By Donna Ditota
About three weeks ago, Bourama Sidibe and John Bol Ajak were driven to New York City by a Syracuse basketball team manager to secure a visa that would enable them to travel to Italy with their Orange teammates.
Sidibe, a native of the African nation of Mali, carries a 5-year student visa, which enables him to stay in the United States until its expiration date. But to travel anywhere outside the U.S., Sidibe needs to secure a visa. Ajak, who came to America by way of South Sudan and then Kenya, is governed by the immigration laws of South Sudan and his case apparently was complicated by his restrictive immigration status.
Sidibe was ultimately granted the visa he sought and is here in Italy with his SU teammates. He said he believed his papers were in order and that the New York meeting was a formality. But the Italian Embassy denied Ajak’s application, thereby grounding him in Syracuse and preventing him from playing in his team’s four scheduled basketball games here.
“The thing with Bol was he didn’t have the right visa,” Sidibe said. “He had to have a visa that would have been valid when he came back to the U.S. and he doesn’t have that.”
Ajak, a freshman center, told Sidibe that South Sudan issued him a 3-month temporary student visa. As a Syracuse student, he obviously will reside in the United States longer than that. But he will rely, said Sidibe, on his F-1 or I-20 designation. Those papers essentially enable international students to attend American colleges and universities for the duration of their studies.
But leaving the U.S. with merely F-1 or I-20 documents could be perilous for students who hail from certain countries. Some students worry they will not be allowed re-entry into the States, even as enrolled students in American schools. African students face particular scrutiny. Nations often deny them visa applications, believing African natives have no intention of ever returning to their home countries, according to Steve Yale-Loehr, a lawyer associated with the Miller Mayer firm in Ithaca and a Professor of Immigration Law Practice at Cornell Law School with 30 years of experience.
Path for international players at Syracuse requires patience, hope
Former SU center Paschal Chukwu spent nine years in the U.S. without ever leaving the country, not even to visit his brother in Canada. The risk of an arbitrary bureaucratic denial at the border weighed on him. Former SU center Chino Obokoh is now stranded in Canada while he appeals to return to the United States to work. Chukwu and Obokoh grew up in adjoining Nigerian neighborhoods.
“If you are from Africa, you need a visa for everything,” Sidibe said. “The problem is because you’re from a third-world country, you always need a visa to travel, no matter what the occasion is. A lot of us go through it.”
Sidibe’s visa allows him to move within the United States, but to travel to any other nation, he must visit that nation’s embassy and secure a visa.
Usually, he said, that process takes 40-50 minutes. But a few weeks ago, he and Ajak stayed overnight in a New Jersey hotel as they applied for Italian travel documents.
Embassy personnel knew why they were there and did not ask many questions, Sidibe said. On their first meeting with embassy staff, Sidibe and Ajak lacked detailed paperwork about their Italian accommodations, in addition to a couple “minor” details. Syracuse supplied them with the pertinent information, which they brought with them to the embassy the following day.
They learned shortly after that second-day interaction that Ajak would be denied a visa, Sidibe said. But Syracuse University attempted to intervene, to appeal to various governmental agencies to get approval for Ajak. None of those efforts worked.
The freshman center is now stuck in Syracuse, missing a special trip with teammates and a chance to test himself against international competition. Ajak described himself as something of a “historian” during a recent interview and said he was looking forward to seeing Italy.
“He was upset,” Sidibe said. “I truly believe he wanted to be with the team. Everybody should be together. He’s not here, but he would love to be here.”