Viorel’s Story: why we are a family with no country

This post is a continuation from Bekka’s “Love Story: a family with no country” and I am officially a “guest blogger”… This is my side of the story.

As far as our love story goes, Bekka pretty much described it all in detail, but I will say that I had the same feeling about her after our first few dates. I just knew that I will ask her to marry me, and that was that.

The focus of this post is “why we are a family with no country to call home”, what bounds us from not being able to live in the US, and my thoughts on some immigration issues. I’ll admit it, it’s entirely my fault. As Bekka mentioned, I am Romanian, and I came to the US in 2005 on a Fulbright Scholarship to take 2 semesters of graduate-level classes [10 months] at the State University of New York, Syracuse. I am geographer and environmental scientist by training, but “fell” into conservation biology and ecology after graduation from the University of Bucharest. After dabbling in science (in early 2000’s) while working on conservation of vipers, tortoises, bears, wolves and lynx (yup, Romania still has all of these species, and many more in abundance), but not really having a vision of my future career path, a friend of mine (and a very successful Romanian scientist) encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship. He said it’s ‘the most amazing experience’ and ‘It will help you enormously in figuring out your next career steps’. It turns out he was right; it was the best thing that ever happened to me, as it led to meeting Bekka, having Tavi, getting a PhD, and in general changing my life path. …But unfortunately, it also led to our “no country” dilemma.

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Releasing captive bred baby tortoises, Iron Gates, Romania 2004

The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 to encourage collaboration and mutual understanding between the American people and rest of the world. It fosters a global exchange of experience and intellectual capacity unmatched by any other program. The exchange goes both ways: US scholars go abroad to teach or do research and outreach, and foreigners come to the US to get education in the US higher-education system. The program benefits from US Federal funding (although many countries contribute as well), and foreign scholars that are solely funded through US funds [my case] are subject to a 2-year home residency requirement. The philosophy behind this is straightforward: the scholar has to give back to her/his country after getting educated in the US, and this was equated at the time with being physically present in her/his home country.

For being offered such a great opportunity, I happily agreed to come back to Romania for at least 2 years and give back to my home country. Thinking that 10 months of classes is all I got, that didn’t seem like a big deal. But, it was a big deal: when I started in Syracuse, it was like the world just started to make sense. The first semester there I felt like an empty cup filling and filling and filling… with knowledge. It was amazing, and I often ask myself how my life would have been without this opportunity. After the 10 months, my advisor Dr. James Gibbs saw more potential in me, and made it possible to extend the stay for another year to do field research and develop a Master thesis (frog surveys in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York). And so I did, and this is how I ended up meeting Bekka. After I was done with the Master, it was either “go home” or “stay for a PhD”. During the 2 years in Syracuse I felt like I only scratched the surface and that there was so much more I needed to learn, so I opted for the latter. I did a PhD in Wildlife Ecology at the University of Maine with the best advisor anyone could ask for: Dr. Mac Hunter, the first ecologist to write a Conservation Biology book, and likely one of the greatest thinkers in this field. Lucky, lucky, lucky: living in Vacationland (aka the State of Maine) with the person you want to spend your life with, and doing what you love. Say no to that!

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Catching Turtles, Syracuse, NY 2005

Like Bekka mentioned in the previous post, all good things come to an end, and in 2010 it was time to decide our next move. Knowing that it is not possible to live in the US, we started looking at opportunities in Canada and Australia. Bekka ended up accepting a PhD position at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, so Canada it was. Now here is another really great thing about Fulbright: after graduation, one can work in the US for another 36 months as part of what is called “Academic Training”. Most people I know do postdocs, and so I decided to take advantage of this opportunity. I was (once again) extremely lucky [seems like a recurring theme for me] to get a 1-year postdoc at Berkeley followed by a 2-year postdoc at UC Santa Cruz and Simon Fraser University that I could do remotely from Vancouver (you can read about my research on my website: https://sites.google.com/site/vioreldpopescu/)

Now going back to the situation we are in: married couple, one spouse US citizen, one kid US citizen, living temporarily in Canada, with little or no chance of going back in the US legally (some of you non-Americans might ask: why do you even want to do that?). Well, in some ways this would be less for me (although I admit that the job opportunities in my field are richer in the US compared to other countries), but for Bekka and Tavi, who are Americans. Although there are no statistics about people in my situation, the Internet forums are replete with such stories, in many cases extremely sad. There are also no statistics on how many Fullbright Alumni are actually going back to their countries versus making a living in a different country. For example, Canada is often the destination of many people subject to the 2-year requirement due to Canada’s better and more lax immigration laws. Why wouldn’t Canada want to welcome well-trained people that the US is practically kicking out? I am thus fortunate for having built a family and found a home (maybe temporary, maybe not) in Canada. I am also fortunate that my country is not a war zone, so we could still go back if need be; others are not as fortunate, and the current system does not make it any easier for them.

Now let’s go back to the Fulbright program and the 2-year home residency requirement. Again, I think the philosophy behind the Fulbright is wonderful, as it was aimed at rebuilding countries after WWII. However, there is a huge difference in one’s life between spending several months (and some J1 scholars I know just hated the experience and couldn’t wait to return home) and spending almost 9 years in another country, and then going back home. The reader can judge how likely is it for a person to re-integrate in a society based on such differences. Unfortunately, there is no program in place to facilitate transitions for people in the latter situation. Theoretically, your home country should make it easy to do so and make good use of what you’ve learned. That is definitely the wrong assumption for many places, including Romania (the government even gave me a letter saying that they don’t need my services when I applied [unsuccessfully] to the US Dept. of State for a waiver for the 2 years home residency requirement). Some countries do welcome their “lost children” back and put their skills to good use [from my limited knowledge Chile, Argentina and Germany are among the ones to do so]. Unfortunately, this is not the home-coming that most Romanian Fulbright alumni experience. In fact, many places (even some fancy Western Europe academic systems) see your training as a threat to local faculty or researchers. I have a good friend in Romania who had a “senior” Fulbright (came to the US to teach, not to be taught), went back full of hopes, only to find that university decided to give hers/his courses to someone else, and she/he was just left hanging.

The main goal of Fulbright is for a scholar to “give back” to her/his country and that is wonderful. My opinion is that “giving back” comes in many shapes or forms, and does not necessarily have to include physical presence; not in the age of instant communication, remote access to data, etc. In my case, I started “giving back” as soon as I learned how to write in proper English and gained some quantitative skills at SUNY Syracuse. This is because I think that nature protection in Romania needs my help much more than anything else in North America or Western Europe. In Romania, like many other undeveloped countries, we don’t even know what species we have, where they are, and what their threat status is. There are no inventories, no databases, little quantitative skills, and equally important, little or no funding to do any of the above. So I did give back: half of my publications are on Romanian topics, I have several ongoing collaborations on large carnivores and amphibian conservation and I like to think that I did all I could to put Romania on the “biodiversity conservation” map. Since 2011 I have also been the science advisor of the largest brown bear conservation project in Central and Eastern Europe, and the methods we developed for counting bears in a scientific manner are likely to be now adopted nation-wide. These are just a few examples, and I was able to achieve all these remotely from the US or Canada (we haven’t been to Romania in 3 ½ years). The bottom line is that I will continue to work in Romanian conservation all my life, regardless of where I live. However, this does not mean anything to the US Dept. of State, which outright declined my request for a waiver for the 2-year home residency requirement.

So, I would argue that the 2-year home residency requirement is antiquated in this day and age, as it very narrowly focuses on physical presence in the home country. This is not Fulbright Program’s problem, but an artifact of the ancient and simply bad US immigration laws. The US Administration needs to start thinking in the 21st century, and acknowledge Fulbright scholars’ contributions beyond a physical presence test. On that note, regarding outdated US immigration laws, if a J1 exchange visitor moves to the US with their spouse Uncle Sam is even less welcoming.  The spouse gets a J2 visa to be able to reside in the US, but obtaining a work permit is difficult. Spouses can ultimately get employment, but the law does not facilitate it. In comparison, the first thing I received when we moved to Canada was a work permit for the duration of Bekka’s studies. Basically Canada said: “you came here temporarily, why not go work [whatever kind of work], contribute to society and support your family?”. Thank you and kudos to you, Canada!

April 3rd 2014 was a very special day: my last official day of the 8 years 8 months and 17 days as a J1 exchange visitor, meaning that all my US legal ties are now (officially) cut. I can no longer work or live in the US without returning to Romania for at least 2 years.  By default, my wife and son are (unofficially) “exiled” from the US.  So, regarding our next steps, we are still trying to figure it out: making the best of it in Canada (for what we do, the job market is relatively poor here), or try something else (Australia, New Zealand, China)? We are staying in Canada for at least another year (it will give both Bekka and I time to wrap up our projects), but the future is still uncertain.

To finish up my rambling, I need to tell you about the best post-graduation advice that I ever got from one of my mentors at SUNY Syracuse, Charlie Hall. He said: “NEVER GET COMFORTABLE”. At first I didn’t understand; years later, it made more sense: academically, you do not want to settle on a certain topic, and always want to be at disequilibrium in order to be productive. I did follow that advice and it worked out great: collaborations, papers, amazing professional experiences, and many new friends along the way. But from a family perspective, we are longing for comfort in security. And I am not talking about material things like a house or even a comfortable bed (don’t worry we have neither), but rather emotional comfort and peace of mind of being in a place on a status other than TEMPORARY.

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