Today the twelve fellows of the 2015 Advice Project Global Leadership and Empowerment Summit arrived in Lima. Peru doesn't require Canadian and United States of America nationals to obtain visas, so the most difficult issues most of us dealt with while in transit was being forced to dump the water out of our water bottles as we walked through security, and needing to munch on less than savory airplane snack options.
It was a different story entirely for the summit participants flying from Cameroon.
Advice Project Cameroon Program Manager, Fomuso Blessing Nabila, and two teens from our class in Bamenda, Cameroon (Gaelle and Shneider), spent over 30 hours traveling due to a myriad of visa complications and problems with airline and airport officials.
We had to deal with Peruvian consulates in six countries, a conversation with the UN, and an appeal from The Advice Project to the Peruvian embassy in Washington, D.C. to even initiate the visa process. Morocco, Egypt, and Ghana ignored our requests entirely, South Africa told us to deal with a consulate in North Africa, and Algeria also told us to deal with a North African consulate (we always had been told Algeria was a part of North Africa??). The consulate in the USA wasn't helpful until the embassy reached out to them. At that point, things started to move along, and officials were very helpful.
In the eleventh hour, Blessing and the teens received a special letter from the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Lima to allow them entry into Peru, and we were told to report to the Minister upon arrival to receive their visas. We were assured that there would be no problem with traveling. Famous last words...
Blessing, Gaelle, and Shneider barely made it out of Douala, Cameroon. Blessing was questioned extensively about the purpose of their travel and the 100-page documents that had been meticulously prepared back in New York to ease their transit were pored over in great detail by officials. No one could seem to wrap their heads around why a young black African woman and two young teenage girls would need to leave Cameroon. Even more difficult for the airport officials to comprehend was the idea that three young Cameroonian females had been invited to assume leadership roles at a summit that would actively work to dismantle global patriarchy and amplify girls' voices about conservation and gender issues.
For awhile, all seemed lost. But Blessing persevered. After hours of waiting in Douala, she finally was shuffled through security and was allowed to board their flight. Sadly, their ordeal had just begun. At their first transit point, in Istanbul, Turkey, they had their passports taken away, and they were detailed for nearly ten hours. Blessing wasn't given a reason for this detainment, and she and the girls were forced to miss their next flight. Finally, in tears and exhausted after 24 hour without sleep, Blessing cried loudly, "Is it because I am black that you hold our passports?"
At that point, the authorities cowed. "Oh, no, no," said one of the security officers. "That is not the reason." The passports were returned, Blessing and the girls were provided with meal vouchers, and tickets for the next flight were booked. Our Cameroonian friends were never told the reason for their detainment, but we strongly speculate that it was because of the color of their skin, their nationality, and their religion - which is not the religion practiced in Turkey, a Muslim-majority country. We also wonder if they would've received the same treatment had they been men.
The world, we learned, does not readily offer experiences to all of its inhabitants. Citizens of certain countries have privileges not afforded to nationals from many countries in Africa, the entire continent of Asia, and Eastern Europe. Colonialism and racism play a big part in this.
We are thankful to Peru for allowing us to hold our global summit within its borders, and we appreciate so much their willingness to open their borders to nationals from countries that generally have difficulty traveling.
In two days our group flies from Lima to Puerto Maldonado, where we'll take a boat into the Peruvian rainforest. Being afforded this privilege for all members of our group is not lost to us, and Peru does itself a great service by letting people of all races and cultures see its beautiful rainforest and learn about some of the important issues pertaining to gender and conservation within the country's borders.