This post is in relation to our journey to Africa to reunite a family. We traveled to Cotonou Benin and spent 4 days touring and visiting with new friends and church members. Then we traveled with Caroline and her children from Benin to Portland Oregon. To learn about our self-appointed mission(?) quest(?) crazy endeavor.. you can read more about their story on this GoFundMe page we put up a few months ago.
Yesterday (June 15, 2018), we arrived home from our travels, and are happy to say that our friends are reunited! Along the way we had many wonderful experiences which we shared on Facebook. Our journey home had some major hiccups, including getting stuck in Paris for 27 hours. This is a description of basically everything we can remember that happened during our 2-3 day journey home, which was supposed to take 24 hours.
A friend asked for some explanations now that we made it safely to Portland. It's dangerous to ask me to explain something unless you want a small book! It's 3am Portland time but I think I'm still on Europe/Africa time. I actually woke up thinking I want to write all the events of the past couple days in my journal, but maybe since so many others are invested it's better to share these events with you all.
Things don't always appear in any kind of coherent way on a Facebook stream, and I think some people are only catching snippets of our adventure. But feel free to go through my timeline and view the photos of our time in Benin!
I'll begin by relating our troubles getting out of Benin to board the flight to Paris. Our flight didn't leave until 11:30pm on Wednesday night. So at around 8:30pm we arrived to check in (and when I say we arrived, I mean all the friends / family – like 20 people – we took more photos outside the airport, and had more tearful goodbyes). So we had already had a long hot day, visiting with family & were basically drenched in sweat before we even got there. And Caroline had just said goodbye to everyone she knew and was emotional, nervous, etc. She only speaks French, and even that very quietly as she is somewhat timid, and we only know a few words.. so it was certainly tricky.
After we checked our luggage it had to be inspected. So they walked us around to this inspection room. But one of the family had added a pretty sizable pad-lock locking the zippers together, and Caroline couldn't find the key to it. Without seeing inside they weren't going to load the bag. Caroline was distraught at the idea of leaving one of her 3 bags behind.. after a while I was contemplating maybe cutting into it.. we were discussing where to strategically cut into the bag when Amy Jo walks over and pries open the back of the zipper, bending it over with a pair of scissors they had there. The lock just slipped off. She looked at me with this mischevious grin and says "don't ask me how I know how to do that!" – Apparently my wife has a some kind of experience breaking into luggage I don't know about.
We knew the bags were packed about half-way with clothes, and the other half with foods & liquids that she wanted to bring. We had spent part of the previous day looking over what she wanted to bring and helping her pack. At first I had objected to all this food, but they explained these were requests from friends in the States to get some of their old favorite foods, spices, etc. There were dried and wrapped fish, lemongrass, various oils wrapped up tight in plastic bottles, and other items. We separated the food and large plastic-bottled liquids into the 3 bags to try to even out the weight. I had no idea if these items would be allowed. The liquids were not.
Caroline was distraught at this, and couldn't bear to throw anything away. She thought perhaps her family & friends might still be outside the airport so we went back out to give the items to them. But of course everyone was gone. In the end I convinced her we had to leave it and go – so we just gave away the various items to random people outside the airport.
We now had our boarding passes and had to go through the security / passport check to get into the boarding terminal. With U.S. passports & our Benin visas, Amy and I went through no problem. So we were standing there waiting for Caroline to be admitted through. I could see there was trouble. She started to look over at us very worried and nervous. After a bit I walked back around and stood by her to see what was going on. The immigration official asked me who I was, why was I there? How was I related to her? I explained that we were traveling together, and I helped get the kids their passports and her to get her visa..
Then he asked, "Where are the Benin visas for these children?"
Although they were born in Benin, the children have U.S. passports and citizenship which they were able to qualify for because their father (Pascal) is a U.S. citizen. We had to go through a lot of paperwork to get this done over the past couple years. But I hadn't anticipated this problem. The agent explained, according to the passports the children are U.S. citizens, so they could not be in Benin without a Benin visa. It dawns on me that once they received their U.S. citizenship, the children effectively became illegal aliens in their home country.
He was trying to figure out how they had come to be in Benin without a visa. I had to talk him through it.
"No, they never came to Benin, they were born here, they never left. This will be their first time coming to the U.S."
I began to vaguely remember a conversation I had once with Pascal where he brought up the idea that the kids might need Benin visas but I had pushed it off, thinking it didn't make sense. Why would they need that (plus it was going to be a hassle involving sending their new U.S. passports from Africa to D.C. along with processing costs...).
But now here we were and this was holding us up. They asked me to go wait back over by Amy, where we both silently prayed. Eventually they just decided to clear it and let them through. I think perhaps because what a visa really allows you to do is travel into another country. Being that they were born in Benin, I believe this fact helped them decide to let it go.
Anway, first hurdle cleared. We were allowed to board to France. This was also the last we saw of our luggage (as I write this from my home, we are still waiting for it to be delivered). The kids slept for the entire 6 hour flight. Which was great except that Jean de Dieu is a pretty small fellow and his head was basically leaned against my arm the entire time, preventing me from moving around very much!
It was interesting trying to help Caroline order her meal.. Google translate to the rescue. I've noticed that she likes ice! I guess being from Africa when someone offers you ice you don't turn it down. She's coming from a home where there was no refrigerator, and no hot water other than what you boil yourself -- which they did a lot with charcoal outside their front door. Being with them all day and watching them cook, clean dishes, wash clothes, all with water in buckets from these charcoal burners they keep going, I realized that how our family lives while on a campout is their daily life. Caroline cooked for us & cleaned all day before we left (with other visiting family members helping).
The Charles de Gaul airport is massive. The plan was to make the Air Canada flight to Vancouver BC and then fly Alaska Air to Portland. We already had our boarding passes that would take us all the way through on these flights. I don't exactly remember the details but we got off the plane, then went through a very light security check point (no one in line) where they scanned our bags.. and then had to figure out where we needed to go next. That checkpoint was so easy that later I forgot we had even done it. Figuring out where to go took a while, but finally we learned that we needed to take a bus to the terminal for Air Canada.
We finally got to the gate maybe 20-30 minutes before boarding. We didn't check in with anyone since we already had our boarding passes. Being that we had little children, the Air Canada boarding agents called us to go up first. They proceeded to scan the boarding passes until they came to Caroline.
"And I'm sorry, where is her Canadian visa?"
"What? No", I say, "we're traveling to Portland Oregon, she has a U.S. visa". I show it to them.
"Yes but.. oh this is going to be a problem.. if you are going through Canada you need a Canadian visa."
"No, we're just making a connecting flight". We would be in Canada for less than 2 hours.
"Look", she said, "It's very easy, there's a website, you can get it right now, do you have a phone? You can do it on your phone".
"What? I need to go online and apply for a visa now? While your boarding the flight??"
"Let us see what we can do".. They have us step aside and they start chattering away between themselves in French. It's clear they want to help, and they are working very hard and also dealing with the normal stresses of loading a big international flight in 30-40 minutes.
Looking back now I'm amazed at how much time (probably a good 15-20 minutes) & how many of them were involved in trying to help us.
I get onto my phone and bring up the website she gives me, working through this online questionnaire. Submitting the form results in a 501 website error. Being a web developer myself I start to have a sinking feeling.. this is not good.
I pull out my laptop hoping for a different result. Same problem. There's a notice on the site saying "follow us on Twitter to see our maintenance notices".. I quickly jump on Twitter and see that the site is undergoing a scheduled maintenance and will be down for another 2 hours.
I show it to the attendant.
"Ah yes, okay it's no problem. This happens sometimes. There's another flight in about 3 hours, we can just adjust your itinerary to be on that flight. It goes through Toronto instead of Vancouver. That will give you time to do the visa.. there is a $100 change fee for each ticket."
It occurs to me that if we can just fly directly to the U.S. we can avoid the visa issue. But I learn that Air Canada has no flights to the U.S. Not to New York, not D.C., nowhere. Only to Canada. I agree to the fees, and decide to take our chances with this stupid website. I don't see any other options.
So we sit down, and wait. We have 2 hours before we can try the website again.. assuming it comes online. What if it doesn't come up? Don't think about it. Just be patient.. it will work.
I try the website every 30 minutes or so.. in between making posts on Facebook about the problem. It still doesn't really register that this is a huge problem. It's a hiccup. The site will come up, we'll fill out the form and it will be done.
Finally the site comes back up. "Yes, this is it, we're in business." Amy is sitting next to me as we run through the questions. Name, country of origin, passport number, blah blah... on selecting Benin as country of origin it asks me to provide a green card number. What? Green card number? She doesn't have that yet.. the plan is for Pascal to start that process as soon as she passes through immigration.
Canada requires that all travelers who are not U.S. citizens but travel with a U.S. visa, from a list of countries that includes Benin, to also have a valid U.S. green card. Why? This makes no sense. So the only way to legally immigrate to the United States from Africa is to fly direct? We're not "traveling to Canada", it's a layover.
I realize now I shouldn't have just looked for the best flights through online services without doing more research. I had decided on Air Canada because I remembered flying with them on our trip from London a few years ago and what a great flight it was. I call Pascal just to see if maybe somehow he has a green card number for her that I don't know about..
"Oh no, this is bad!" he says, "I made the payment for the processing but it doesn't come for weeks."
"Yeah, it's bad" I reply, "Well, let me keep working on it and I'll get back to you."
It's now about an hour before the Toronto flight. There are attendants at that terminal desk. Different attendants who know nothing about our situation.
There's a couple people ahead of me. It's taking forever. I finally get to the counter and explain our situation. Once they understand the attendants fly into action, more rapid discussions in French. Everyone is consulting with everyone. Finally I can see them talking to this man who seems to be in his late 20's or early 30's, the head security / passport authority for this flight, and I watch him respond with a solid "No".
The attendant comes back over, "I'm sorry, but this is, ah.. it's not possible, we cannot let her travel."
I'm stunned. I don't know what to do. I walk back over to Amy who's been praying silently like crazy, and shake my head. I can see the stress on her face.
We sit and try to digest this. As I write about it a couple days later, I wonder if perhaps I could have persisted more to explain our situation. Do they understand that they are not simply preventing one passenger from boarding the flight? Are they aware that we will now have to purchase 5 tickets from France to the U.S., or how much this decision they are making will cost us? Not to mention the loss of the non-refundable tickets we already paid for?
If we were to have been allowed on the flight, would anyone in Canada even check to see if she had a Canadian visa? No one asked to see a French visa to have a layover in Paris. I remember Pascal stressing that we cannot leave the terminal due to the fact that she does not have a French visa. But still, we thought a layover would be okay, and in France it was fine.
It occurs to us that we'll need to get our bags..
So I go back over to the desk, and tell them that our bags were routed to this flight, and we'll need to have them pulled out.
"Okay.. so how many bags?"
"There are 5"
"So none of you will be traveling?" she asks.
Her question throws me. I hadn't considered the idea of having one of us go ahead with the kids on this flight... I think about it for half a second before I realize it would never work. There's no possible way I could separate this 2 year old and 4 year old from their mom, without even knowing how to talk to them, and then fly with them for another 12-15 hours.
"No, we're traveling together" I reply.
She tells me they will pull our bags and have them placed back down in the baggage claim area.
At this point we just sort of wandered a bit lost, I think we had the intention of going to the baggage claim area. We went back down the terminal from the direction we had first come. It was a long terminal that passed by several gates. As we walked I thought, we need help now. We need inspiration. We needed to be guided to talk to someone who could really help us. We had missed our flight to America, it was gone and now we had no tickets to go anywhere.
I was afraid that if we went out of this terminal to the airline ticket area, we might be in trouble for Caroline "entering France" without a French visa. But what were supposed to do?
We decided to walk over to a quiet empty group of chairs and have a group prayer.
After this prayer we talked a bit and decided to find the luggage. Maybe it's all airports now, and not just the CDG, but inside the terminals at the level of the boarding gates, it seemed impossible to find any kind of general information desk or anyone we could ask who could give us advice.
All the airline gate desks sit empty until about 45min-1 hour before a flight is due to depart. Then the attendants come in, and they are completely focused on loading that flight, working through the logistics of getting the flight loaded. Then once it's complete they vanish. I guess they either all boarded the plane or they leave. But it makes it very difficult to find someone to ask for help.
We went past all the gates, then down the stairs to the security check area. We were on the side where the people who have cleared security would be. We found a security desk and asked the man there. He was unhelpful, basically telling us that as a security agent he knew nothing about the baggage, or the airline, and that we needed to talk to the airlines.. he couldn't even point us to baggage claim. We saw no signs for it anywhere. We were just wandering about this massive terminal which is one of several. We had taken a 10 minute bus ride to get here. Was baggage claim even in this building? Or was it a half-mile away? We had no clue.
I was worried about walking out too far and crossing some important line some place that would mean we would need to go back through a security check. I had completely forgotten that we had already passed through security once here (now hours ago), and it hadn't caused an issue.
So then we went back to the area where we had sat and prayed. We had been walking around as group which was slow, and the kids and Caroline were tired. I decided to just plant them here and I would go out and do some investigating.
I went back down the past the terminal gates and down the stairs to where the security checkpoint was. I decided to continue down a curved hallway, and came to another desk. This one was being staffed by some airline attendants that work for a consortium of the smaller airlines. I think it had something to do with baggage claim. There were no other customers so I was able to just walk up and talk to the gentleman there, who also spoke English.
After explaining our situation he said that the attendants at Air Canada had given me wrong information and there was no way to get to baggage claim from this side of the security structure without completely leaving the terminal. He also helped me understand that we didn't really need to retrieve our bags at all, in fact it might be better if we didn't. If we focused instead on getting new flight tickets, once we had our boarding passes we could bring those back to this desk and they would then just route the luggage on to the new flights, whatever they might be.
So that relieved my mind about the luggage, because we were already struggling to haul around the carry-on bags with the kids anyway.
The next step seemed to be to do some research and purchase tickets for a direct flight to the U.S. from this terminal 2E at the CDG airport.
Looking for new tickets was sobering. We did find a few possibilities. One seemed like it would work, on XL airline. They flew from our terminal. In fact there was a flight later that evening to JFK, that would load from the gate right beside to us. It would be significantly cheaper than the other major airlines. So I went through the process of trying to purchase the tickets, putting in all the passenger data from the passports for the 5 of us. Trying to actually purchase the tickets for the flight which was just about 3-4 hours from then was not working out too well. The site kept declining my credit cards, no matter which one I used.
Finally I was able to call and talk to a person at this airline, they were in New York. It wasn't easy to navigate their automated phone system. But eventually via email and phone calls we got the tickets purchased.
The woman on the phone then tells me "Great, now all you need to do is go to the check-in area and check-in there for your flight."
It was like she hadn't heard anything about our situation. I told her this was impossible, and that I was looking for an online check-in, could she just send me our boarding passes? An electronic ticket or whatever..?
"No no", she says, "You must check-in there in person to go on the flight."
"Well can I just check in at the gate?"
"No you won't be able to get to the gate unless you check-in and pass through security, it's impossible!" She tells me.
I should have said "I bet I can!".. but instead I just say "I'm standing at the gate right now." I finally get through to her that we are standing in front of the gate where the plane will be boarding.
"What, how could you get there??"
As I think about it, I can see now that it was a strange situation. The only way we could have gotten here as we did would be with valid boarding passes & passports, which we had. We went through security, they checked our passes, and then we were allowed into this terminal. It's just that we were rejected from the flight. But we were still past security and sitting at her airline gate.
On hearing this information she freaks out.
"No, no, no! You can't do that! Oh I have to refund this transaction, this is no good! You must go back out and check-in!"
She tried to explain to me that it cannot work this way, and said something about how their airline didn't have the authority to do gate check-ins like that. It wasn't very clear, maybe something to do with how they are contracted to conduct business at the airport? But she was adament that it wouldn't work.
She was also very concerned about our visa situation and wanted me to find someone from immigration to talk with. I tried to tell her, there is absolutely no one around! The only people around are passengers going to their gates, and vendors selling in their shops.
I told her I would call her back once I had spoken with someone.
I decided to go back to the guy at the airline desk who had told me about the luggage. This was probably a couple hours later because there was someone else there now. But she was also quite helpful. When I explained that the XL Air lady who sold me the tickets wanted me to go back out and do check-in at the front, she said "Absolutely not! In your situation you cannot leave this terminal. You must get a ticket and boarding passes here in the terminal, and then everything will be fine."
If I remember right she recommended Air France.
At that point I called back to the XL Air lady and because it had been a while since she had heard from me, and the flight was getting close, she canceled the transaction. So, there went the inexpensive option. Probably just as well as she wasn't inspiring a lot of confidence and I didn't want to spend another few thousand dollars and not be able to get on the plane again!
So, back to square one: no tickets. But we did have a little more information now. I felt that we needed to go with a major airline. I wanted to try American Air, and was able to call them. The flights would be expensive, and the ticket agent I spoke with still wasn't completely sure that we would be able to do a gate check-in as we were wanting to do. I got about halfway through that online purchase before I backed out.
I had also spoken with a good friend back home who wanted to help. He was also researching some flights, and was concerned. We talked strategy for a while and found another low-cost option which would have involved flying to LA and then a 9 hour layover there. This was an airline (Tahiti Air) that only flew one long-haul flight a day out of Paris, and still no clear indication that they would be able to handle gate check-in like we needed.
Amy Jo had also been doing some recon, but ended up frustrated trying to track down an immigration official that someone had told would be at a certain gate far away. After walking the whole distance, there was no one there. On the way back she found an Air France desk nearby with some personnel who were helping people. I had passed by this desk earlier too but there was no-one there. She asked me to go talk to them. By this point we were so tired having already been up all night on the flight from Africa, and having run around this airport now for 12 hours.
I just remember being pretty tired mentally, and approaching the desk with a foggy head wondering what am I even supposed to say to them?
But I explained our situation again. They said absolutely Air France could handle this. It wouldn't be a problem. I'm not sure if they told me wrong or I misheard them, but somehow I thought we could even purchase tickets at the gate. So there was another flight later that evening that we missed because I didn't go online and purchase the tickets first.
Finally at around 8 or 9pm we conceded that we would be spending the night in the terminal. There were no more flights until the next morning. As we talked things over, we recognized that getting the Air France tickets felt like the right move, although the cost was pretty staggering. But we thought, what are our options? We needed 5 next-day tickets on a direct flight to the U.S. from a major airline who could guarantee that we could buy the tickets and board the plane without having to go out to check-in. We needed there to be no problems, we had to be able to board the plane.
Having talked it through, and feeling like it was right, I went online and purchased the tickets. Yes, it sets us back a bit.. but having come this far we were both committed to seeing it through. No matter what happened we were getting this little family to Washington.
That evening before the desk shut down completely I was able to go and talk to the AirFrance people again, and get our boarding passes printed. He also assured me that the luggage would be re-routed to our plane (but that didn't happen).
So the next morning we found our new gate where our flight to Seattle was leaving. We had a nice breakfast, and everyone was in pretty good spirits despite the difficult night we spent crashed out on the terminal floor. Oh I forgot to mention there was a construction crew working nearby at night, because of course they don't want to disturb people during the day. They also turned off the heat in the gate area. Lucky for me I had decided to travel in shorts.
Everything went well except for one final potential disaster. In my purchase of the tickets the night before, and after having entered this information in so many different times, I inadvertently entered Caroline's name as "Caroline Ananouko", which is her married name, but is not the name on her passport. Her maiden name of Tossoukpe is on the passport and visa.
At this point I was speaking with the agents at the gate, and they explained the problem. I can't believe I've made this stupid mistake. I tell them it was my fault, and that this is her married name. They need proof.. do I have a copy of her marriage certificate?
I had her previous boarding pass which showed she flew under the maiden name already. I also knew that Pascal had copies of every document, as he is fastidious about these things. So I called him then -– it was around 12:30am (in Portland). I woke him up and asked him to find a copy of his marriage certificate and text me a photo. And he was able to do that.
But they said they would need to call up an immigration officer to verify that she could travel. So we had to wait for this person to clear us.
At first it was so frustrating to think that we might have come this far, and spent all this money, and then it's possible that I screwed it up. But Amy was so supportive. She wasn't even mad - she just said, "No, it's not your fault, you were tired. It's totally understandable."
It was at this point that internally I made a decision. I decided not to be worried about it. I thought, "worry is not faith". I'm going to approach this with faith. I decided that we would be on the plane, and that God would make it happen. And I truly was not concerned. I felt that if something else needed to be done He would let me know, but I was determined we were getting on the plane.
The immigration agent finally arrived, and as it turned out I didn't even have to show her any documentation. Caroline had the sealed immigration packet which we were to present on our arrival to the U.S., and it had both her names written on the front of it (which I hadn't noticed). The woman took one look at that said, "Good to go."
We were so relieved. At this point Amy stood up and noticed an individual coming towards us. It was brother Kirk Price, an old friend of ours we hadn't seen in years! His family had been in our ward in Battle Ground until they had moved to Seattle about 5 years ago. What a blessing to run into an old friend in Paris! He worked for Microsoft and was coming home from a business trip in Germany. He would be on our flight. We talked about old times and caught up on each other's families (they are expecting their 8th child!). He asked about Ben, our oldest. Brother Price was Ben's leader when Ben was a young teenager. When he learned that Ben and Kelsey had married in the temple, he became emotional and then of course we became emotional. It was such a sweet experience to run into him there.
So then (after 27 hours in the CDG airport) we boarded the plane and flew to Seattle. I sat beside little Jean de Dieu, who on this flight was wide awake nearly the entire trip. It was here I learned just how active and restless this little boy is! He could not stop moving, or pushing buttons.. he wanted to experience and test everything! He wanted the volume turned up 100%! Everything to the max! I had to prevent him several times from clicking the "call the attendant" button.
Of course these were all new experiences for him, and everything was exciting. Since we were loaded among the first passengers, other passengers walked past us down the aisle to their seats. Jean seated on the aisle would reach out and smack each person's carry-on as they wheeled it past. It was such a funny thing to do, everyone smiled or laughed.
On the flight he became frustrated with the in-flight headphones, and then my personal headphones as well. His ears are so small we couldn't get the ear-buds to stay in. After a while during the flight, to our rescue came Kirk Price. He watched my struggles for a bit and then said, "Oh, I'll be right back". He returned carrying his Bose large headphones - the kind that cover your ears. Thank you Kirk!
From there, an extremely long-long-long line waiting to clear immigration and customs. I wasn't sure what to expect there, but thought there would be some kind of sit-down interview. By this point we had been through so much that I wasn't even nervous. It took 2.5 hours to get through the line to get up to see an immigration customs officer.
I thought he was just going to be doing a precursor interview and tell us where to go to do the real (longer) sit-down interview. He asked me and Amy questions about who we were and our involvment, and then he opened the sealed packet up.. then asked a few more questions, contact info, housing arrangements, my employment.. basic things. Then he said "Okay, this is going to take me a little while, you can go over there and sit and wait." So we went behind this glass partitian area and waited for a while. After a bit they came out and said, Okay it's all good to go. And from there we were in the clear.
We had of course missed our connecting flight to Portland, but they were able to reconnect us on another later flight and we arrived in Portland a little before 6:30pm on Friday June 15 (but our luggage didn't).
It was so good to finally see everyone back in Portland! It was wonderful to have many people come and see us there as we came in. The reunion with Pascal was emotional and joyful!
Thank you to everyone and all who assisted in so many ways to help bring this family back together!
- Tom & Amy Jo Wheeler
Note: The following day we learned that we actually hadn't needed a green card as I thought for that Canada travel visa. Apparently the Alien registration number on the U.S. visa is the same number that is used for the Green card, and it was this that the online form was asking for. I just didn't understand that at the time. I've never traveled with someone trying to immigrate before, so this was all new to me.
It was pretty frustrating to learn this after we finally got home, after spending all that money buying the new tickets, but nothing to be done about it now I guess. I suppose I just should have done more research before our trip, but I'm not sure I would have ever thought to check about needing a visa to layover in Canada.