Every time I find myself in an immigration office applying for a visa, I ask myself the question, “Why was I born in the wrong country, with the wrong nationality?” As a Sri Lankan born in Zambia, applying for visas can get very complicated. I currently hold a Sri Lankan passport and a resident permit for Zambia. In the Global Passport Index 2018, Sri Lanka ranks at number 92 (out of the index’s 99 grouped rankings), allowing me access to only 39 visa-free countries, which do not include America, Canada or the UK. Zambia ranks a little higher on the list at number 69, with 63 visa-free countries. Still, Zambia and Sri Lanka don’t have the “weakest” passports, with Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan ranked at numbers 97, 98 and 99 respectively. What is the most powerful passport? Currently, it is South Korea and Singapore with 162 visa-free countries; previously it was Germany with 161 visa-free countries. The UK ranks at number four with 159, and Canada and the US rank at number five with 158. The pattern is clear: “first world” countries naturally have more powerful passports than “third world” countries. It should then be no surprise that many people from third world countries leave their homes to become citizens of first world countries because, in a way, their lives become “easier.” Easier in the sense of travelling, job opportunities and, a higher standard of living. It only takes a few experiences with immigration to make you wish you were born in a first world country.
When I applied for my Canadian visa in 2013, it didn’t arrive in time for my first year at Trinity Western in fall 2013. Applying for a Canadian visa as a Sri Lankan is even more difficult than applying for an American visa. One of the reasons being that there is no Canadian embassy in Zambia. The closest one is in Pretoria, South Africa. Secondly, all the paperwork that cannot be done online must be done in the capital city, Lusaka, a six-hour drive from my hometown. The visa process took six months, in which time many visits were made to the immigration office in Lusaka for a letter of permission to leave the country for studies, getting a police report, and waiting for the results of a medical examination that could only be done in Lusaka.
I finally got my passport in time for the spring 2014 semester, and was excited to finally leave Zambia after 19 years. This was my first time travelling alone, and since then, I have travelled many times alone. As someone who enjoys travelling, I was ready to get out and explore the world as much as possible. I knew, however, that I would face many obstacles as a Sri Lankan passport holder as most of the countries I wanted to travel to require a visa. On top of that, going through airport security is the most frightening experience for me. You may think it is all in my head, but have you ever been randomly selected for an extra security check in an airport? Have you ever almost been arrested in an airport due to the the unprofessional conduct of an immigration officer? Have you spent 24 hours in a foreign country with no visa because the airline overbooked your flight and only holders of American and UK passports were transferred to other airlines? I can answer yes to all the above, and all of it happened in a matter of 24 hours.
Whenever I get into these types of situations, I wish I had a passport from a first world country. I learned that even in third-world countries where white people are the minority, privilege is still given to white or lighter skinned individuals, and it’s even possible to be discriminated against in your own country because you have a darker skin. This kind of discrimination is referred to as colourism, where darker skinned individuals are looked down on and oppressed by lighter skinned individuals of the same race. This is something I was very aware of in Sri Lanka when I travelled with my family. My father is on the darker side of brown and is often mistaken for being black; my mother is on the fair side. My parents travelled to the US for my brother’s graduation and wedding in 2016. In the airport, one of the security officers stopped my father who was walking behind my mother. When they explained that they were together, the officer was embarrassed and let him go. This kind of profiling is something my family experiences whenever we travel abroad. When my oldest brother flies to America, he shaves his beard in fear of being profiled as a possible threat to national security.
After many experiences of discrimination while travelling, the endless paperwork for visa applications, airport nightmares and job applications, it’s easy to get angry at the world for being the way it is. It’s easy to wish you were of a different nationality and race just so you can have the same treatment as those who are privileged. I know, however, that I am blessed to have grown up in such a peaceful country as Zambia, as I could have grown up in the middle of the civil war in Sri Lanka that lasted 26 years until 2009. That alone is a privilege, as not all Tamils were given the same opportunity.
Even if it were possible to change the past, and I was born in Canada, would I still be me? Would I be able to write this article? Everything I went through in Zambia as a Tamil Sri Lankan, as a Fernando, is connected to my identity of who I am today. My history would be erased, or paradoxically, my family history as I know it, would have never happened. Instead I can ask, “What can I do today with what I have been given?” With my words I can express my thoughts with the hope that people will listen. Your nationality shouldn’t be a disadvantage; racism should never be tolerated and it is our responsibility to say something. Changing even a small part of our world can make a difference in the long run towards equality.