ER Staff Overcome COVID Hurdles (Part 1)
October 19 update: Great news! Two ER staff members in south Africa just got their official credentials renewed. Ron Townsend and Nick Carnill have waited many months to learn if they would be able to continue on serving in South Africa with fully approved passports and visas. Last week, they arrived and our team celebrated. We are thankful to the South African government for allowing us continue in our mission of helping people escape poverty, receive education and skills training, and lead fulfilling lives.
This is the first of a series sharing how ER staff and their families are facing extra hardship during this time of COVID, strife and global tension. Visas are required in the countries where staff reside. In this story, Amy and Ron Townsend oversee the Fish Hoek Dream Center while their three daughters navigate their schooling. The family is currently separated in order to comply with complicated visa requirements.
By Amy Townsend, Co-Director, Fish Hoek South Africa Dream Center
It is hard to put into words the stress we have felt regarding COVID and visa restrictions. Our story is long and isn’t over yet.
Our visa issues began three years ago because of a clerical error at Home Affairs when my visa application and our daughters’ applications were separated from my husband Ron’s application. We appealed our visa denial on Dec. 17, 2017, but for the next 2.5 years we have had to apply for extensions and leave every 90 or 180 days, depending on the extension. This has been a HUGE financial stressor.
When South Africa (SA) locked down for COVID, my daughters Sarah and Hannah and I were still waiting on the appeal process. My visa extension was going to expire in April. We had no idea what the lockdown would entail and how the visa process would work during a pandemic. Two days before lockdown, I applied for an “extension on my extension”. This isn’t even a thing, but they accepted the application. I got the extension on the extension and then had a visa through July.
Each time SA declared or extended the state of emergency, the minister of Home Affairs would put out a notice that extended all expired visas through the state of emergency. So even though we had expired visas, we were okay because of the state of emergency.
Hannah took a repatriation flight back to the US in September in order to attend college. We were unable to go to the airport with her. We dropped her off at a soccer stadium in Cape Town where she was screened and bused to the airport.
Sarah and I finally got our appeal results in October 2020 back and unfortunately our appeals were denied. Because I had the extension on the extension, I was okay through the national state of emergency. At this point, my visa was good through January 31. Sarah, however, was at risk for receiving a five-year undesirable ban from returning to SA. Because she was a minor when the appeal process started, it was recommended she remain in the country throughout the process. But now the appeal had been denied and she could not leave within 10 days as the denial stated.
Also in October 2020, Home Affairs reopened for visa applications and we began that process for Ron as his three-year visa expired in November. So now we have three different visa situations to navigate. Ron put his application in for renewal. Now he is unable to leave SA until he gets his visa results, which were supposed to take 8-12 weeks, but we are now in week 14.
Sarah and I were supposed to fly out of SA on Jan. 31 on KLM via Amsterdam. On Jan. 26, The Netherlands issued a travel ban from SA because of the variant strain of COVID. All flights were cancelled. The president of SA extended the state of emergency and expired visas were extended until March 31. We decided to wait out the travel ban, but to fly out as soon as we could get a flight.
Our KLM flight was cancelled/rebooked five times as the COVID regulations increased. There were only three airlines flying out of SA. We considered rebooking with those airlines, but it was going to cost several thousand dollars. We eventually got a KLM flight for Feb. 26. However, in addition to the standard 72-hour prior-to-departure COVID test, we had to get a four-hour prior-to-departure rapid antigen test for which we did not have enough time in the schedule. Two days before the flight, we learned the airport would have testing facilities.
We asked for prayers that we would receive negative rapid antigen tests, for an understanding person at passport control, and for an easy check-in. We arrived at the airport and were amazed at how the Lord had gone before us each step of the way. We got our negative rapid antigen test results back in 15 minutes. We checked-in with few problems, while others were denied at check-in. Passport control, with the fear of Sarah might be banned, was the easiest. We met the kindest, most understanding angel who asked us many questions. In the end, he stamped both of our passports with a smile and said he hoped we were able to come back soon. No “undesirable” ban!
Now, we are waiting on Ron’s visa renewal so he can travel to the US and be with our family. We will venture to the SA consultant in Washington, DC to apply for my three-year visa once he is here.
We have cried and doubted and even wondered if our time in SA was done. But God is faithful. We know He has been with us every step of the way providing financially, wiping our tears, placing kind people at stressful points in the process and keeping us healthy. The only way we have successfully navigated any of this is by turning it all over to God daily!
Does this story resonate with you? Reach out to the ER staff and give them an extra dose of encouragement.
Reunited After Six Months of Limbo: COVID Craziness (Part 2)
August 13, 2021 Update: It took half a year for Jason and Melissa to reunite in Manila. Jason had traveled to the US to attend his mother’s funeral, only to encounter a never-ending series of setbacks when he tried to return to the Philippines. Today, they are celebrating!
This is the second in a series of updates on how COVID craziness and global response are impacting ER staff and volunteers around the world. Know someone serving overseas? Encourage them today.
ER staff members who serve overseas know they will encounter challenges in culture, language and geography. We embrace these challenges. Even facing something like a once-in-lifetime pandemic falls into the “extreme” part of what we do.
But the last 16 months have produced some unforeseen hardships. In response to COVID, countries around the world are changing their rules for granting both short- and long-term visas. Without a valid visa, the impacted staff member has to leave the country and cannot return until they resolve their visa problem. Add ever-changing travel restrictions and you get complex and painful hurdles which can separate families.
Take Jason Chappell, an ER staff member serving in Metro Manila. He is a U.S. citizen married to Melissa, a Filipino. They’ve been separated for more than two months. Jason works with the boys at the Manila Children’s Home and is in the process of establishing a ER Dream Center for vulnerable children.
On February 14, Jason took an emergency flight to the U.S. to attend his mother’s funeral. As if that wasn’t stressful enough, he soon encountered multiple problems trying to return.
“As I left the Philippines, I asked the immigration officer if I needed anything more than my marriage certificate to get back into the country. He said I shouldn’t have any issues getting back into the country. After my Mom’s funeral I went online to purchase my tickets home and got an error message saying without a valid visa number I would not be able to travel home. During 2020, I had a temporary visa by marriage, but in December 2020 that expired, so I renewed it as a tourist. When I left the country, my visa was no longer valid.
“As soon as I found out I needed a visa, I called the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco, but no one answered the phone because of COVID. I emailed questions regarding my visa and learned I needed a signed letter from Melissa requesting me to receive a visa, the original copy of our marriage certificate, a copy of Melissa’s passport and seven other things that needed to be sent from the Philippines to me in the states!
“I applied for my visa with the Consulate of the Philippines in San Francisco and attended a zoom meeting with the Immigration of the Philippines and the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines. I learned the visa I applied for will not allow me to enter the Philippines. Right now, the only way I can enter the country is if Melissa is traveling with me. Unfortunately, travel for Filipinos is especially difficult right now.
“We are looking into options for ways to get home. Last week I sent in my visa application, which was approved though July 31. I purchased airfare to Manila, but my travel may not be allowed because of COVID restrictions. I may have to wait until the Philippines opens back up to foreign travelers. The Philippine government has indicated it will update restriction guidelines again on April 30.
“Thank you for your prayers and support for our family. We need it. This is an unexpected trial we are going through. Although this has been a very frustrating time, I truly have learned a lot about my need for control and how much I rely on my false sense of control. God has been teaching me how to release this into His hands and trust Him daily for what I am supposed to be focused on for that day.”
COVID Craziness: Child Passport Leaves Us Spinning (Part 4)
In Part 4 of our series on how COVID craziness is impacting ER staff in extraordinary ways, Robyn Wallace shares how her family’s visit to the U.S. is stuck in the spin cycle. The Wallaces serve in Ecuador.
UPDATE: Great news! The Wallaces received a passport for Clay on May 14 and can travel to the U.S.!
By Robyn Wallace, Quito Dream Center
This week we took a step of faith and bought airfare for our family of five to fly from Quito to the U.S. this summer. Our big issue is renewing our youngest child’s (Clay) passport, which expired March 1.The US embassy in Quito has been closed for passport applications since the start of the pandemic. The Website for the embassy says they are only issuing emergency passports once airfare has been purchased. One page says they only issue them for life and death situations!
The conflicting information has caused constant exchange of information with friends in similar situations. We recently applied for an appointment for an emergency passport online and received an email telling us we have to apply again within two weeks of our outbound flight.
If this doesn’t work, we will have to forfeit our plane tickets and will be unable to go on furlough this summer. Instead, sometime next winter when a spot opens, Brian and I will fly to another open embassy and re-apply for Clay’s passport, prepared to wait six weeks for a response. This situation feels so out of our control; all we can do is try and see what God allows.
COVID Craziness Part 3: In the Waiting
This is the third story in a series showing how the pandemic has impacted ER staff and volunteers in extraordinary ways. Below, Mary Veltman shares the emotional impact of having plans to return to South Africa put in limbo for eight months.
By Mary Veltman, Fish Hoek Dream Center
I got on a plane this week for the first time in eight months. This might seem like a fast turn-around to some, but for me, this was close to the longest stretch I’ve gone without flying in about four years.
The night before my flight, I checked in online and was hit with a sudden wave of emotion. I felt hot tears trail down my cheeks and I found myself asking, “How much longer, Lord?”
You see, this was not the flight I was supposed to be on. This was not the place I was supposed to be going. According to my plan, I was supposed to move to South Africa in April. I was supposed to rejoin my team and students at the Dream Center. But instead, I’m still on U.S. soil (heading to Colorado). And I’m waiting.
I am in the midst of a season of waiting I did not anticipate. At times, the unexpectedness of it filled my mind with doubt and questions. Am I still pursuing what God wants me to? If so, why is He making me wait? I always thought active faith meant living a life of doing. How can waiting be active faith? If this good thing is delayed or taken away, is God still good?
Can I be totally transparent for a moment? I don’t know how to wait well. The first few months of waiting revealed some things in me that I either denied the reality of their existence or had never fully experienced.
One such thing was anger. I’m not saying I’ve never felt the emotion anger; I’m human, of course I have. But I have never faced it so head on as I did a few months ago.
This season of waiting brought in its wake a series of losses for me. In the same week, my car died and was deemed unrepairable, I found out the borders to South Africa would likely be closed to the US until the end of year, I lost my apartment in South Africa, and I unpacked my “bring to South Africa” boxes in preparation to be stateside much longer.
Thursday of that week was the first time I’d been by myself in about six weeks (thank you quarantine, haha). That morning, I decided to prepare my car to go to the junk yard the next day. I cleaned out all my stuff and started loading it with scrap metals from around my parents’ farm. Nothing seemed to fit right and wave upon wave of emotion washed over me and I was confronted with the reality that I was angry. Not just grumble for a moment and get over it kind of angry. But the kind of angry that makes you think irrational thoughts and do irrational things.
On my final load of bringing scrap metals to my car, I tripped over some old wire fencing. And that was the last straw. I took a pipe and proceeded to hit my car. Over and over, with all the strength I could muster. I hit doors. The roof. The bumper. I broke tail lights. On my final swing I unintentionally-on-purpose hit the back window. As the loud shatter rang in my ears, I finally felt relief.
I put the pipe down. And I walked away.
Let me tell you, if you ever get the opportunity to beat up a car, take it. It was one of the most cathartic things I have ever done. That said, I definitely wouldn’t have done it if my car wasn’t unfixable and going to the junk yard.
Facing my anger head on, though in a very unpredictable way, ushered me into spaces and places of growth where God has been intensely present. I gave myself permission to grieve the loss of my plans to move to South Africa and cling to the knowledge that I will be able to someday soon.
I also resolved to refuse to put things on God that are out of His character. God is not malicious. God is not causing bad things to happen. God is not withholding good things from us. Even and especially in the midst of trails, in the waiting, God is kind. God is good. God for us. God is fighting for us. God deeply loves us.
I’ve asked myself many times, is it possible to cling to this and believe this in the waiting? When no answers seem to found? When everything I had been pursing for the last five years comes to a screeching halt? Does my faith change at all? Do I change?
The answer, simply, is yes.
In every moment, in every season, in every breath I take, God is who He says He is. I firmly choose to believe that God is good and Jesus is truly all I need. My faith changes and grows, I change and grow, as I pursue Him with purpose each day through scripture, prayer, worship, and community. Active faith is not just doing for God, but being with God. And I know wherever I am, whether in the States or in South Africa, I have to ability to commune with God, not because of who I am, but because of who He is.
In the waiting.
Whatever you’re waiting for, I know God will meet you there. Just as He did with the Israelites. Just as He did with Abraham and Sarah. Just as He did with Esther. Joseph. Ruth. Elijah. David. Mary. Paul.
In the waiting, we can “fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).