BARRED? Pensioners’ Syrian link threatens Caribbean trip

SADDLEWORTH PENSIONERS Fred and Susan Russell could miss out on a dream Caribbean holiday because of a 48-hour tourist trip to Syria.

Fred and Sue Russell
Fred and Sue Russell

The worried Greenfield couple are due to start their 11-night cruise to Central America from Fort Lauderdale on March 13.

But now Fred, 72, and 71-year-old Sue fear they may have to cancel their £5,000 trip after their application for a visa waiver was rejected.

They’ve been requested to make a personal appearance at the US Embassy in London to apply for a visa.

That’s added another £350 in travel and accommodation costs to their holiday bill to ensure they’re on time for a 9am appointment at the Embassy in Grosvenor Square.

In addition, they’ve paid $320 for their joint visa application and photographic costs in order to meet strict guidelines on images.

The concerned couple have written to Oldham East and Saddleworth MP, Debbie Abrahams, to highlight the problems of flying to or passing through the States.

They also contacted the Independent to warn fellow travellers of pitfalls arising from any previous trips to terrorist hotspot countries.

The Russells’ nightmare started when they applied online for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) which allows British citizens to travel without a visa.

One of the questions asks if the applicant has “travelled to, or been present in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011”.

If you answer “yes” to the question you are then asked to state which of the seven countries you have visited. Applicants must explain the purpose of their visit and are given numerous different options to choose from.

Syrian stamp
The Syrian stamp in the passport

“We can only think our problems have been caused because of the trip to Syria,” says perplexed Fred.

“We spent two nights in Damascus in March 2011 as part of an organised tourist trip at the end of a week in Jordan before we flew home.

“We saw a few protests while we were in Syria and it was chaotic at the airport when we flew home. But there was no violence.

“The frustrating part is we only just fall into the six-year period. Had we gone in the February of that year we would have been fine.”

Susan added: “We’ve been to America four or five times before but never  encountered any problems.

“I suppose we have been a little naïve not checking more thoroughly before we booked. But it was a last minute decision to go.

“The cruise goes to places we always wanted to see, it was a good price and there were only two cabins left so we took the plunge.

“I filled in the online form and it came back ‘travel not authorised.’ They don’t give you any reasons why and it’s impossible to speak to anyone in person.

“I rang to try and change the appointment time but it was an automated message. I was asked to state our nationality and pressed ‘one’ for English.

“The message came back we didn’t need a visa and told to hang up.

“We have got travel insurance but if we don’t get a visa and have to cancel, I am not optimistic we will get our money back.

“It’s created unnecessary stress and we just want to highlight what can happen. On our trip to Syria alone there must have been 30 people.”


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