Four years have passed since the first time I arrived in Japan to start my major at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. The graduation ceremony was going to be held at the Kinugasa campus on March 21st of this year and my time in Japan would come to an end. To celebrate such a special day, my family and I had plans to travel all over Japan one more time so I could say goodbye to the place where I become a better version of myself. A place that I consider my home.
Naturally, my housing contract was already cancelled and all my belongings were either sent by mail or packed in three check-in luggage that I would bring with me to the airport. I was ready to return to my hometown in Venezuela where I would spend a year before going to my next studying destination: Italy. However, as you might have already guessed, none of this happened.
My family couldn’t even leave their house, let alone be able to board an airplane to Japan. Months passed, my residence card expired and they gave me a “short-term” (tourist visa) instead, with which I wasn’t allowed to work. I started staying at hotels first, then moved into the house of a friend’s relative in a different city called Osaka only to later return to Kyoto since it didn’t work out. Most of my closest friends were all gone, either abroad or spread around different cities in Japan due to work. All of this added up to a bittersweet breakup from which I didn’t recover, and made me feel lonely and anxious.
One day an opportunity to leave appeared on the screen while I was tracking flights: an economic flight to the Canary Islands. If you have been following the news about countries reopening their borders for tourism you probably already know that Spain announced that from 1st of July tourists coming from abroad would be able to enter their territory without being held for 14 days of quarantine. Additionally, since my Aunt and my Uncle live in Tenerife I could stay there without a problem. I bought the ticket and started to prepare for my departure.
There were some problems with the airline, they kept making changes to the flight. First, the departure airport changed from Osaka Kansai (KIX) to Haneda Tokyo (HND) which is further away and more expensive to access when coming from Kyoto. But a final date was set, 21st of July, and since this was the only option I had, I put all my trust in it.
I had a huge lump in my throat as I stared at the window and saw how we were getting closer to the clouds. Then I looked down and I saw Osaka, Kyoto, and the rest of my beloved Kansai area getting smaller and smaller. I was leaving, for real, I thought. I couldn’t believe it. Nor the fact that I was able to fly during this time in which boarding an airplane had become uncommon and felt risky. However I wasn’t the only one. The plane was actually packed with people who were presumably returning from work.
I landed at Haneda airport at 19:30, without any problem. The domestic terminal was strangely lively. Two floors below, however, the international terminal seemed like the stage of a horror movie. In the entire terminal, only a few lights were on: one check-in counter and two restaurants which by that time had already run out of food. I was reminded once more of the situation around the world and felt chills down my spine. However, I told myself to remain calm and stay positive. The first of four flights on my schedule had gone smoothly, and soon I would be in Tenerife with my family. Step by step, I thought, three more and it’s over…
“We are sorry, but we cannot let you board this plane.” The sound of his voice lowered as it passed through a blue surgical mask.
“Pardon?” — I replied as I ensured myself that this must be a mistake. The agent left the counter and approached me with his cellphone, pointing at one email that was received a day ago.
“Yesterday we received an email from Spain with a list of countries written on it. People from these countries are the only ones allowed to enter and unfortunately, Venezuela is not on the list…”
“But Japan is.” I interrupted. “And I’ve been living here for four and a half years. The last time I stepped in Venezuela was over a year ago. Also, I have an Invitation Letter from my family in Spain which was officially processed and signed at a commissary in Spain, and it states that I have guarantors there that will provide me with proper accommodation and support for the next 90 days. I also have my letter of acceptance for my University in Italy, which is my final destination.”
“Regardless of your residing here, you’re not Japanese, so it doesn’t apply. This is a matter of nationality. So, if you don’t have either a visa for special cases or a Spanish ID you are not boarding this plane. Do you have a visa?”
“No, as a Venezuelan I don’t need one to enter Spain. But have these other documents…”
“I’m sorry but you’re not boarding this plane.” He interrupted as he grabbed my boarding pass from another agent’s hand and put them away.
I was getting numb, my mind was unclear. Panic started growing within me and I felt as if the blood in my brain was boiling and rushing to my head. An intermittent wave of thoughts came all over me: did he say he received this list yesterday? Why did no one from the agency notify me then? Why wasn’t I aware of these changes? I called two days ago to confirm if I could take this flight and they said yes… Is this happening for real?
I saw my two large suitcases and my heavy backpack. Then I pressed my small purse against my chest, remembering that a few hours ago I had just closed all of my bank accounts in Japan and inside of it I was carrying all of my savings in cash which I had already exchanged to EUR.
Think, think, think. Everything has a solution, you just gotta find it from a different angle.
I startled. My eyes filled with tears and my heart was beating frantically as if it wanted to break the door of my chest and get out.
“Sir, I understand the situation but I have all of my justification. The rest of the passengers were able to board. I’m away from home. I don’t have a bank account or a phone number, my visa is about to expire. I’m alone in Japan, where no humanitarian flights are departing. I need to reach Spain, please. Just let me board the plane.” — I begged.
“We are sorry, in normal circumstances it would be different, but in this one specifically there’s nothing we can do for you. All I can do is to write a report on what happened today. Have a good night.” He left the counter, the gate was closed. I was left behind, alone.
With an empty stomach and only 2,000¥ available (about $20), without any data and trapped in a city I was not familiar with, I crumbled. I let sadness and fear take over me completely, I was trembling.
As I recovered the sense of time I realized it was almost midnight and I was still in a seat at the gate crying in a desolated terminal. I was crying out of rage. I felt humiliated, played, and vulnerable. I was crying because of all the hours I dedicated for this moment, for all the emotional drain.
I cried because I knew no one could help me out of this one.
It was the first time in my 23 years of life that I found myself left out in a situation in which I was completely alone. No passengers, no airport staff, no family, no friends, not a single soul nearby.
Perhaps it was my survival instinct that woke me up from this state and I started moving. I found a hotel within the terminal and a currency exchange machine that I used so I could pay for one night. I connected to the wi-fi and contacted my family and friends. Then I took a shower, laid down on the bed, and thought about what just happened.
It wasn’t really what happened that had brought me to such a state, but it was the reason why it happened that triggered these emotions.
With all of the struggles that Venezuelans have been facing in our country, many of us have left the country. Indeed, at the very beginning of the migration process, the feeling of suffocating disappears and is replaced by a sense of unlimited possibilities and absolute freedom. Nonetheless, the reality is that we live in an “international society” that measures value of people and draws limits based on their place of birth.
Personally, it is really hard for me still to understand how amid a global pandemic certain people can take commercial flights just for tourism and recreation while others, like me, are unable to move out of necessity.
I was aware of the “special-cases visa” that Spain was offering to people who had to travel due to extreme circumstances beyond their control, and I went to apply for it. Yet I was told at the Embassy of Spain that I wasn’t eligible to apply for this visa because originally my Venezuelan passport is exempt from any visa and that what I was asking for was “extraordinary”.
But, Is a pandemic not already an extraordinary circumstance? Don’t I have all the requirements that ensure that my stay in Spain won’t extend over the 90 days permitted? Is it that I don’t have the rights as a person to be able to reunite with my family, who would give me the emotional and financial support needed in this highly uncertain situation?
I’m an unemployed-about-to-become-student, trapped in a country where my visa is about to expire, can’t work, have insurance or even reopen a bank account. I have all of my reasons to enter Europe justified, and still, there’s “nothing they can do” because I’m Venezuelan?
What does my nationality have to do with COVID-19?
The Spanish Government came up with the list of countries based on the number of cases that were found in them.
Is it the number of cases higher in Venezuela than in China or Japan?
I haven’t even visited Venezuela in more than a year and a half. Doesn’t that make the probability of me having COVID the same as anyone else in Japan?
If health security was truly the only aspect taken into account to come up with this “recommended list” I wouldn’t be dealing with a fallacy that assumes that I’m more likely to have COVID than my Japanese fellows.
I find it completely absurd and discriminatory that while Australians and/or Koreans have the right to travel for fun, my rights to board on that plane and even to apply for a “special-cases visa” were both simultaneously and immediately denied.
The fact that Turkish Airlines had received an email confirmation with the list of countries (rather, nationalities) the day before the flight and had not bothered to call to notify me seems to be an exponential lack of responsibility and consideration.
Additionally, the fact that the Government of Spain (as well other countries that are already accepting commercial flights) has put forward recommendations without minding to clarify whether the list of countries would include people who have spent more than 14 days there or not highlights an unwritten privilege very present in the current “international society”: mobility. This was already a luxury for a small number of countries, and now it will be further reduced.
In the video I posted on Youtube about this I mention that, as someone who majored in Global Studies (IR), I’m aware of the situation of many people such as undocumented migrants and/or refugees whose nationalities has served as an excuse to limit them and even in some cases to abuse and exploit them.
Nevertheless, I decided to share my story as it might help others going through similar cases, to let them know that they’re not alone. If by any chance anyone needs help or support don’t hesitate in contacting me through my SNS.
Lastly, I would like to clarify that just as there were people in this story who made me go through a really bad time, on the other hand, I was able to connect with many others who were empathic and offer me support and a helping hand instead, which I was very grateful for.
About the visa issue, I was able to apply for a “Designated Activities” (a 6-month visa which allows me to work part-time) two weeks ago. I’m still waiting for the response.
About Turkish Airlines, they’re not providing any sort of compensation. However, they’ll give me a full refund on the flight tickets by transferring the money to my friend’s bank account here in Japan. My friend will give it to me in cash.
About leaving Japan, the option I have is by getting the Italian student visa here in Tokyo (which I can start applying for in September).
This process usually takes around a month, so I’d be able to leave somewhere between October or November. However, I’m not sure whether I can stop by Spain first to meet my family or if I would have to go straight to Italy.
About my accommodation and financial status, I am currently safe and sound, counting with enough resources to stay in Japan until the end of the year (it will probably be around this time that I will be able to leave for my next destination).
Lastly, I would like to express my gratitude towards each person who has taken the time to read this article.
For those who have reached me out of empathy to show support and offer help: Thank you so much. These are the type of actions that make a difference. This is the kind of humanity I believe in and that for sure will lead us to a better society.
For those who have reached me out because they have found themselves in a very similar situation, and who are still struggling from it: there is a community out there who cares and is ready to connect with you. Don’t be afraid to share your story, because if not people won’t be able to reach you.
Your feelings are valid and you’re not alone
For everyone out there, I hope you’re safe and don’t worry, we’ll get out of this one too.
Click here for the continuation of the story