My cousin, Difu, and I were boarded at about 11:30pm that evening as against 9:30pm when we were supposed to have boarded. We were travelling to New York via Istanbul.
Tiredness was written all over my face because I had worked the previous night and I never had an opportunity to rest or even sleep before embarking on the journey. I was still thrilled by the story of one of the fellow passengers who was flying to St. Petersburg in Russia. He has just gained admission to further his studies in Russia and he had a very nasty experience with the local immigration in Lagos. He told us of how he was compelled to pay almost a $100 in bribe because he only bought a one-way ticket. They claimed that he was supposed to by a return ticket as the Russian immigration may want to deport him if he did anything wrong and that the return ticket would be used for that purpose. It was his first time travelling and when he could not stand the pressure of debating with the officials, after he had also consulted widely with his family over the phone, he had no option but to give in to their request.
I felt sad with the Ola’s story. He told me that some officers were even asking him for something more. I wondered if those officials had conscience at all. I wondered how they will feel if the same treatment they meted out on the young man was done to their kids or a relation of theirs. In any case, we had to continue and I advised him not to give any dime to any other official till he gets to his destination in Russia.
Now, I however advised him that next time, it may be wiser to buy a return ticket when next he is travelling to avoid a repeat incident like this. He even confirmed to me that he gave the booking agent who got him the tickets complete money to buy a return ticket but he ended up getting something for one way. Well, the moral of the story is just to get a 2-way ticket or at least have a ticket showing you will be back to your country after the whole journey, and most importantly, be sure to confirm the details of what an agent had purchased for you and ensure it is what you paid for. Anyway, when I arrived New York the next day, I got a message from Ola that he arrived St. Petersburg safely. However noted it is not wrong to buy a one way ticket, they only took advantage of the young man.
At Istanbul, we had been advised earlier that there will be additional security checks for passengers going to the United States. I was later told that passengers who were headed to three countries were subjected to additional security checks before boarding. Passengers to the United States, Israel and one other country must go through additional security checks and boarding formalities again in Istanbul before leaving for their destination. We were also advised to plead to other passengers on the queue we were going to meet when we land in Istanbul to allow us get ahead first as the flight to New York leaves very shortly after the plane from Lagos arrives. Knowing this helped us hurry up things and eventually we located our boarding gate and completed the formalities.
In any case, we barely spent an hour and thirty minutes before we took off for New York. It was a 10-hour flight all the way. We met more crowd this time at the airport in JFK. We spent almost more than one -hour before being attended to. People were attended to in less than 3 minutes and they were gone. When it was almost our turn to be attended to, we were told to use a machine to process our details so that it can make it easy for the immigration officer who will eventually attend to us. Unfortunately for me, I joined a queue that the machine was not working while Difu was on a queue that worked. I had to go back to the first queue so that I could be attended to manually. After another 10 minutes, it was my turn. The immigration officer, who is a black asked me the purpose of my visit and where am going to and I answered him. He stamped me in, 6 months even though my visa was going to expire in 2 months’ time. However, he called other officers who are blacks as well. He gave them the following instructions… “Do the bags!” From there, I was taken to a smaller room. Other people came in there, they were asked a few questions and in less than 3 minutes, they were gone. I eventually had to spend more than 1 hour 30 minutes in this hall being quizzed and searched.
The immigration officer first of all asked me why did I travel a lot and what I do for a living. I rplied that travel for me is a hobby and told him what I do for a living and where I work. He left the room, came back with two more officers. He muttered something to one of the officers and then took my passport which he earlier returned to me when we initially entered the room.
He carefully searched my bag and asked me questions upon questions as regards to why I was travelling light, “Why did you not come with socks…, why only a few cloths…”…and all those questions. He also asked what other thing I had on me and what I really intend to achieve after embarking on the trip since according to him, I have been to the US for the first time. He asked me if I had other bags and I said yes. He muttered to one of the officers, who left instantly.
One of the immigration officer he was working with was a young woman. She returned muttered to him that they cannot find any bag belonging to me. I however insisted that the bag was there, not knowing however Difu has taken the bag and was waiting for me. The lady however left after a while. While she was away, the officer asked if I were travelling with anyone. At this point, I thought of telling him I was alone, so as not to complicate issues for my cousin who has been successfully cleared. If for whatever reason, they want to hold someone back, it should be just me, not a little boy who may find it traumatic…all these I reasoned to myself in a split second but another idea came to mind which is, why not be honest with these guys and be yourself. I decided to go with the second thought. I told him yes, we’re two and that the person I was travelling was a younger cousin and that he has been cleared. He was like ok. Like he was not satisfied with the response I gave him earlier, he asked again,” Why did you come to the US this time?” I told him we came just for holidays and that we’re off after 10 days. After another 10 minutes, the lady eventually arrived with my bag and they did a thorough search of all the contents in the bag. He questioned me about every single thing in the bag.
At that point, I was about regretting bringing some local soap and native sponge that one of my uncles’ requested me to bring over to someone there in the US. In my mind, I was thinking what I was going to tell him it was and what I was going to do with it. I also wondered what could happen if they check and find out that there was something else in the soap (assuming the person who gave it to me planted something in it to set me up) … I was getting a little nervous as the search continued. I was relieved when he got to a bag where I wrapped my wedding invitation cards that I intended to share to some family members and friends in the US. I told myself that this is another proof am genuine and that am going back to Lagos after my visit. At that point I spoke up, “I was actually coming here also to share some my wedding invitation to some family and friends…where I come from, we share the cards to family members to invite them officially…emmm, it is a way to get their blessings and also solicit for some financial assistance as it costs a whole lot to do weddings back home” …I was hoping this would get his attention and convince him to end his search and questioning but he continued. He only wished me well in my marriage and continued. He eventually got to the soap and sponge…which I explained to him what it was. I explained to him it was for an uncle of mine and he passed over it without problems.
Let me also note that I was bothered he was going to want to take my phone to go through the contents. I recall I had a case like that earlier that year and the experience was not funny. I however, did not have anything incriminating on my phone… I made sure I deleted anything that could raise any eye brows… “But what if he connects the phone to the internet and then a stupid message from a ‘stupid friend’ flies in” …these I reasoned to myself. I thought about all these while he went through the contents of the bag. When he eventually finished, I was a bit relieved but was agitated when he left me in the room and went out for more than 20 minutes. I was very sad that out of thousands that were there, I was the only ‘bad’ guy. I was praying at least, they should get someone else so at least, we will be two… At least, someone to share tips on how to outwit them and get pass all these embarrassments.
During this little period, my mind thought of all sort of things. I wondered why it was just me. The very last three trips I embarked on, I have had issues with immigration officers and most of the situations were very horrible, now, same is happening in America of all places. I consoled myself that worst case, I could be deported back to Lagos…after all, that would not be the first experience of being deported. At that point again, I was a bit furious. Why will it be black officers harassing me like this in America? Why must it be black officers? Why I asked myself in anger…yet every day, I hear of blacks complaining against white police officers. But on a second thought, I reasoned they are doing it for the safety of their country. I also comforted myself that if they find my claims satisfactory, they will allow me in without asking for bribe like I was asked elsewhere before being deported. I also imagined what and what all the officers were doing as they were all busy walking around or in front of their computers. I was trying to imagine them trying to dig up my records and other personal details to verify who I was and so on.
In the heat of all these, I felt somehow good and important…ummm, yea. That was because these guys were spending their pay time on someone who really did not deserve it. I also started enjoying the attention some of the officers were paying at me…and some of the passengers who passed by of course. I resolved to feel good through the whole exercise and accept whatever could be the outcome. At that point, the officer returned and told me I can go! Hmmm, I had to call him back. “Hello, please can I have my passport?” He told me he gave it back to me. I showed him my pockets to prove to him I did not have it. He eventually went to check somethings on the table where he was seated and he found out he had it. Umm, he did not apologize but it did not stop me from asking him other questions. “Why did you guys keep me all these long sir” he told me it was just for normal checks. I wanted to get a little bit more of details but his brief responses suggested I may have to stop at that point.
I gladly left and found Difu waiting outside. He told me the same officer came to speak with him as well. He told me they took my bag from the conveyor belt and that they had to quiz him when they found him waiting with my bag. At that point, I thanked my stars that I was honest with them. I also reminded myself a lesson I’d learnt as a kid which is to always tell the truth. Assuming I told the officer I came alone when I was with someone, they could have made something else out of that. Difu also told me he was thoroughly searched and quizzed all because he was with something that I had. It was then I understood why the guy left and stayed for a long time before coming back. In all, we spent around three and half hours at the airport before heading to Jamaica station.