Ross Pfeifer Sirirat Charoenrat 248.88.
(photo credit: Courtesy of Ross Pfeifer)
When Thai citizen Sirirat Charoenrat planned her trip to Israel to visit her boyfriend, she had no idea of the sort of welcome she would receive. Upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport on November 5, after an 11-hour flight from Bangkok, instead of being greeted with flowers, she encountered the blank stare of an immigration official who told her she could not enter the country.
After four days in a holding facility at the airport, Charoenrat was sent home. Accusing her of lying on her visa application, the officials marked a black stamp on her Thai passport and told her she could not return for 10 years. Charoenrat's boyfriend, Ross Pfeifer, claims the state committed an injustice.
Pfeifer, an American citizen, has been living in Israel for 20 years.
He first came as a volunteer, working on kibbutzim and moshavim, but has stayed in the country ever since. Today he owns a firm that constructs and renovates houses in the Jerusalem area.
Pfeifer is a Christian and has never received citizenship in Israel, despite once being married to an Israeli and having two Israeli children.
On a recent visit to his hometown in New Jersey, Pfeifer met Charoenrat at a friend's house. She was working as a nurse at two hospitals at the time.
The two hit it off and began communicating regularly through phone calls and e-mails. Eventually Pfeifer decided that he wanted to see if they could take their relationship to the next level and invited Charoenrat to Israel to meet his daughters and see where he lives.
Charoenrat, who was back home in Thailand caring for her ailing father, agreed to come and arranged a two-month visit, during which she planned to tour the country and spend time with Pfeifer and his daughters. She went to the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok and was issued a tourist visa valid for three months.
Her plans fell apart when she arrived at Ben-Gurion and was promptly denied entry.
"The woman at the desk asked me how long I planned to stay, so I answered her and showed her my flight ticket back to Thailand dated for January 4. She told me that I could not go into Israel. She said it was because I lied to the people at the embassy in Thailand when I told them I have an American green card.
"I told her and her supervisors that I hadn't lied because I didn't tell the people at the embassy that I had a green card. I only told them that I was in the process of getting a green card. I even asked them to call my lawyer and find out for themselves," said Charoenrat.
The officials she encountered kept asking her why she didn't have a ticket back to the United States. "I explained to them that I had a ticket back to Thailand and that I wasn't going to the United States, but they kept calling me a liar," said Charoenrat.
Her arguments were to no avail. The immigration officials were convinced that she was coming to Israel to work and refused her entry. She was told that she would be forced to leave and that in the meantime she had to stay in a detention center adjacent to the terminal. Charoenrat's luggage was taken away and she was put in a room with three other women.
"The room had two bunk beds and a small washroom. Sometimes we could go outside and sit under a tree, but on some days we were kept locked in a room all day long," she said. "Most of the time I talked to the other women and prayed."
During her stay in the detention center, Charoenrat was only allowed one telephone conversation with Pfeifer. After the call, Pfeifer approached a friend at the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, an organization run by messianic Jews (Christians), which assigned a lawyer to help Charoenrat.
"The claims were ridiculous," said Pfeifer. "She makes $100,000 a year in the States and drives around in a BMW. When she came to the airport she had $3,000 in her pocket. What does she need to come work here for?"
The lawyer couldn't help, and even pressure by the Thai Embassy didn't help. On November 9, Charoenrat was put on a plane to Bangkok, without even a jacket to keep her warm on the flight.
"On Monday, three men came into my room and started yelling at me that I have to go. One of them shouted at me saying 'you have to leave now.' When I tried to talk to him he threatened to put handcuffs on me if I didn't cooperate," said Charoenrat.
Now back in Thailand, Charoenrat says that despite her bad experience, she still wants to come back to visit Israel some day. "I want to touch the land and see the wonderful people. I know Israel is a great place and I don't think that everyone is like the officials I met at the airport."
Charoenrat said that one of the hospitals she worked at in the United States had mostly Jewish doctors and patients. She said she hoped to learn some Hebrew so that she could exchange a few words with them.
The main thing that bothered her was that everybody she encountered at Ben-Gurion thought she was a liar and told her so to her face. "My brothers here in Thailand were very insulted by the accusations. The claims have hurt my family's good name."
According to Joshua Pex, Charoenrat and Pfeifer's lawyer, the couple is currently deliberating on whether to sue the authorities for damages.
"They do not want to sue for money," he said. "The main thing that is bothering them is that she was told she could not enter the country for 10 years. As far as I'm concerned, I'm bothered that the authorities could have let her know ahead of time if they decided that she couldn't enter the country. Giving her a visa at the embassy is a commitment by the state. Based on that visa she paid for a ticket.
"They had all the information at the time and if necessary could have rejected her entry there, and there would have been no need for the unfortunate experience at the detention center."
Pex also thinks that the decision to deny her entrance was reached too quickly. "Once the decision was made, there was no way to get them to reverse it. We even suggested that she deposit a large amount of money as a guarantee that she'd leave when her visit was over, but at that point they weren't listening," said Pex.
The Ministry of Interior said that there were two problems relating to Charoenrat's case. "For one thing, it is not at all certain that Pfeifer had a right to invite her to Israel. His own status is currently under review," said Ministry of Interior spokeswoman Sabin Hadad.
"The other problem is that she told the people in the Israeli Embassy in Thailand that she has a work permit, but her permit was expired. If the Americans can refuse someone, so can we."
When asked whether Charoenrat would be allowed to enter Israel in the future, Hadad said that as the facts currently stand she could not gain entrance but that if the details and circumstances change, she might be allowed in.