It was almost 6 weeks after our application for a residence and worked permit was submitted.
During that time the Georgian government came under severe pressure from the European Union to change their visa regime to be more aligned with the European rules and regulations. Where South Africans were allowed to stay 12 months on a tourist visa, it was changed to 90 days. Existing visas was not affected, but this applied to new applications with immediate effect.
One morning an official brown envelope was delivered to our apartment. It contained a letter, and I opened it with great anticipation. I was sure it was news about our residence and work permit application.
I was right, but it was not the news we were hoping for. Our application was denied but it was the reason given that surprised us the most: “Security Risk”! I could not belief my eyes. How was it possible? It was almost 18 months after the incident at Ataturk International Airport, when I was deported for a similar reason. I was shocked and struggled to make sense of what just happened.
In discussions with other expatriate leaders in Tbilisi I learnt that they were just as surprised. This was unprecedented for Georgia! We felt that there must be a link to the incident in Turkey, but it was difficult to find any link outside of some conspiracy theory.
At the Tbilisi International Church, we learnt that we were not that unique in our recent experience. People from African, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries who applied for residence permits during the same time, received similar letters with the same wording. It seemed that the Georgian government used the guise of the new Visa rules and regulations to “clean” the country from unwanted visitors from certain countries and areas. It was just unfortunate for us that Africa was included in the list of areas and that our residence and work permit application coincided with this campaign by the Georgian government.
When this became clear we decided to appeal the decision. We then discovered that there was no provision in the law for an administrative appeal of the decision. The only way to challenge the decision was to take it to a court of law.
Our visa was valid until January 2015. If we do not get a residence and work permit to live and work in Georgia, we will have to leave Georgia at the end of January 2015 for a period for three months before we can return for another 3 months.
This had huge implications for our work as OM Field Leaders in the Caucasus. We knew what it felt like to exit a country regularly to renew a tourist visa, and we were not ready to go that route again. In discussions with our support group in South Africa and the OM Regional leadership, it was decided to challenge the decision to deny us a work and residence permit in court. We were referred to a Georgian Lawyer who specialized in cases like these. When we shared our experience with her, she was positive that we could be successful with our challenge.
Donations were raised to cover the cost of the lawyer and so the challenge began.
We soon realized that our whole life was affected. It felt as if everything was put on hold until the court ruled on our application. We had no clear indication of how long the court process would last. All we knew was that we only had six months before we had to leave Georgia, with no certainty that we will be able to return.
I felt stuck. It was suddenly very difficult to work on a vision, mission, and strategy for the work of OM in the region. It was also very difficult to built relationships because we felt unsure about our future in the region, and when we honestly disclosed our uncertain future, people withdraw and were reluctant to invest more time in a possible relationship.
I felt frustrated and angry. How did we end up in this position? All we wanted to do was to serve God and the OM team in the region, and now everything was in limbo. The feeling of disappointment was overwhelming at times, and I started to be withdrawn and found it difficult to continue with the language lessons and any other previously meaningful engagements. It just did not make sense anymore.
Our first court appearance was before young female official. Written submissions were filed, and the case was postponed for judgement.