Swede: ‘terrorist’ name behind US visa delay

A Swedish filmmaker and television host claims he has not yet received a visa to the United States because authorities think his name is similar to that of a terrorist's.

Swede: 'terrorist' name behind US visa delay
Filmaker Otham Karim; the US embassy in Stockholm

“Everyone in my family got their visa within a week. But not me,” Otham Karim told the Aftonbladet newspaper.

“My name is Otham Karim. That’s enough.”

The 43-year-old filmmaker, who was born in Uganda but has been a Swedish citizen for the past 30 years, filed his application for a visa to the United States back in early May.

Karim lived in the United States for several years previously, a time during which he worked for Steven Spielberg’s production company Amblin Entertainment.

He was also a long time host of the Sveriges Television programme Mosaic, and has directed a number of feature films in the last decade, including 2010’s Dear Alice (För kärleken), in which Karim cast veteran US actor Danny Glover.

Karim had hoped to bring his family to the United States to accompany him while he participated in a film making class in Los Angeles.

But as things stand now, his family can go, but he cannot.

“By claiming that I have the same name as a terrorist, the authorities can treat me however they want,” he told the newspaper.

According to Karim, he first learned that he may have the same name as a suspected terrorist shortly after the September 11th attacks when he attempted to wire some money to Uganda to help pay for treatment needed by his ailing father.

But the transfer was stopped by Western Union, which informed him that he was on a terrorist watch-list.

As the months have dragged on since he filed his visa application, Karim believes he is still being singled out because of his name.

“This is another form of the racism I’ve experienced previously. Now I’m not only a svartskalle [lit. blackhead], but I’m also a terrorist,” he said, referring to a derogatory slur commonly used to refer to people in Sweden thought to have foreign backgrounds.

Karim’s claims that his visa application has been delayed because his name is on a list of suspected terrorists is “certainly possible”, according to Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp.

“The concern isn’t from left field,” he told The Local.

“There are many instances where people with similar or exact-sounding names as suspected terrorists have found themselves singled out.”

According to Ranstorp, the question is what Karim may or may not have done to correct the situation when he first became aware of the issue.

“One has to ask what he has been doing to consult with US authorities to get him off that list,” he said, emphasising that it remains difficult to know exactly what may have held up the issuance of Karim’s US visa.

“The delay could be because of his name or it could be because of something else,” he said.

Chris Dunnett, a spokesperson from the US embassy in Stockholm, told The Local he was unable to comment on the specifics of the case due to privacy concerns, but emphasised that the process can take a long time “for various reasons”.

“Processing times can very considerably and that can sometimes be an inconvenience, but long waits aren’t unusual,” said Dunnett.

Karim, however, remains frustrated by the embassy’s explanations.

“They won’t tell my why I haven’t got my visa. But my understanding is that it has to do with my name,” he told Aftonbladet.

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What are my rights while I wait for my Swedish residence permit to be extended?

Many foreigners living in Sweden need to have a residence permit to live in the country legally. Permits are issued for two years at a time and can be renewed 30 days before expiry, at the earliest. But with waiting times exceeding 8 months for many applicants, just what are your rights while you wait to hear back?

What are my rights while I wait for my Swedish residence permit to be extended?

Can I keep working in Sweden?

It depends. If you have a residence permit which allows you to work in Sweden, have held that residence permit for at least six months and apply for an extension before your old permit expires, you still have the right to work in Sweden while you wait for the Migration Agency to make a decision on your permit application.

You can apply for a new residence permit 30 days before your old permit expires, at the earliest, and you can’t get a new residence permit before your old one has run out.

Can I leave Sweden?

Technically you can, but it might not be a good idea. This is due to the fact that if you leave Sweden after your residence permit has expired, it can be difficult to enter Sweden again before your new permit is granted, even if you can prove that you’ve applied for a new one.

In the worst-case scenario, you could be denied entry to Sweden at the border and forced to wait in another country until your new residence permit is granted. 

If you find yourself in this situation, you can, in some cases, apply for a national visa allowing you to re-enter Sweden. These are only granted under exceptional circumstances, and must be applied for at a Swedish embassy or general consulate in the country you are staying in. If you are not granted a national visa to re-enter Sweden, you can’t appeal the decision, meaning you’ll have to wait until your residence permit is approved before you can re-enter Sweden.

The Migration Agency writes on its website that you should only leave Sweden while your application is being processed “in exceptional cases, and if you really have to”.

It lists some examples of exceptional cases as “sudden illness, death in the family or important work-related assignments”, adding that you may need to provide proof of your reason for travelling to the embassy when you apply for a national visa to re-enter Sweden.

What if I come from a visa-free country?

If you come from a visa-free country, you are able to re-enter Sweden without needing a visa if you have a valid residence permit or are waiting for your residence permit to be extended.

According to the Migration Agency, “if an individual has submitted their extension application in time (before the earlier permit ran out), they also have the right to live and work in Sweden until a decision is made on the application”.

It is important that you are able document this in some way, as visa-free non-EU citizens entering Schengen are only allowed to stay in the bloc for 90 days out of every 180 before they require a visa, unless they can document that they have the right to live in a Schengen country, for example via a residence permit or proof that they have applied for an extension to their residence permit.

If you are a member of this group and you stay in Schengen for longer than 90 days without a visa, a valid residence permit, or proof that you are waiting for an extension on your residence permit, you could be labelled an “overstayer”, which can cause issues entering other countries, as well as applying for a visa or residence permit in the future.

The Migration Agency told The Local that “a visa-free person’s allowance of visa-free days is not used up during the period in which the extension permit is being processed”.

“However, an extension application usually requires the individual to be located in Sweden,” the Agency wrote. “Travelling abroad can, in some cases, have an effect on the decision whether to extend a residence permit or not, in a way which is negative for the applicant, but this decision is made on an individual case basis (it’s not possible to say a general rule).”

“The right to travel into the Schengen area for short visits is not affected, as long as the person still has visa-free days left.”

Does this apply to me if I have a permanent residence permit?

No. This only applies to people in Sweden holding temporary residence permits. If you have a permanent residence permit and your residence permit card (uppehållstillståndskort or UT-kort) expires, you just need to book an appointment at the Migration Agency to have your picture and fingerprints taken for a new card.

How long is the processing time for residence permit renewals?

It varies. For people renewing a residence permit to live with someone in Sweden, for example, the Migration Agency states that 75 percent of recent cases received an answer within eight months.

For work permit extensions, it varies. In some branches, 75 percent of applicants received a response after 17 months, others only had to wait five.

This means that some people waiting to extend their residence permits could be discouraged from leaving Sweden for almost a year and a half, unless they are facing “exceptional circumstances”.

You can see how long it is likely to take in your case here.