Friday, December 26, 2008

Some Forms are Worth Filling Out

I am just two generations away from my grandparents getting off a boat from the Old Country, so I like helping immigrants.

I've heard the critics: Who? How many? From where? Focusing on who gets in, we can lose sight of how our own lives are changed by those who fulfill their dream of coming to America.

In December 1994 when death squads exacted revenge for generations-old offenses in the former Yugoslavia, Vladislav and his 9-year-old daughter Branka escaped Bosnia and came to Lancaster to find a new life.

They came to America with a suitcase and a passport each.

At the time they arrived, Branka's mother was being held in an internment camp: a prisoner-of-war camp for civilians.

Almost as soon as they arrived, Vladislav went to work at any job he could find.
No job was too dirty or menial.

Through local churches and relief organizations Vladislav and Branka got money for rent and food and they also got help with the many papers that people who struggle with English are asked to "Read and Fill Out Completely."

Vladislav needed money and was determined to earn all he could. He knew that to get his wife out of detention and out of Bosnia, he would need money. His house, his cars, and all he had before the war were wrecked and burned before he left Bosnia.

Slowly, steadily, he saved money. A year later as Christmas of 1995 approached, he was beginning to sound confident.

The calls and faxes were paying off.

He believed Branka's mother would be in the United States sometime in 1996. Vladislav was also delighted with his latest job.

He had found a place near Lancaster that paid him $1 each to tie together handmade Christmas decorations. He said they hired women who would make 10 or 15 and then go home.

As it turns out, the fir branches cut the hands of the workers and it was difficult to wear gloves. Vladislav showed up early each Saturday morning and stayed till they sent him home.

One day he made 200.

The next day at church he was grinning. His hands looked like they had been stuck in a blender, but he couldn't have been happier. The following year Branka's mother came to America--he got her out of the internment camp.

Vladislav got a full-time maintenance management job.

He wanted his daughter to go to a private school so she could go to a good American college. So he asked me to help him get her into the school my daughters attended.

I filled out all the paperwork for financial aid that would allow Branka to attend Lancaster Country Day School and put my name down as the contact person.

Vladislav kept careful records of his income and expenses so the multi-page form had all the proper information, including his first federal tax return.

Several weeks later I got a call from the agency in Princeton that makes financial aid decisions.

The polite woman on the phone verified the applicant information, the parents' current employment status — all the routine questions — then asked me with evident curiosity and some skepticism about an item under "additional expenses."

The item: "Phone calls, faxes and transportation expenses to get applicant's mother released from Bosnian Prisoner-of-War Camp $4,417.12."

She asked if this was true.

I said it was.

"I must tell you," she said, "I personally always disallow 'additional expenses.' People try to say trips to Disneyworld are educational experiences. But getting the applicant's mother out of a prisoner-of-war camp is nothing I've ever seen before. You may tell them we are granting the full amount."

Branka's application reminded that financial aid administrator why she got into her job in the first place.

And I have never had more fun filling out a form before or since.