Home Again, Finally

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The van Dijks from left: Willem, Paulien, Alexander, Julie and Gerard
The van Dijks from left: Willem, Paulien, Alexander, Julie and Gerard

There’s an inspiring monumental statue in New York harbor of Liberty with her torch held high, beaming a beckoning light to the distant realms of the world, with a promise inscribed at her base that says America offers refuge to all. “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me./I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

That’s the American ideal. The immigration system is reality.

Originally from Holland and living in Crozet since 2003, Gerard and Paulien Brikkenaar van Dijk and and their children Alexander, Julie and Willem are home again after a seven-month ordeal out of the country in order to get permanent residency status.

These days they are flying the Dutch flag, three horizontal bars of red, white and blue, on the flagstaff in their yard near Beaver Creek reservoir to welcome a Dutch friend who is about to visit. They flew an American flag, an older cotton one with 48 stars, to maintain their presence, and their allegiance, symbolically while they were away, and by the time they were home again, it had been whipped into tatters. It seemed to have borne their sufferings too.

They credit Esther Page, Congressman Tom Perriello’s staffer in his Charlottesville office (she also served under former congressman Virgil Goode), with the decisive intervention on their behalf. “She’s a lifesaver,” said Gerard emphatically. When they had a brief chance to express their thanks to Perriello, who brought the State Department’s attention to the van Dijks’ predicament, when he was in town recently, Perriello said he was impressed by the 50 letters he had received from Charlottesville-area friends of the van Dijks pleading for a resolution to their plight.

“It’s amazing we are back,” said Gerard, who did graduate work in foreign affairs at U.Va. in the early 1980s (and decided this is where he wants to live) before serving as the Netherlands’ commercial affairs officer at its consulate in Los Angeles. “This could have gone very wrong. Vice consuls [who make judgments about awarding visas] have enormous power and the process is very antagonistic. It’s a personal power issue.”

After leaving the U.S. to conform with visa rules, the van Dijks had to go to the American embassy in Caracas Venezuela to make their application. “You never hear about the people who do everything legally. We did everything by the book and we still got this treatment.

“On March 30th, I realized it was possible we could  never go to the U.S. again,” said Gerard solemnly, as a tremor of emotion passed across his face. “It’s very un-American. You’re guilty until proven innocent. The burden of proof is always on you, even if they have made a mistake. The consequence of the [consul’s] denial was devastating.

“The ground under your feet disappears when you hear you can’t go home,” Paulien agreed, recalling the blow the news brought. “It’s miraculous that we’re here and it’s because the community stepped up. Within nine days we had a reversal of the decision.” Today they all have Social Security cards and “Green Cards” (which in fact are beige) conferring permanent legal resident status on them. Once a person has that status, he or she can apply for citizenship in five years.

An immigration lottery was created in the 1960s to get people from countries that were “under-represented” in the U.S. into the country, Gerard explained. Citizens of countries such as Canada and Mexico are not eligible. But the Dutch are and this year 270 people from Holland were allowed in. In all, 100,000 foreign nationals who apply to the lottery are selected for interviews and half will be chosen. By the time a decision is made, immigration officials have assembled detailed dossiers on each interview candidate. The van Dijks made an application for each family member, hoping to increase their odds of being drawn. They have been entering the lottery for the last 12 years. This year, Paulien’s application was one of the lucky ones to be drawn for review. Her number was 19,454. She had won. That made the denial at Caracas even harder to accept.

On one of the forms they had submitted, Paulien’s daughter by her first marriage, now 20 and living in Holland, was named. On another one, she had been inadvertently left off. It was a simple mistake, they thought, and easy to fix. But, no, it was a reason for denial, the consul ruled.

Their reaction neared despair. “It’s inside, a feeling,” said Paulien. “Like the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” But then, thankfully, the reversal came. “I had never realized how much of a boost to the spirit the experience of true friendship is. It made me confident. To know you are loved …,” she paused, at a loss to express herself fully. “That came home to the kids, too.”

They had been living in the U.S. eight years. They formerly had non-immigrant visas that have five-year time limits. They left the States as their visa deadlines neared to be sure that they did not violate any immigration laws and therefore harm their chances of getting permanent resident visas. They could have gone back to Holland and applied at the American Embassy in Amsterdam, where they had had some trouble applying before, or to a Dutch territory, such as Curacao. Thinking the relocation would not last long, they decided the weather is nicer in Curacao, a Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela about the size of Albemarle County and with a population of about 160,000.

“They have all Dutch stuff there,” remarked Paulien. “It’s really nice.” The islanders speak Dutch and the architecture is charming and colorful Dutch colonial. The temperature is 92 degrees year-round. Still, as time went on, home-schooling got old and the visa limbo dragged on, a sense of being in exile set in. “Everything takes a lot of time there. Getting a carton of milk would take about 2 hours. Water is very expensive, about $8 per liter, because it’s all from desalinization. You have to try to stay positive and patient,” Paulien said.

The older children, Alex and Julie, 11th and 10th graders at Western Albemarle High School, were enrolled in correspondence courses through Brigham Young University. Willem, who attends the Field School, kept up with his assignments by email. Basically, Paulien said, they survived via computer connections, Facebook and Skype.

“The system is cruel because they don’t care that the children are losing schooling,” complained Gerard. The kids may have to go to summer school now and will get tutoring to catch up with their regular grade levels.

“What was so important to us was what happened here when our friends heard we couldn’t get in. What happened made me very strong,” said Paulien. “It made me cry to see what was in those letters.” (Friends had sent her copies of the messages they had written to Congressman Perriello.) “It confirmed all that is special about this place.”

“This would not have a happened in Holland,” Gerard agreed. “This is what this country is about.”

“It’s been quite an experience,” he said. “It was a lot of stress and it wore us out to be in such uncertainty. We didn’t give up. You can’t. We said we would fight to the end. The kids have learned about taking things for granted and the importance of friendships, about knowing that people want you back.

“The lessons we learned are dare to live your dream and that the things in life are fragile,” added Paulien. “We think we are very lucky to live here. We like it that people here are happy for us and there is no jealousy. It’s the last corner of paradise.”