Friday, August 10, 2018

Home Is Where the Heart Is -- Our Family's Migration Story

I love traveling and exploring new places, especially with my family. But on those instances when I have to travel for work, I always look forward to coming home and once more being with the people I love. 

Baguio City, circa 2001
When my husband Nonoy and I were still a young couple, we decided that working abroad and leaving the other behind to look after our four sons should never be an option. Especially since our third son, James, has special needs and requires the care of both parents, we agreed to face financial challenges together rather than choose to work overseas and earn more, but at the cost of just one parent raising the kids alone. 

We held on to our faith that God will see us through anything. And you know what? The Lord sustained us and provided for our needs, particularly during really trying times! Our prayer continued to be that if it was really God’s plan for one of us to work abroad, please let us go there as a whole family and not leave anyone behind.

New Year 2009
In Limbo

Several years ago, we found out that despite the passing of my U.S. Air Force veteran father-in-law in 1999, the petition he filed in 1993 for my husband and Noy’s sister (my third sister-in-law) was approved. Moreover, the petition could be passed on to a family member who’s willing to continue the sponsorship.

My first sister-in-law, who lives in Guam, asked us if we’d like to pursue the petition. Knowing that the U.S. is a lot more medically and technologically advanced than our home country, Noy and I started dreaming of better opportunities for James, our son with cerebral palsy, and our three other sons. Once more, our prayer remained that, God willing, He would allow all six of us to migrate abroad.

New Year 2014
Around 2014, my two US-based sisters-in-law started doing everything they could to process our papers. They consulted an immigration lawyer who facilitated the changing of my husband’s petition category from single to married, and hired another attorney to ensure that our oldest son, who was about to turn 21, would not be denied a visa.

The back and forth submissions and approvals of documents took many, many months. Each time we thought we’d completed everything, we’d be asked to submit a certificate, another file, and another, and another until we were left wondering if that phase of submitting requirements would ever end.

For more than three years, our family felt like we were living in limbo, unable to make long-term plans, uncertain if we could really leave or not. Many times, we had prayer moments where we pleaded with God to just let us receive a yes or no answer from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services so we can be done with the seemingly endless wait and move on with our lives. 

celebrating James' 17th birthday in 2014
Roller-Coaster Ride

In early May 2017, we finally received our visa interview scheduled for June at the U.S. Embassy. From experience, we anticipated more bumps ahead, but we held on to our faith that God will see us through until the end of the journey.

Unfortunately, two of our sons initially didn’t pass the U.S.-mandated medical exam and had to undergo additional tests. Only four of us went to the June interview where our eldest son, Rey, was almost denied a visa due to the “age-out” issue. Despite our pleas, the consul refused to look over the legal papers drafted by our lawyer proving that Rey was still a minor when the petition was reinstated.

We were all in tears as we approached the releasing section to receive further instructions. Obviously, it was impossible to feel elated about going home with just three visas instead of four. Mercifully, the lady at window scrutinized our documents thoroughly and told us to wait as she consulted her supervisor, who then returned our family’s thick file to the consul.

After what seemed like an eternity, we were called back to the window to be told that Rey would also be issued a visa. As always, God was watching over us!

June 2017 -- after the visa interview
(minus Rey who was already late for work after spending five hours in the U.S. Embassy) 
With plans to travel together, we waited for two months for James’ and Josh’s test results, only to find out that our special child had to undergo another series of medical clearances. Although a difficult decision, we all agreed that my husband and two sons should fly ahead to the U.S. in early September so that Daniel, the youngest, could still make it to senior high school enrollment.

Josh, who was approved for a visa in August, insisted he stay behind to help me take care of James while we waited another couple of months for more of his brother’s additional medical test results. 

The first month away from my husband and two sons was tough. Thankfully, the video calls, often-teary conversations, that we made almost every day helped us to cope. None of us thought things would get more difficult, but they did.

first batch to arrive in California greeted by my two sisters-in-law
Final hurdles

It was a long and stressful day when Josh and I brought James back to the St. Lukes Extension Clinic the day before my special child’s U.S. visa interview in October. After 13 hours of waiting and lots of hassles in between, he was finally given medical clearance. 

The next day, we encountered another problem with a missing document the consul asked for but which was already submitted during the June interview. So I had to re-submit a copy of the said file via courier a day later, unsure whether James would be issued a visa any time soon, or if they would ask again for additional papers that would further delay the process. 

With Josh’s visa expiring earlier than mine due to the additional medical tests he had to undergo, my second son had to be booked on a solo flight so he would arrive in the U.S. without any problems. This new development left James and me alone for another month.

James' 20th birthday without his dad and two brothers
Those weeks were probably some of the loneliest in our lives, when I realized that homesickness isn’t really tied to a physical place. Rather, it is about separation from desperately missed loved ones. Now I know firsthand that it is possible to be homesick for people, too! Our house in Alabang by then already felt like an empty shell.

As days turned into weeks with no visa in sight and no updates from the U.S. Embassy call center agents I talk to almost everyday, I began to wonder if I’d ever see my family again. Although I kept busy during the day packing and selling what’s left of our stuff, I would feel deep despair at night as I watched James sleep, while longing for my husband and other sons. Once more, faith in God’s plans kept us hoping for the best. 

It felt surreal when James’ visa finally arrived at the house and the mad scramble for last minute packing finally began. Despite my worries of how to survive a 20-hour trip with a wheelchair-bound child in tow plus four big pieces of luggage and another four carry on bags, my determination to do everything I could to be with my family was greater than any other hurdles I may still encounter.

saying goodbye to my extended family at the airport
Coming home

I was deeply grateful that my mom, siblings, and nieces arrived the day before our departure to help me clean the house and finalize everything before my son and I left for the airport. Their love and support were such a welcome reprieve from the loneliness of the past weeks. 

The date November 16, 2017 will forever remain in my memory as the day I finally found myself home again when I felt my husband’s arms around me the moment James and I emerged from LAX’s arrival ramp. All the apprehensions and exhaustion instantly faded away with the knowledge that we were, indeed, finally where we were supposed to be.

I’ve read somewhere that we will never know how strong we could be until being strong is the only option we have left. I can attest to that, given everything that we’ve been through since we started our immigration process.

California, March 2018 
I’m sharing our story to encourage other families to keep holding on to each other and to continue trusting in God’s leading in the midst of challenges and temporary separations. Have faith that He will see you through. Remember, too, that many times, life may take us to unexpected places, but love will always bring us home. 

NOTE: This story was originally published on pp. 17-19 in Family Matters Magazine's June-Aug 2018 issue, the digital copy of which can be found, here.

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