I finally made it to New York. Arriving last week at JFK, the 13-hour trip was uneventful: leaving a sunny Amman at 10:30 am, sleeping through most of the flight, waking up and asked by a flight attendant to fill out a couple of forms for “non-citizens” (my first taste of the ton of paperwork that was to follow later) and arriving at a rainy and chilly New York at 4 pm.
When it was my turn to pass through customs, the indifferent immigration officer took one look at my passport, quickly flipped through its pages and uneasily asked, “Where are you from, Sir?”
I had the sense that he was not quite sure what to do with me when I told him I was Iraqi. He looked around for a while then he slipped my passport into a file and asked me to follow him to another room.
“This won’t take long, Sir,” he reassured me.
Indeed, it did not. I left JFK five hours later.
I was ushered into a back room where dozens of South Asian, Indian, Pakistani and Arab visitors were waiting. They were discussing the case of a Pakistani fellow who refused to get back on a flight, opting instead to go to a hospital because he was not feeling well. They informed him, through an interpreter, that he would still be detained after seeing a doctor, unless he agrees to go back on that flight. He stubbornly refused again.
I started to feel uneasy being held in such company. 30 minutes later, it was my turn. I was asked whether this was my first time to the U.S., then I was handed another form to fill out. My passport and documents were put into another file and I was told to go to another booth and wait for my name to be called.
Another 3 hours passed and my name was called. An aggressive female customs officer was incensed because I didn’t have a form that I was supposed to fill (not my fault). So I was given the form and had to wait for another hour or so.
I had not smoked for 17 hours now, and my lungs were crying from withdrawal. I ventured into a restroom and ran into Bob, a senior customs officer, who was very sympathetic to my plight and immediately offered me a lighter and told me to smoke inside a toilet stall, as long as I didn’t tell anyone about it! Bob and I shared three more smokes by the time my name was called again. He badmouthed the abovementioned female officer and offered to expedite the screening process (there were only two officers processing about thirty people, with each interview taking about twenty minutes.) Bob kept muttering that this “isn’t the way it should be done.”
Anyway, to my disappointment, the interview consisted of entering basic information -most of which I had already submitted to CUNY months ago, and the U.S. embassy recently- into a computer by the same indifferent immigration officer. Unlike Jordanian immigration officers, he did not ask about my sectarian or tribal background. It took a while, so he casually asked if things in Iraq were getting better or worse, and we had a short chitchat while he entered the endless stream of information into his database. Strangely enough, the computer kept freezing and he had to restart several times.
“That’s it?” I asked with disbelief when I was finally handed my passport and documents. Even though I expected the screening in advance and was fully cooperative, I was just so frustrated that I was held for five hours just to give information that they should already know by now. Jeff and Steve Shepard, the school’s dean, had agreed to greet me at the airport and I was so embarrassed that they had to leave after waiting four hours without even knowing whether I had made it or not.
I felt so lost when I stepped outside JFK and I had absolutely no idea where to go first. There was an endless queue for the yellow taxis so I ventured further and got in with the first guy who offered a ride. I was warned beforehand not to take an unauthorized cab, but I told myself that it couldn’t be worse than a taxi ride in Baghdad. Fortunately, I had a friend’s address so that’s where I headed.
I checked in at school the next day and was greeted with a ton of paperwork to fill out. Everyone there was very concerned and relieved that I had finally made it, and I was sincerely touched by how kind and hospitable they all were.
Now that I’m a week late for school I really have to plunge right into assignments and homework. It’s difficult to catch up, especially when the last time I was at school was over four years ago, and at this stage I’m seriously worried that I won’t be able to live up to it.
One problem is that the school’s programme is very orientated toward local issues, most of which I have no clue about, and that the assignments I am to cover appear so mundane to me. For example, I was assigned to cover a neighbourhood in Brooklyn called Cobble Hill. I went there and circled the place for hours just wondering what kind of story could possibly be written about it. I was interested to learn that there was a small Arab community living there, but they were extremely distrustful and suspicious when I tried to ask about their issues.
Anyway, there will be more about that later. For now, I’d like to thank everyone for the generous support and encouragement over the last few months. I acknowledge that I would not have made it here to school in NY without it.
My first impression about America? It’s not at all what it appears like through Hollywood (well, perhaps just a little bit!).