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October 11, 2004

Two weeks ago, a student taking part in Brattleboro Union High School's Swiss exchange program could not travel into the US due to unexplained visa problems. This week, visa problems have postponed a concert by The Boys Choir of Kenya because Choir members could not get the proper documentation to enter the U.S. in time. The group filed their papers months in advance, according to concert organizer Fred Onovwerosuoke, a Ghana-born musician who is leading the North American tour.

The USA PATRIOT Act paid a visit to Brattleboro earlier this month when a 17-year-old Swiss exchange student was not allowed into the country because his name and birth date matched one on a U.S. watch list. State and local officials are still working to get the teen into the country. The Kenyans were not told they were being denied visas due to anti-terrorism moves. But Onovwerosuoke said dealing with the United States embassy has grown increasingly difficult.

"The policies at the U.S. embassy have gotten complicated since Sept. 11," he said on Sunday from his cell phone, while traveling in the choir's empty tour bus somewhere between Wisconsin and Massachusetts. "It is unfair that a group like this suffers." Concerts this past weekend in Chicago and Milwaukee were cancelled.

It was only after a series of late night calls from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) to the U.S. Ambassador in Nairobi that the party was able to secure the proper documents. Feingold was the only member of the U.S. Senate to vote against the USA PATRIOT Act in Oct. 2001. "When you apply you wait for a date and you have no control over it. You win sometimes but when you lose it hurts," Onovwerosuoke said.

The choir also had plans to work with a number of schools in New Hampshire and Vermont. Mary Cay Brass, a local musician, helped organize the concerts and workshops. On Sunday she was feverishly making calls and sending e-mails to try and rearrange the schedule.

"The irony is that a woman from Kenya just won the Nobel Peace Prize and here our government is treating 35 teenage boys like terrorists," Brass said. Through it all Onovwerosuoke maintained a positive attitude and laughed many times at the situation as he traveled across America in the empty bus. "You have to keep on singing," he said. "The alternative is not an option. I cannot afford to dwell on something I cannot change."

There have been many cases in recent times of foreign performing artists being refused visas by US Consular officers. It has made presenters leery of booking such groups which is very sad indeed. It is my firm belief that this world needs more cultural exchanges, especially by youth groups, to help them have a better understanding of other peoples. Denying American kids the chance to learn about other cultures due to over zealous bureaucrats or paranoid policy is most unfortunate for all. Is the US becoming xenophobic? - Editor

Posted by acapnews at October 11, 2004 9:41 PM