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I couldn't make it to Train Jam and GDC because I am from Morocco (?)

the story in detail of how this year, I heard of the diversity program to attend Train Jam event in Chicago, from a fellow game dev friend who encouraged me to give it a try. I was selected. Visa was not granted from Casablanca embassy unfortunately.

khalil arafan, Blogger

June 21, 2017

18 Min Read

Hello again, fellow game makers of the world !

Long time no writings in here, happy to finally have some energy and time (first break in a long, oh so long year...) to have at it again.

I also needed some time to process the whole thing before being able to summon enough mental will to even start to remember all of it again.

Khalil Arafan here, from Morocco, with a background in programming and some experience in the AAA space ( Quantic Dream 2001 briefly, Ubisoft Casablanca more recently in 2008-2010 ), and some in the Indie space trying to make it on my own ( still not, by any mean, in case you wonder ) for the last 5 years with some mobile apps and games that went nowhere.

If you are curious to read more about my one man shop (Palm Grove Software) adventures ( and nothing better to do, long ones... ), feel free to explore the previous blogs about making my first game and all the hard lessons that came with it.

Today's writing is about how I couldn't make it last winter to one of the most exciting and original events in the videogame industry along with the one and only GDC afterwards, namely : Train Jam.

Since I started my own little journey on the Indie adventure back in late 2011, I was pretty familiar with many great game devs from all around the world and their projects, albeit online only for most interactions as of yet.

A late night quick hello to the lovely and very talented gamedev friend Lisa Brown ( with whom I kept in touch since she started following my twitter account back when I released my first little mobile game, that in itself is still amazing to me... ) led to her mentioning the diversity scholarship to attend Train Jam available to some devs from under represented territories, and that I should apply. I was aware of the event, but not the amazing opportunity to make so many dreams come true way before than I ever hoped for ( plan being more or less since 2011 to make that PC game happen and aim for the IGF, silly me, we are in 2017 and I am still nowhere close to any functional prototype ). Indeed, a pass for the whole week at GDC was also an option, I couldn't even believe it.

So I submitted and what an amazing feeling when the lovely Adriel Wallick, the main driving force of the event sent me an email letting me know I was accepted !

I still couldn't believe it while I was finishing a gig for a local client to pay some very belated bills by end of November 2016. When that was done in early December I started going through the process of preparing all the documents needed. The deadline was tight, especially since I didn't travel abroad when I came back to Morocco in 2005 from France ( computer science studies there ), and had to renew an expiring passeport, lookup flights costs, send the details of the spendings for the allowance to make it through banks locally and so on.

When those steps were completed I could finally get around to navigate all the visa application intricacies ( 160USD non refundable fee for the application, so I had to wait until the funds arrived to begin that process..)

I spare you all the questions I had to answer in there ( no, I am no terrorist, yes I am addicted to tobacco ), but did my very best to answer all of it to the best of my knowledge ( yes, I lost a passeport back in the days in France around 2003 that was stolen ).

And since the normal process takes around 2 weeks and we were already by mid January, with no plane or other traveling arrangements booked yet, I was happy to see there was an emergency procedure for special circumstances ( I asked for a tourism/conference visa since that was the best fit I found on the embassy info ) that can be applied for to have the nearest available slot for the meeting. Adriel was kind enough to write a letter explaining the various delays due to banks here in Morocco being pretty strict on money transfers from abroad and the upcoming close event start date for February 22nd.

January 26th it was for the nearest slot, I booked it and waited anxiously refreshing my mail account every 5 minutes that day.

It was accepted.

I finally smiled a bit, it was becoming more real, and to celebrate I allowed myself to believing it was happening and introduced myself to the fellow jammers on the slack channel of the event ( I couldn't even start to delve there until I was more or less sure I would make it, and even then, I was struggling to find the words and said on the channel that I will believe it when I land on the other side of the ocean..a lifetime of failures makes you become very wary of any kind of potential happiness it seems ).

And started going through the documents I needed to present with me on the day of the meeting.

A very close friend I know since university years back in France was now a researcher based with her husband in the bay area, and they were kindly offering to have me stay at their place for the GDC week.

The other awesome game dev brother in arms, that I met on Twitter back in 2014 one night out of a common interest in Afrobeat music (and his love from Morocco), the one and only Ben Ruiz, combat design expert and all around super talented artist and amazing human being ( if you're not aware of his work with his no less kick ass partner in crime, you totally should check out their upcoming game : Aztez ! ) wrote some words to help with the visa application, I planned to stop by his place on the way back from the West Coast since planes from here mostly cover eastern territory, the idea was to see as many friends as I could. Especially the ones I never had the chance to meet in person yet after all those years basically locked in my room trying to crank one project after another. To this day, I don't think any paragraph managed to bring me to tears of pure joy ( and i'm out of those for years now too ). Since I met this man, I knew someday he would be coming here after getting his project done. Needless to say the perspective of having the chance to meet him sooner, at his home state (Arizona), was raising the excitement bar very high.

But judge for yourself :

" To whom it may concern;
My name is Benjamin Ruiz and I'm a professional game developer in (and from) Phoenix, Arizona. I have invited Khalil to visit me in Arizona at my home in the Phoenix area after he has finished the Train Jam, an industry event in which professional and hobbyist game developers alike participate in dynamic, short form game development as they travel to the site of the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco.
I met Khalil online in 2014; I saw a fellow game developer on the social media platform Twitter that happened to be from Morocco, a place I've always intended to travel to. I said hello and we've been talking regularly ever since. He is extremely cordial, considerate, and passionate about our shared trade. I would like to finally meet him in person should he come to the United States and I'm happy testifying on behalf of his character. We are lucky to have visitors like him!

Finally, while I am the co-founder of Team Colorblind, an Arizona based company that develops digital games, I have no intention of hiring Khalil nor starting a business relationship with him. It is purely a social visit. Thank you!
Ben Ruiz "

A badge of honor I'll wear with pride for life.

After that I was planning on visiting another great gamedev friend based in Austin then proceed to New York for the plane back home, a month seemed decent, from last week of February to End March, with some bus travel too for good measure and seeing more of the country plains I always only watched in countless movies and TV shows.

I also came across another day long event a couple of times on friends/Gamasutra timelines, happening just in between Train Jam and GDC : Amplifying New Voices bootcamp. I figured since it was all finally happening, I might as well go all in. So I applied for that too.

Januray 25th, I had everything ready : new passeport, photos, bank account excerpt with proof of funds, letters of invitation from Train Jam, friends, event ticket, forms and receipts filled online for the interview, and last but not least : an official GDC pass and letter signed by none other than Meggan Scavio ( dope work GDC people ! All I had to do is check the "yes I need an invitation letter for Visa purposes" box :) ). 

I even threw in there a copy of my company official commerce registery document for good measure. It was 4 am and the meeting was scheduled for 9am when I saw the very first article about the executive order signed by the new president on travel restrictions from 7 countries, mostly Muslim and/or Arab. Morocco was not included. It felt weird hitting bed on that news.

Cold shower and coffee 3 hours later and I was out heading downtown and waited my turn once I passed the security checks at the consulate gate. Super tired but also super excited watching the clips portraying life in the USA in the waiting room screen. When I heard my name, I was at first a bit confused since I couldn't find the correct booth number they called me to.

It was the only one behind closed doors ( all other visa applicants were all just behind curtains in booths right next to the main waiting open space ).

I went in. The lady adressed me in French since I had all 3 options available : Arabic, French, English. I rolled with the one I am most fluent in. But I could barely hear her behind the thick glass. I was asked to put fingers into scanner. Then asked about the purpose of my visit. For some reason I felt the lady would be more comfortable in English ( her French accent was hard to read on top of the very low volume, and felt reassuring some about my decent spoken English (albeit ultra rusty since I never have a chance to practice speaking it here ), and proceeded to explain the events I was planning to attend. ( I also felt somewhat weird about the fact that she never looked at me, maybe once, the whole time typing and looking at her monitor ) She asked me after that about my revenues. I stumbled a bit, embarassed myself to say out loud : 100 USD/month roughly at best when my silly apps generate that much ( did I laugh out loud at myself then in fact ? ) And also explained that my last dayjob ( when I take one ) is a fully fledged engineer salary usually, it just happens that I keep insisting on the Indie starving road.

She then told me to wait for a second, disappeared behind a door, then came back to hand me a paper saying this : 

" Dear Applicant :

we regret to inform you that you have been found ineligible for a nonimmigrant visa based on section 214(b) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Under U.S. Immigration law, all applicants for nonimmigrant visas are presumed to be intending Immigrants. In order to be approved for a visa, applicants must satisfy the interviewing officer that they are eligible for the type of visa for which they are applying and that they will depart the United States at the end of their temporary stay.

Before a visa can be issued, applicants must demonstrate that they have strong ties overseas that would ensure their return to a foreign country. Examples of these ties include professional, employement, educational, family or social linkages. Applicants must also demonstrate that their intended activities in the U.S. would be consistent with the type of visa for which they applied.

Today's decision cannot be appealed. However, you may reapply if you have additional evidence to demonstrate your qualification for a visa.

Please visit www.usatraveldocs.com for more information on the visa process. If you choose to reapply, you should be prepared to provide information that was not presented in your original application or to demonstrate that your circumstances have signifanctly changed since that application. There is no guarantee that you will receive a different decision.


Consular Officer

Nonimmigrant Visa Section"

I was at first thinking she was handing me some kind of form to go through as we went on, little did I know, as I was struggling to make any sense of it as I was reading. I must have looked like a 6 feet 6 of utter confusion. I could only hear myself mumble afterwards : " I don't understand. Can I at least show you the documents I have with me ? Is there any way to appeal/reconsider ? "

She said no, and to try again later if I wanted to.

I asked for my passeport back, and out I went.

Anger was the least of it. I was almost shaking when I lit a cigarette back in the street. 

Are you fucking kidding me ? I didn't even have a chance to show *any* document attesting to my good faith.

The ones who know me, know darn well I left France on a whim after trying to build a semblance of life there for 7 years, exactly to not waste anymore energy on this kind of bullshit.

A vast majority of local acquaintances, indeed, it is their first reflex when I told them about the excellent news at first : once there, you stay right ?

No sir. Not me.

Always been a man of my word if nothing else. I don't have to reassure Uncle Sam basically calling me a liar by default on top of asking me if I am a terrorist to fill a visa form.

Sorry to let you know I do love my country, family, and company.

My business might be failing by all measures, but it is still alive. Not kicking much, sure. But alive. And I've been building my skills for the last 5 years straight out of my parent's place, sacrificing everything for it.

I guess a 36 years old Moroccan, never married, not making a living, heavy smoker written all over his face ( 3 hours sleep the night before did not help on that front ), is a no go.

Or was it a no decided by an AI somewhere even before I set foot at the consulate that morning.

( I read mostly The Intercept for my news. Never hid my political opinions. Blacklist me all you want, I couldn't care less. Slap Communist on top of that long list if you feel like more categories are needed. Or was it Amazigh indicated in the tribal checkbox of the form ? I don't even speak the language. )

Who knows, even under the previous administration, it would have been maybe a no go.

I tried my best to not torture myself over it, especially when I had to tell the bad news after getting everyone's hopes up in the family.

Adriel, Rami Ismail, and all the great gamedev friends I sent messages to expecting to meet were all very supportive trying to salvage the situation ( GDC panel #1ReasonToBe was also impacted by the travel ban ), but I couldn't get my hopes up at this point even if I wanted to.

I was utterly drained on every level possible after an already exhausting year with zero day break.

Then I saw all the families with way higer stakes torn apart from many countries all over the Muslim/Arab world.

Then resumed work on learning multiplayer programming with another silly little project of mine.

I might write some about that at some point down the road, still in progress, still figuring out potential next steps.

Lucky I have a pretty thick skin after 20 years trying to pursue that lifelong dream. Especially when I received a mail the very next week for Amplify New Voices bootcamp letting me know I also got accepted in there with an additional allowance of 1K USD and another GDC pass ( the Irony of it all right ? haha ). The person I talked to was beyond adorable when I said it's a no go after the visa denial and that I'de rather someone else took advantage of it when they suggested to wait to see if I could pull it off with another attempt.

I also had to send back the remaining funds ( lucky I'm a programmer and didn't book anything until the visa gets greelit... And Adriel, Bless her, writing a third letter for banks here, Morocco looks also super close into funds going outside the country with no justification ), and felt embarassed I took someone else's place that could have made it this year. And all the fees that went to waste ( Amazigh people hate waste more than anything, that DNA I got for sure ). I feel so strongly about that in fact that it was my main intro when I applied for the event : I've never been to a gamejam, even local ones, or applied for any kind of scholarship since I always felt there is a ton of people out there that have it harder and are more deserving of that kind of help.

I felt bad when Adriel, Rami and all the friends were sorry. It is not on them in any way. If anything, they were all the very reason I am glad I went through it all. All the generosity, kindness and support of the community and jammers was amazing. Adriel told me we will try again, making sure I have a spot for next year. I am very grateful, but still not sure if I can even go through that kind of pain again, especially in the current political landscape. Even now writing all of it was barely manageable. I saw afterwards that Unity3D boss was reserving some spots for impacted devs for next Unite next week in Europe. Morocco was not on that list (again).

I loved reading a piece featuring Mahdi Bahrami on Glixel from Iran and what he had to go through.

I loved Shahid Ahmad's stance on the matter.

The whole gamedev community response was amazing in fact. That's why my home is and always will be Videogames Land. No matter what.

All I wanted was to meet in the flesh for the very first time all the industry legends ( it was hard not to watch Nintendo Team talk on the GDC vault without telling myself I could have been sitting in that room for once...) and friends.

Liz England, Elisabeth LaPensée, Rami Ismail, Adriel Wallick, Lisa Brown, Ben Ruiz, Matthew Wegner, Dan Adelman, Mike Wilson, Jason Della Rocca ( we briefly met in Casablanca last year but still ), Rasheed Abu Eideh, Madiba Olivier ( that I also briefly met during last Maghreb Game Conf, one of the first North African events organised around here thanks to the great work of Yassine Arif ), I wanted to meet all of you for the first time. 

Hopefully someday under better circumstances.

And since President Trump understands the business language, here is what it cost me if I count only pure material things ( wasted opportunity/experience + setback cost on one's Soul I'm not even going to try to compute ) : 2 GDC passes worth 2K+2K stipends for Train Jam+1K stipends for Amplify New Voices = 7K USD.

I could finance a whole year if not 2 working on my PC game prototype with that much.

But I'm not counting.

So far having fun working with GameSparks to learn more multiplayer goodness. ( That tech is such a lifesaver after a long desert trying to get anything done with other options out there, free recommendation :) )

I might close shop and take a job somewhere here in Morocco or abroad.

Barely getting to play some DOOM, and figuring out what's next. Super grateful for the one thing I can indulge in now that I got an account available : GDC Vault content to learn even more from the industry legends talks I couldn't access from a free account before ( Looking at you, Will Wright Game Design talks I missed.)

One hour left before dawn to grab some food ( Ramadan mode ). Faith is all I got, all flawed that I am. It was not meant to happen, yet, or ever. I don't know.

A shame it is a word with so many negative connotations noawadays. 

Faith is a beautiful thing to have.

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