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Where's the Canal Fest souvlaki? Fundraiser caught by border rules

It's been a Canal Fest tradition going back 26 years: souvlaki at the Holy Protection Orthodox Church stand.

But changes in border enforcement have made this the year some festivalgoers will remember as "the year without souvlaki," and stricter border policies are getting the blame.

Church officials said they could not operate their booth at the annual event that runs through Sunday, because their Greek Orthodox volunteers from Canada were unable to enter the United States without obtaining religious volunteer visas, in addition to valid passports.

Mother Macaria, parish secretary of the church, said the church never encountered this problem in the past and was not apprised of the requirement. 

Religious volunteers may be eligible for visa free travel under the Visa Waiver Program if they meet the requirements, including receiving a letter from the organization they are volunteering for and entering  the country with a valid passport. However, they are not allowed to engage in the selling of articles or activities where money is exchanged, according to online information from an immigration law firm in New York City.

She said each visa costs $500 a person with a three-month long waiting list.

The church has a long history of using about 30 volunteers from Canada. Macaria said the church began using volunteers from Canada because of their proximity to the Tonawandas.

Macaria said some of the stand's most loyal customers drive as far as 100 miles. She has received disappointed calls from numerous people asking about the missing souvlaki stand.

The popular souvlaki stand of the tiny Holy Protection Orthodox Church, shown in a 2016 file photo, has been a fixture at Canal Fest for years, but it's not there this year. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Melanie Gawlik of North Tonawanda is one of the disappointed.

“I used to go ... around two to three times a week,” Gawlik said. “I was really sad when I didn’t see it and everyone else feels the same, because we are so used to seeing it."

This year, Columbia Hook and Ladder, another vendor selling souvlaki, filled the church's spot.

Macaria said this is the only fundraiser the church does and it is affecting the bottom line. But she said she hopes to return next year.

We plan on pursuing the proper regulations enforced,” she said. “We will fulfill whatever is required for volunteers next year.”

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