Fighting for the right to stay
Legal at last - Karen Brady describes her arduous quest for a residence permit to stay in the Netherlands.
My heart nearly fell through my stomach when the CEO of a small firm outside Amsterdam told me, on my first day of work last year, that I had to go home immediately. I'd hardly finished my first cup of coffee and meeting my new colleagues when he called from his vacation home in France to tell me they did not have a work permit for me, and the company could face massive government fines if I was found working there without one. Of course, he was terribly sorry about everything, but I had to understand their situation. Stunned, I politely smiled to those around me and murmured some good-byes as I struggled to hold back the tears. As an American, I knew I didn't have many options if the company couldn’t arrange a work permit. While waiting for the bus home, I called a close Dutch friend and sobbed as I explained what had just happened. "This is so humiliating. What am I going to do? I can't stay here without a job, maybe I should just go home!" I wailed. "No, you're not going anywhere," he said calmly. "You are going to stay, don't worry." I sniffled, tried to catch my breath and whispered, "I hope so." Contrast that rock-bottom moment with the morning I had recently, 15 months later. My Dutch boyfriend, whom I met three months after the first work-permit debacle, held my hand as we waited in the small, almost empty waiting room of Amstelveen's foreign police office. It felt more like a doctor's office than Amsterdam's intimidating buitenlander (foreigner) operation, with its endless hallway of sinisterly numbered doors and stadium-sized number board. At 9.40am, 10 minutes after our meeting was scheduled, one of the two magic doors opened, and a kind-looking, bearded man invited us into his office. Before I even sat down, I saw the temporary residence visa sticker and the small stack of official paperwork on his desk. My eyes widened. I almost dared to smile as we handed him our passports. I had prepared myself for a grumpy, sceptical, perhaps even arrogant, government official who wanted any reason to say no to my residence permit request, which was based on having a Dutch partner. Only a few months before, the Dutch company I worked for on a contract basis had received a sternly worded letter from the labour authority explaining why I was not going to get a work permit. Unlike the company that sent me home on my first day, this one had been willing to go around the rules until they had secured my work permit. But they were not prepared to re-apply for it given the nasty response. That's when I realised my only option was to apply for residency via my boyfriend. My self-sufficient determination gracefully bowed to the circumstances, and we began the frustrating process of collecting the documents necessary to prove our relationship. So while I was prepared for a fight, this foreign police representative seemed genuinely pleased to see us. After all, he'd seen our collection of photos, taken at various events in the last year, and read the statements our parents, other family members and friends had written on our behalf. Our evidence made our case very clear: we love each other and want to live here together. "I liked your photos," he told us as he handed us the first of four documents to sign. Yes, I was unmarried, no I had not been convicted of any crimes. Yes, he was willing to cover my financial liabilities, and yes, we have a real, exclusive relationship. The man smiled as he pasted the sticker I had seen into my passport. He explained, in Dutch, that it is good for six months and allows me to work here, though a prospective employer may want to wait until I have my real residence card in hand. He also said I should receive a letter in a few weeks, at which point I will have to go back to the foreign police office (only between 1.30 and 3.30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, how convenient) to pick up my residence card. I nodded my head eagerly to everything, hardly believing that it was so easy, so pleasant, so done. We shook his hand, gathered our files — we brought all the original paperwork, which he didn't even ask to see — and happily closed his office door behind us. As soon as we stepped through the sliding glass doors and into the cold, rainy November morning, we kissed and held each other, jumping like kids. We did it! "Welcome to Holland, baby!" my boyfriend said. No more heart-pounding moments at Schiphol airport's passport control, no more holding my breath when a police officer walks by, and no more dread-inspiring visits to the Foreign Police. At last, I am welcome. Karen Brady* January 2003 *The name has been changed to protect the author's privacy Subject: Expat profiles