New Visa Rules debacle: Well-known founder of a PE NGO banned from SA

FEBRUARY 18, 2016

After years of working with schools in under-served areas of the Nelson Mandela Bay area, New Yorker, John Lombardo, who is the founder of local NGO, Artworks for Youth, and a finalist in the prestigious The Herald GM Citizen of the Year Awards in 2013, has been declared an undesirable individual by Home Affairs after overstaying his visa by a day – due to circumstances beyond his control.

Under South Africa’s new visa rules, any foreigner, who attempts to depart the country after his or her Visa has expired will no longer be fined, but declared ‘undesirable’ in terms of section 27(3). The period one is prohibited from re-entering the country varies depending on the time past since visa expiry as well as the number of previous transgressions.

For Lombardo, this means he is now not allowed to come back to South Africa for at least a year – jeopardising the gains made the work he started in the Bay in 2003.

Speaking to RNews, he described; “I started a program called, ArtWorks for Youth in New York City in 2001 but, through a cultural exchange between students in Port Elizabeth and New York City, I moved the program to South Africa.

“From 2003 to 2009, I was coming to South Africa three times a year, often with volunteer groups.”

In 2009, Lombardo moved to Port Elizabeth, where he has, since then, been coming for three months at a time, and living in New York for a month in-between those visits.

“I never attempted to obtain a visa outside of the 90-day allowance for visitors since I raise the funds in New York City for the work we do in PE and I enjoy returning to New York to see family and friends,” he explained.

“I chose PE because the first school we worked at through the cultural exchange is in PE. I moved the program to PE because the students here have far less to do with themselves after school.”

He said that they started off as an after-school visual arts program, but it soon became clear that while art can help people through their struggles, it is not by far the most pressing need of students here.

“When we asked what we could do for them, they responded saying they need help with school work.

“Most of the schools my students attend involve very little actual education,” Lombardo described.

“They have between three and four teachers out of seven each day. There is little support for struggling students and most of my students, who struggle, are in that position because of the lack of education.

“So, today, we are now offering equal parts arts education and academic support, offering extra classes in reading, writing, and maths. We also find better schools and find sponsorship for them in schools that have proven success. We provide emergency food and medical assistance and counsel students as well.”

Lombardo holds Master’s degree in Social Work.

Watch the work he does here:


“We work with about 200 students per day, but about 500 students through various projects each year. We once worked with more students but now we work with fewer students so that we can do more for them.

“My assistant, Zukiswa Allah, and I also act as liaisons between our students' homes and school. We also help with issues that make our students' home lives difficult. Our aim is to have all of our students matriculate or find ways for them to become employed through skills building programs.”

He said prior to extended living in Port Elizabeth, he travelled to South Africa three times a year, during the school holidays while he worked full time in New York City.

“I have never had any problems with immigration in the past. I usually return home within a week of the expiration of my 90-day visa. This time was an exception.”

So, what exactly happened this time?

Lombardo said that the day he was due to fly out of South Africa, he found long queues at South African Airways as flights had been delayed due to a snow storm that hit the United States in January this year.

As a consequence, SAA provided him with a hotel just outside of the airport and asked him to return the following day – unfortunately, nobody told him that he should not leave the airport’s transit area since his visa had expired, which resulted in his current predicament.

It was only on the following day, when he still could not fly out that he was told that he should not have left the airport’s transit area. In the end, after about four hours of trying to get a solution to his situation, he says he was told that the airline can give him a “bogus” boarding pass to London.

Unfortunately, although helpful, there was nothing immigration could do but to declare him ‘Undesirable’ as his passport had already been flagged on the system.

Eventually, he landed in Washington and took a train to NYC on the evening of the 25th of January. On the 27th of January, he went to the South African Consulate in New York where he was told that there was no one he could speak to about the matter but he could only submit his appeal to the decision and await a response.

“But who knows how long it will be before my appeal is read?” he said.

“The problem is I have a ticket to return on the 1st of March, just two weeks from now. We have so many things planned for the next three months, including hosting 24 volunteers, who arrive at different times, beginning on the 5th of March.”

Lombardo said that while he works well with his assistant, Zukiswa Allah, who comes from the same township as their students, she cannot run the entire program on her own with the other responsibilities she has – including her family.

“While I am away, the program is abbreviated and runs only three days a week.”

Speaking to RNews, Allah said that indeed their work has been affected by Lombardo’s absence.

“We were used to having him all the time – this is the first time that he has been away for a very long time and his absence is beginning to be felt by the children.

“When I told them of the situation, you could see that they were trying to comfort and be strong for one another but deep inside, they were distressed,” she said.

“Through this programme, we have been offering our students from breakfast to lunch and supper in addition to helping them with their homework. If John does not come back, as he had also gone to raise funds, I do not know what we would do with the feeding programme.

“With the programme, we have also been able to take some kids from township schools to better schools in the city – that is also now in danger if John does not return.”

Allah said that they have approached Home Affairs in Uitenhage with Lombardo’s plight and were referred to Johannesburg.

“However, the challenge is that, if I were to take the funds that we have at the moment and go there, it would mean that nobody will be attending to the children after school.”

She said that in the five years that she has worked with Lombardo, she has found him to be a selfless and committed person.

“When I call him boss, he refuses as he says we are partners – true, the children have come to see him as a father figure and myself as a mother figure,” described Allah.

“Working with him over the years, has brought a new perspective about humanity for the kids as they have learnt to see him as not just a white person and they as black, but they now understand human connections that go beyond race or colour.”

They are just hoping that his appeal will be successful and that he can soon come back to South Africa to continue his work.    

Lombardo added; “I have learned from this experience that even if I am going to go back and forth to South Africa, it would be best to have a visa so I don't have to hold to the 90-day boundaries.”

Image: John Lombardo (in green jersey) addressing students, parents, alumni, faculty and friends who crowded into the Carol Shen Gallery, The Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York,  in December 2011 for the opening of “Apha: here,” an exhibit of documentary-style photographs that depict everyday life for the children and their families in the Joe Slovo Township, in Port Elizabeth. Courtesy of