrived before Itay and thought I’d get to it. When I got off the elevator on the 13th floor of the Ministry’s building, I asked the security guard where I go to get a visa. His first response was “you can’t do that today – you need to come back on Tuesday or Thursday. No one can speak to you today.” Apparently the bureaucrats have visiting hours that you can meet with people.
I did not accept his initial rejection and pushed on – I took out all the forms my office had given me and showed them to him. He asked me if I was a mitapel, a helper – a lot of foreign workers come to Israel to be aides for senior citizens. He was asking because the visa that my company’s lawyer advised I get is the visa for mitaplim (plural mitapel). Why this visa needs a diploma and resume is beyond me, but in any case, the lawyer recommended a considerably more complex visa than was necessary. I decided that rather than arguing in my Hebrew I’d wait for Itay and see what he could do.
I went downstairs and met Itay. I told him of my progress, or lack thereof, thus far. As we boarded the elevator he put a hand on my shoulder, smiled and said “Welcome to Israel.” When we got upstairs, the guard first looked at Itay and said “I already spoke to him and told him to come back on Tuesday.” Itay asked respectfully if there was someone we could speak with. Initially the guard responded that we could speak with him. Despite the fact that he was being a smarty Israeli, he actually was very knowledgeable about the visa process. Eventually Itay convinces him to call someone who could look up my application in their system. The guy picked up the phone, dialed a few numbers and handed Itay the phone. The person informed Itay that my company had not submitted several forms for the visa to be considered! This was a very upsetting revelation to me. I immediately called the guy from my company that advised me to go to the Ministry and informed him of my discovery. Remarkably this was not news to him. “I know that – it was in the email I sent you on Thursday” he responded. I was nearly dumbfounded. I asked why he then re-advised me to go to the Ministry knowing that they did not have all the forms. He said it was a good idea to meet with the people face to face so they’d know me and care more. Ironically – I was unable to meet with anyone face to face. After I hung up with my office I figured it would be a good idea to at least try to meet someone face to face, so I asked the guard where the person that Itay was speaking to on the phone sat. Remarkably, the person the security guard called was on the very floor we were on, around the corner from the reception desk. However, no matter how I asked, the guard absolutely refused to let us meet this person. His simple repeated response “Asoor” (it’s forbidden) was unbudging. All of this was going on as a government worker was smoking a cigarette ten feet down the half from us, as if that were the office’s smoking room (Oh Israel).
I left the Ministry of Interior utterly frustrated with the bureaucracy I had just experienced and with the visa situation at large. After I left the Ministry, I called my office again and was assured that all of the forms would be submitted that day (Sunday) and that things would move along.
I did some research on my own and found that my roommate is indeed correct. This whole visa nightmare could have been resolved with a simple offer letter and a few other forms. I could have filed for a B-1 visa, which can be issued anywhere from the day of application up to 2 months to get and things would have been fine. I now find myself in a dilemma, I am considering filling for the B-1 and seeing if it comes through before the visa my office filed for, but I am fearful to find out how the Ministry of Interior handles two visa applications for the same passport – who knows what kind of creative trouble they could make with that. So I now find myself trapped in bureaucracy, with nearly three months of unpaid salary owed to me. I asked my company if they could “loan” me the pay, but they are not allowed to do so, because “that would be like paying me.” Hmmm… we wouldn’t want that now would we?
My Israel day did not end there. I left the Ministry at 10 and decided that there was no way I was going to the office at that point and that I would go and do work from home. My apartment building is located on a dead end street. Next to my building is an elementary school at the end of the block. Sometime in the afternoon, around 3pm, I heard a megaphone in front of the school. I could not hear what was being said and imagined the kids were getting out of school. Suddenly I heard a loud explosion. I looked out the window and saw police trucks. I immediately rand to my room, grabbed my camera and bolted for the door… the Oracle was on the story.
I got out to the front of my building in time to hear a second explosion. As I reached the end of the building walkway I looked down the street and saw a scene right out of a movie. At both ends of the street, police trucks had blocked the road and in between them was a large yellow robot with a mechanical arm looming over a bag on the floor. I was witnessing a chefetz chashud, or suspicious object. In Israel, the rule of “If you see something say something” is taken very seriously. If a bag or package is left alone in a public place, a bust station or mall for instance, it is not taken lightly. Security will quickly be notified and the bomb squad is called in. In the case on Sunday, a bag was left across the street from an elementary school. While the bag likely belonged to a forgetful child, security at the school knew that it could also be something considerably more sinister. Likely after asking children in the bag’s proximity if it belonged to anyone, the police were called. The explosions that I heard were the sounds of the robot shooting the bag with a powerful shotgun that would set off an explosion if in fact the bag were a bomb. Once the bag was shot twice, the robot first lifted the remains of the bag and shook them around and then drove over the bag several times. Once it was relatively clear that the bag was no more than a bag, a member of the bomb squad walked over to the bag in full Hurt Locker gear and checked to make sure that it was in fact a false alarm. Thankfully, the bomb scare down the street from my apartment was nothing more than a scare.
My first thought after witnessing the bomb scare was a reinforcement of the morning’s lesson, welcome to Israel. I then had a series of realizations, which I think say something about my acclimation to Israel. The first realization was that things could be worse – although I have not been paid in nearly three months – at least there was not a bomb in front of my apartment building in front of a school full of elementary school kids. I find it funny that I am seeing the glass as half full in these conditions – at least there was not a bomb at a school.
I then realized that it is kind of crazy that this is the place I want to spend my life –I feel such a strong connection here that I want to sign up for a life of having to deal with bureaucracy and threats that one would never face in America. I also realized that in a country where a bomb in front of a school is a real possibility, one has to accept that there will be bureaucracy and other absurdities to deal with.
Sunday really was a welcome to Israel of sorts. Many of the magical things that I find happening here are quickly taken for granted. I need to focus on keeping these positives in the limelight and not get weight down by the other side of my welcome to Israel. I have mentioned in previous posts about the friendliness and openness of people here – about bank managers giving me a lift from the bus stop and my company’s Yom Chevra (day long outing). These are things that also only happen in Israel. Welcome to Israel Yoel – you get the good and the bad. I still believe the good outweighs the bad.