Staying at home is one thing. Trying to come home in the midst of COVID-10 restrictions in a foreign country in turmoil is the latest in a series of struggles Princeton native Justin Parke is facing to keep his family together.
Parke, remembered most recently here on the crew at Farmer’s Daughter restaurant downtown, is stranded in Suriname with his fiance and two daughters. Faced with the choice of leaving them behind to come to the U.S., he wasn’t on the last flight out of Suriname Wednesday.
But he’s still appealing to the government, to the U.S. Embassy, Department of State — to anyone who will listen — to help keep his family unit together and leave Suriname. He detailed the ordeal in a letter.
“I moved to Cambodia in 2010 and spent nearly ten years there before moving with my family to Ecuador early last year,” he wrote Wednesday morning. “I met the love of my life, Sreipeou, in Cambodia, after her family members introduced us to each other about four years ago. I knew her family members nearly 10 years, so there was a lot of mutual trust already.”
Sreipeou has two daughters, Sakana and Sakada, now ages 6 and 10. “When we met, Sakana was only 2, and knows only me as her father. We are a very close family. We have wanted to get married for over three years, something which wasn’t available to us in Cambodia. After a spat between the U.S. and Chinese embassies within Cambodia, the U.S. dropped its $60 million of annual aid money, and it was replaced by China’s $600 million with no strings attached.
“We had a small successful restaurant, but with the Chinese investment came the easing of Chinese work permits and the tightening of American work permits. My annual request of work and work permit were denied, forcing me to flee Cambodia before becoming an illegal alien.”
Parke returned to the U.S., leaving his family in Cambodia with plans to reunite. “We knew the USA was not going to be a quick option, so I began searching for a country to take us. I eventually stumbled upon Suriname, which seemingly offered an easy visa for us. The process was stated to take 90 days, so I put in my application and waited out the 90 days working on the farm in Oregon.”
As part of the requirement for the business visa to Suriname, he rented an apartment in Suriname from abroad and bought tickets for 110 days from the date of visa request, but at the end of the 90 days, the Suriname Embassy in DC didn’t contact him.
“After 100 days, I tried to contact them with no success. They didn’t respond to my emails or voice messages until day 108, of which they said I still needed more documents. I worked another two months to provide additional supporting information, only to receive a denial in the end. I lost all the money invested in the apartment, plane tickets and extra luggage fees, totaling several thousand dollars.”
He returned to Cambodia on a tourist visa intent to never let a government separate his family again. They looked for the easiest country to move to, get residency and apply for a K-1 Fiance Visa to the U.S. while awaiting an answer.
To Ecuador“We settled on Ecuador, which had a U.S. Embassy that processed American visas, and also offered Cambodian citizens a visa on arrival with a chance at long-term residency, which we would need to wait out the American visa process. Having spent nearly a year bribing corrupt Cambodian officials to give us all the documents we needed to leave Cambodia with our children, many of them were already expired by the time we got to Ecuador.”
Parke hired an immigration lawyer, and as they were set to leave Cambodia, China Southern Airlines informed them they needed a transit visa for the Canadian portion of the flight. “It wasn’t listed as a layover, but a technical fuel stop, so we didn’t think we needed a transit visa. With that in mind, we noticed the Canadian transit visa was free and only took a few days on the internet.”
The family raced to get a Canadian transit visa, having to have only the tickets as proof of travel to be granted the transit visa. “...In short, we were denied two hours before our flight was set to depart Cambodia. My Cambodian tourist visa was expiring in a few days, so we had to leave to somewhere. Having just lost $5,000 on the Canadian transit denial, we discovered Spain would help us get to Ecuador unimpeded.
“We used the last of our money to buy a series of one way tickets to Ecuador, going through only countries that let Cambodians transit. Due to the limited time to purchase tickets we had, and the fact they were several separate one-way tickets, we would have to leave the international zone at each airport at reclaim our luggage. I quickly discovered that wouldn’t be an option for the three of us that are Cambodian, because they don’t easily receive tourist visas on arrival, allowing them to exit the international zone and claim luggage.
“This ultimately forced us to jettison six of our eight bags, which made up our entire life’s possessions. We spent the next four days in constant travel without showers or a bed to lay in. We spent 27 hours on the floor in Singapore outside the world’s most luxurious airport, unable to enter until four hours before our flight due to having to claim luggage and being unable to re-enter so far in advance of our flight.”
They spent the next 29 hours in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on the floor with 10,000 other people sharing six toilets. “It was hellish, but after 16 hours an East-African migrant worker gave up his chair so the kids could get some rest. It was a lifesaver.”
From Saudi Arabia, they left to Spain, but learned they couldn’t check in because they didn’t have boarding passes. “We couldn’t get boarding passes because the Cambodians in my family are not allowed to leave the transit zone and check into their flight with their ticket. After eibht hours of bureaucracy, two employees were able to ferry documents between the two zones and arrange us our tickets to Ecuador.
“We thought this was the end of the drama, but when we attempted to the board the flight 14 hours later, we were denied boarding. The Avianca Airlines staff wouldn’t let us board because we didn’t have return tickets out of Ecuador. This caused me to break down in tears fearing all was lost. We didn’t have the money to purchase tickets like that, and we certainly didn’t have the ability to do it in five minutes before the flight departed.
“I had an emotional breakdown, and it caused me to tell the staff of Avianca, I as an American am able to get a tourist visa for Spain. I told them I would follow them home and sleep on the steps of their porch every night until they did something to help us. Telling them we didn’t intend to leave Ecuador to go anywhere, and that we had already hired an immigration lawyer didn’t help at all.”
Eventually, faced with having Parke sleep on their steps at night, they contacted the Ecuadorian Embassy in Spain. The Ecuadorian Embassy granted permission to travel without return tickets, and they family was given a private shuttle out to the plane, already full of seated passengers. “We arrived to a friendly stewardess who asked for our tickets as the shuttle sped away. It turned out they forgot to give us the tickets in all the confusion. Having arrived the way we did, they didn’t want to let us fly without tickets, but they needed to depart quickly and wanted to kick us off the plane.
“The culinary services came to the rescue with proof of our vegan meal requests with printed names and seat numbers, giving the staff enough confidence to know we were legit passengers. We arrived in Ecuador defeated, exhausted and ready for good things to start happening.”
Seeking a visa“We knew the K-1 Fiance Visa was the easiest and fastest way to the USA, so we held off getting married while we attempted Ecuadorian immigration. After two months, our lawyer absconded with the last of our money and cut all communication. Facing the expiration of our visas and the potential of becoming illegal aliens, we discovered Suriname had just introduced an E-Visa that could be done online.
“We obtained Suriname E-Visas and flights thanks to some help from loved ones in the U.S. After arriving here (Suriname), we once again attempted Suriname immigration procedures which would ultimately give us a two-year residency, enough time to apply for and wait out the K-1 Fiance Visa application for the U.S.
Park and his family recently obtained their two-year residency visas for Suriname and were set to live there while applying for a visa to come to the USA.
UnstableThen, he said, about three months ago, Suriname declared bankruptcy and the president was sentenced to 20 years in prison by his own court system while abroad in China.
“During all this uncertainty, the Suriname government stopped processing our daughters’ two-year residency visas. We had just emailed the last required documents to the immigration services here when they went silent and closed their offices. This left us having daughters without Suriname residency papers. Without this, we didn’t have the confidence we could live here legally long enough to spend the several thousand dollars for the K-1 Visa to the USA and await it with a bit of security.”
Two months ago, things got much worse. Parke said $100 million has gone missing from the federal bank, and the government won’t allow a proper investigation. Inflation has gone up 110%, coins are going out of circulation and the government is simply printing new bills on regular paper to try and compensate for inflation, only driving the crisis further.
“With all this going down the drain, we have given up hope of coming to the USA, unable to find a place to live while we await the application process. We had just been given a job in Tbilisi, Georgia, where we hoped to start all over in trying to find a stable life while applying for the K-1 Visa. Well, then corona happened a few days before we were set to buy our tickets. The decision was made very easy when we went to bed one night and woke up to a country with closed borders.
“We had planned to leave before economic collapse already, but this cut off any chance at that. Now, with the coronavirus complicating things, the economic collapse looming and inflation increasing by the day, things are getting dire. There was a glimmer of hope when I received a notification that the embassy here in Suriname was encouraging Americans to return home via emergency travel clearance and evacuation flights.
“I immediately corresponded with them in real time via Facebook, as it was Friday night and the embassy had already closed when I saw the notification. The embassy worker corresponding with me via Facebook asked us the details of our situation and requested we apply for an emergency meeting to plea our case. I immediately sent an email, and awaited a response...”
Monday, Parke was informed they wouldn’t be assisting. “When I saw they insisted we pursue options to get them back to Cambodia via a Cambodian Embassy abroad, I became furious. I thought my country was genuinely in support of keeping families united, and this genuinely troubled me. I know embassies that don’t process visas are capable of producing emergency travel papers if they so choose.
“I called the emergency hotline to the U.S. Embassy here in Suriname to let them know they are effectively destroying my family. Guyana is on the brink of collapse, plus the borders both to and fro...
“We are stilling pursuing a path to go back to Cambodia if possible, but it’s a long shot. There is a ban on American citizens right now in Cambodia, plus the reason in coming to the western hemisphere was to be closer to the U.S.
“In being close to the U.S., if our visa application was denied, at least American family members could come here to Suriname for a visit.”
Parke said he tried to explain why Guyana was not an option for us anymore with closed borders. “They ultimately kept giving me runaround answers, putting me on hold for minutes at a time. Well, each time I get put on hold, my phone credit runs out and I have to run to the store to buy another $5 phone credit card.
“After spending $25 to hear runaround answers and no solutions, I decided to call the emergency assistance hotline for Americans abroad ran by the U.S. Department of State. The only person I could reach was an information specialist, who basically confirmed we are stranded here through elections and the looming economic collapse, all of which will likely plunge Suriname into a similar situation as Venezuela,” he said.
Parke said a mercenary army is forming there that wants to take over the hyrdo-electric dam, the economy is collapsing, the Suriname government has stopped processing their visas, the stores are running out of food, and the inflation is 110% with a civil war looming.
“The information specialist could only give us good vibes, so I had to let her go feeling I hit a brick wall.”
Park said he’s been struggling for three years to come to the U.S., for both his families could get to know each other. “We felt safe waiting down here until we could get visas to go, but it all seems hopeless now.”
He said he thinks that illegal entry into French Guiana might be their last hope. “There is a way to seek asylum within the EU from there, as it is technically still France, and not an independent country. However, the border is formed by a huge river, and both countries have closed travel at the moment. It would be nothing short of a miracle to bribe a small boat owner to ferry us across at much risk to himself.”
Parke said that as things get worse, his family will try to leave the capital of Suriname as there will surely be fighting here. He hopes to rent a car and look for a small town on the French Guiana border to “rent a room and lay low.”
“If we hear gunshots, or things degrade, we will better set to flee to French Guiana.”
Meanwhile, Parke said he still needs to create a normal atmosphere for their children. “...it’s getting harder and harder by the day. I just walked six miles today in search of any foodstuffs I could buy to bring home to the family. I came back empty-handed, as money is of no use when there is no one selling food anymore. The shops are only open for a few hours at a time to limit their inventory being depleted.”
He said he believes that as long as he has access to his funds, his family will be okay for now. “But there is no way in telling when the banks and/or Western Union will close.”
By Wednesday evening, there were reports of bank closures in Suriname. Parke wrote Thursday morning that he’s hoping the Department of State can help his family leave the country.
— Email Andrea Howe at firstname.lastname@example.org