Did you know that the U.S. State Department provides emergency repatriation loans (ERL) for destitute Americans overseas that need help getting home? The loans are intended for Americans who find themselves short of cash or a return ticket home due to some unforeseen circumstance- theft, illness and the like. If approved, the State Department will provide travelers with a one-way ticket back to the U.S. and money to cover their expenses prior to their departure. The rub is that their passport is limited for a single entry back to the U.S. and if they don’t repay the loan, they won’t get a new one.
The State Department doesn’t advertise the program for obvious reasons. In FY 2008, State processed 893 ERL’s worldwide, with a majority coming to assist travelers in Europe and Latin America. From what I gather, most loans are repaid as travelers don’t want to lose their right to get a new passport.
When you work at an American embassy in a country that “normal” American tourists don’t visit, you have an opportunity to meet some, shall we say, unique travelers who often have quite unusual stories of how they washed up in that country. When I worked in Macedonia, we were also responsible for Americans in Kosovo, not exactly a tourist magnet, particularly in the wake of the war there.
Most of the American citizens who came into the embassy for one reason or another were naturalized Americans of Albanian or Macedonian origin, but the American-born citizens who came to Macedonia or Kosovo despite having no connection to the region usually had the most interesting stories. One woman, whom I’ll call Juliet, became such a familiar face that she was practically an honorary member of our staff.
Juliet turned up one day in 2003 at the U.S. Office in Pristina (now an embassy) and fainted after causing a fuss about needing money to get back to the U.S. After helping revive her, local staff there instructed her to visit us down in Skopje.
Juliet told me that she was in Kosovo “just to check the place out.” Her explanation for why she had only a one-way ticket to Kosovo made even less sense.
In order to process a loan for an American traveler, the traveler has to provide the names and phone numbers of three persons who might agree to help them first. Juliet, who was 51 at the time, gave me the contact info for her mother, an adult daughter, and her brother. But she warned that “they ain’t going to give me a dime.”
Nonetheless, I was required to try.
“Good lord, I’m on a fixed income and she is taking years off of my life!” Juliet’s mother said. “Tell me, is she over there screwing around with some young man?”I had no idea and moved on to the brother and the daughter, both of whom told me to get lost.
“She’s been fleecing all of us for years,” her brother said. “She is the world’s biggest 50-year-old child.”
With the three rejections in hand, I was able to process her loan of about $800. When she walked out of the embassy, I assumed I’d never see her again, but about six months later she resurfaced at the embassy.
“What brings you back to the region?” I asked.
“You’re not going to believe this,” she said. “But I fell in love.”
She went on to detail how she’d fallen in love with a handsome 20-year old Kosovar whom she’d met on a website for the band The Doors. As soon as she said this, Jim Morrison’s voice popped into my head. Hello, I love you won’t you tell me your name.
Juliet said she had married the young man and wanted to file an immigrant visa petition to bring her young lover, more than thirty years her junior, back to the U.S. But first she wanted another loan to get home, only this time she said she wanted to go to Hawaii, rather than Tennessee.
“I paid the last one,” she reassured me.
“But why on earth did you come back here with another one-way ticket?” I asked.
“I thought we were going to get married and live happily ever after in Kosovo,” she said.
But her young lover had visions of Hawaiian palm trees dancing in his head and insisted they get out of Kosovo. He was obviously marrying her for the right to live in the U.S. but Juliet seemed to be the only person who didn’t understand this.
I checked with contacts back in Washington and was told that we could give her a loan to get to Tennessee but not Hawaii, since she had no proof that she was domiciled there. I called her mother, brother and daughter again and they told me the same thing as six months before, only more forcefully.
“Hell no!” her brother said. “I’m not paying so she can travel around with her boy toy.”
Juliet got her loan, but this time my boss told me that she wanted me to physically escort her to the airport to make sure she actually left the country. As luck would have it, her flight left Skopje at 7 A.M. on a Saturday morning, so I had to meet her at her hotel at 5 A.M.
I turned up at her budget hotel at the appointed time and asked the reception clerk to ring up to her room. The phone kept ringing but she didn’t answer. I hoped that she was in the shower and hadn’t skipped town. I had her plane ticket, so I assumed she was there, but couldn’t be sure. Eventually, I walked up to her room and knocked on the door. She answered in a bathrobe, looking haggard and un-showered, and I could see her young partner lying on the bed in a pair of boxers. Yikes.
“We’re almost ready,” she said, not very convincingly.
Her husband, whom I’ll call Blerim, wasn’t going to the States, at least not yet. She needed to get her financial house in order to sponsor him, but apparently he was coming along for the ride to the airport.
They eventually emerged from their love nest but resumed their ostentatious cuddling and smooching in the back seat and then in the terminal itself, before she boarded the plane. About a year later, Juliet finally had her paperwork together and Blerim joined her in her new home in Hawaii, where she’d found work as a nurse. I assume that they lived happily ever after, at least until he got his green card and left her for someone his own age.
Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.
Image via mtarlock on Flickr.