Volunteers in missions struggle back to Vienna
Photo by: Nick Conley
Will and Holly Kooi were escorted off a train and barred from reentering the country where they were sent to spiritually serve.
Crossing the Croatian border on foot with only backpacks in hand, the Koois left the European Union and their new home of Vienna, Austria in November, having “drastically overstayed” their time. Now recently back in Vienna, the Koois, Oklahoma Christian University graduates and Helpers in Missions workers, hope to resolve their visa trouble and continue their mission work.
“We were hoping we would be going back under better circumstances, and that everything would have been fixed by now, but it’s only because we’re legally allowed to be back, not because everything has been fixed,” Holly Kooi said.
In May of last year, Will and Holly Kooi arrived in Vienna to assist the current missionaries serving the Vienna, Austria area. As HIM workers, the Koois were to serve two years as apprentice missionaries in overseeing several Vienna mission outreach programs such as the English Kids Club and the Sports Kids Club.
After six months of work with mission programs and living in Vienna, the Koois found that they had been misinformed about the European Union’s visa laws.
“We knew there was a rule that said you can only stay in the E.U. for three months at a time,” Will Kooi said. “And that every three months you’re supposed to stay away for three months.”
However, the missionaries in Vienna, as well as other missionaries in Europe, said there were ways around that rule.
“The missionaries in Vienna heard it from the Austrian government when they came seven years ago that the law is not really enforced,” Will Kooi said. “So all you had to do when you left every three months was just stay away for a couple of days and get your passport stamped and you’re golden.”
This practice is not new.
“That’s what people have done for 20 to 25 years,” Will Kooi said of the loophole. “That’s what we were told to do, so we did that.”
But it doesn’t always work that way, he said.
In August, Will and Holly Kooi’s tourist visas expired, so they left Austria to spend a few days in Croatia, a non European Union nation.
“We stayed away for two or three days, got our passports stamped, went back and everything was great,” Will Kooi said. “It worked fine just like everyone said it would.”
When November came, they thought they could repeat the process.
“This time, for whatever reason, the border guard stopped us and said we overstayed by 85 days,” Will Kooi said. “He said, ‘You’ve drastically overstayed your time in the E.U. so you have to leave.’ We tried arguing with him.”
The Koois were pulled off the train they were on from Croatia to Slovenia, put in the back of a police car and driven in between the Slovenia and Croatia border. They then had to walk across the Croatian border and find a bus to take them to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city.
After a few days of staying with missionary friends in Zagreb, the Koois realized they had to go back to the United States to work out the problem. So they flew to Washington D.C. and attempted to resolve the issue with the Austrian Embassy.
“We thought that if we went to the embassy we could do a quick fix and get back to Austria within two to three weeks,” Will Kooi said. “But there’s no legal way to do that. We ended up having to wait the three months.”
While waiting in the U.S., Will and Holly Kooi worked with their organization and an Austrian lawyer to find possible solutions, as well as several back up plans, in order to stay in Vienna without leaving every other three months. Once back in Vienna, the Koois will apply for a certain permit that will allow them to stay for a longer, uninterupted time.
The Koois also used their time in the U.S. to study German, plan lessons for the kids clubs and gather English language books to take back for the kids.
Holly Kooi said the toughest part of the visa ordeal was leaving their work right when they were getting into the thick of it.
“We were perfectly positioned to do the work we were going to do,” Holly Kooi said. “We had finally gotten over culture shock. We had finally learned enough German to where we could speak it without being scared. We had just made that jump to hit the ground running, and then we were yanked out.”
The displaced feeling could continue, which often happens when you have two homes as the Koois do.
“Now we don’t know how we’re going to feel when we come back,” Will Kooi said. “If it’s going to be like we never left, or if it’s like starting over again.”
Will Kooi is ready and willing to get back to work with the community he knows in Vienna.
“I’m really excited to sit in my apartment and realize that I’m back in Vienna,” Will Kooi said. “I’m excited to start our programs again, and really do what we were sent there to do.”
Holly Kooi is looking forward to seeing those they left behind.
“The people — that’s what I’m looking forward to the most,” Holly Kooi said. “And being able to be back to what we refer to as home.”