Can Love Conquer Travel Bans? Couples Divided By Pandemic Are Rallying To Reunite
Rezan al-Ibrahim understands separation. A Web developer who fled the war in Syria and now has asylum in the Netherlands, he's in a long-distance marriage with his wife, Aysha Shedbalkar, an Indian American math teacher, because of the Trump administration's ban on Syrians.
"She had taken this year off work to stay with me in Amsterdam," he says. "Then the pandemic hit."
They became one of thousands of couples separated by coronavirus-related travel restrictions. Many are unmarried. In several countries, partners without formal residency, who often visit as tourists, have been largely barred from entering during the pandemic.
The United States restricts travel from places including Brazil, China and much of Europe. The European Union has allowed visitors from a dozen nations, but most countries like the U.S. — where the coronavirus is still surging — remain blocked.
Reuniting is especially difficult for same-sex couples. "It's easier for some countries to just classify us as friends and not let us in," says Robert Garrison, 42, a high school French teacher in Los Angeles. He usually spends every school break in France with his French partner of four years but now is not allowed into the country.
These couples are now organizing on social media to push governments to let them reunite, tweeting with the hashtags #LoveIsNotTourism and #LoveIsEssential. One Facebook group, Love Is Not Tourism, has more than 15,000 members. Maggie Foster, an American who co-founded another Facebook group, Couples Separated by Travel Bans, which has more than 8,000 members, says activists have lost faith in the U.S. government.
"Our representatives don't respond to our requests and if they do, they just say 'sorry, this all rests with Donald Trump,' " Foster says.
Some European lawmakers are paying attention. Countries including Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands now allow non-EU partners to enter on "sweetheart visas."
NPR spoke to some of the couples around the world who are coping with separation during the pandemic.
They met in Russia last year at a tech conference and exchanged numbers. A few weeks later, she told him she was heading to Tbilisi, Georgia, for another conference. "And he said, 'How about if I join you there?' I was floored. The dating scene in LA is bleak. It's hard to get a guy to get on the 405 [highway] to meet you," Blount says. "And this guy wants to get on a plane to meet me in another country. I was like, what is happening?" According to Mahele, it was love at first sight. "Every single person in my life knows her," he says. "My family, my friends, my co-workers, my neighbors. I even talk to my dog about her." They have visited each other every two months since they met and video chat several times a day. Mahele video chats with her when he's out with his friends, at a family dinner or distributing food parcels to vulnerable South Africans. He applied for a K-1 (fiancé) visa to join her in the U.S., where they planned to marry in December. The wedding is postponed. Meanwhile, Mahele is building a house for the two of them in South Africa, where they plan to hold a second wedding. "What keeps me going is that I know we're not alone in this," Blount says, "and that we will find some way to be together. I don't know how. I don't know when. But it's going to happen."
They met last year at a club in Berlin and have talked every day since, flying back and forth between the U.S. and Germany every few weeks. They have met each other's parents. They spent Christmas with Alsup's family and promised to reunite in March. Pandemic travel restrictions have kept them apart for months. "By being forced to be separated, we have realized how very committed we are to this relationship," Alsup says. "I'm thankful we're living [in] an era when FaceTime exists because at least we can see each other every day," Pindel says. "I don't think I could cope with just a regular cellphone." They are now trying to make plans to meet in a third country that lets in Americans and Germans and is relatively inexpensive for a long-term stay. "Could it be Mexico? Rwanda? I don't care where, as long as I can hold him," Pindel says. Alsup hopes they can reunite in September, assuming Denmark lets him in to play two concerts there.
Daniela was 4 and Díaz Cuní was 7 when they first met as kids in Pinar del Río, Cuba. She's Cuban American, and she and her family were visiting from the U.S. "I always knew him as Yoel from across the street," she says. "When I returned as an adult to live in Cuba for a few years, we hitchhiked together all over and I fell in love with his sense of adventure." They have been together for five years and were planning to get married in the U.S. She isn't able to get to Cuba during the pandemic. And with the U.S. Embassy in Havana downsized since 2017, they're working to save up money to travel to the U.S. Embassy in Guyana to request a U.S. visa for Díaz Cuní. "Everything is harder because it's Cuba," she says. They cope by talking every day, even though the Internet in Cuba is much more expensive than the U.S. or Europe and is operational only a couple of hours a day. "We talk until we can reunite and start a future together," he says. "We've always wanted to start a family."
They connected through the dating app Tinder nearly a year ago, when Maoz was traveling solo through Barcelona. González had just ended a long-term relationship. They met at González's favorite cafe and clicked immediately. "I remember how much I loved Gemma's eyes when we first met," Maoz says. "They reflect what a good soul she is." They began a long-distance relationship that quickly turned serious. They saw each other as often as possible, checking the Internet for cheap flights. When Maoz's mother died last October, González dropped everything and immediately flew to Israel. "She sat shiva with my family and friends and teachers, all of whom were speaking Hebrew," Maoz says, referring to the Jewish mourning period. "She is an angel." They haven't seen each other since March. They both get emotional when they talk about their separation, describing it as a physical pain. "Everything feels so out of control, the pandemic, the politics of the pandemic, you have no idea what's going on," González says. They recorded their Skype calls and turned them into a 10-minute movie. "But we've had enough of Skype," Maoz says. "We need to hold each other, to kiss each other."
Hazenberg and Samson have spent most of their adult lives traveling the world. In the decade they have been together, they have taught in Switzerland, dived in Indonesia and trekked through Kyrgyzstan. Most recently, they were living in Tbilisi, Georgia, where they were teaching at an international high school. Just before the pandemic hit, Samson flew home to New Zealand to visit her daughter and grandchildren. Now she's stuck there, and Hazenberg is grounded in Tbilisi. "We have never been separated this long, and it's especially hard not knowing where and when we will reunite," he says. "It's an unwelcome reminder that we don't have as much control over our lives as we think." They speak by phone or video chat every day. They check the news constantly for the latest on travel restrictions. Hazenberg is passing the time by learning to juggle while riding the unicycle Samson got him for his 50th birthday. Meanwhile, she's driving a camper van around New Zealand. "I am rewriting lyrics in my head of old love songs as I walk along the banks of the mighty Waikato River, knowing my darling is sleeping on the other side of the world," she says. "I miss his arm around my shoulder, that kiss at the top of my head. All those little things that mean so much now that we can't touch each other."
They met in the Caribbean three years ago, where both were on break from their work cooking on chartered boats and yachts. She can make anything from Cajun to South Asian. He favors "experimental Mediterranean" and once won a competition by making baklava with turkey instead of nuts. They visited each other every month and planned to move in together in Rhode Island this March. The pandemic grounded Meyer in the U.S. and Draper in the United Kingdom. Draper was able to fly from the U.K. to Greece, where the infection rate is among the lowest in Europe. He's half Greek and grew up on the Greek island of Zakynthos, so he has a Greek identity card. Meyer couldn't join him because she's American and they're not married. "You're either married or a tourist," he says, "which makes no sense."
Meyer saw an opening when the EU gave the green light for Canadians to visit. She was born in Canada and has dual nationality — and a Canadian passport. She tested negative for the coronavirus, self-quarantined in Newport and booked a flight to Athens for July 1. She stressed about getting turned back but she made it to Athens without a hitch. She spotted Draper holding a bouquet of roses in the arrivals hall. A TV crew filmed them pulling down their masks and kissing. "Our first kiss in five months," she says.
Crumpler and Donovan met at a Dublin pub a year ago, when she was a flight attendant overnighting in Ireland. "Things got serious really fast," Crumpler says. "We never missed a beat. We saw each other every six weeks." When they found out she was pregnant last November, they planned to marry. "We're a family," Donovan says. The pandemic hit as he was waiting for a U.S. visa. He requested a humanitarian exemption to travel to the U.S. so he could help Crumpler through the pregnancy and attend the birth of their son. They both cried when he was rejected. Crumpler spent her days calling politicians. "Ted Cruz probably has me saved in his office phone as 'do not answer,' " she says of the Texas senator. "I have also called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. No one calls me back." She gave birth to their son Taos Ridge Donovan on July 22. The next day, the U.S. finally let Donovan fly in to meet his son. The travel restrictions exempt fathers of minor children. He brought his son a teddy bear in a Dublin-green hoodie. "We are over the moon," he texted NPR.
They met in a refugee camp in Greece in 2016. She was spending her school breaks volunteering there. He and his family were stranded at the camp after fleeing the war in Syria. He loved her kindness. She admired his sense of joy. They bonded over faith, Bollywood and a cinematic belief that love can conquer all. (Their favorite song is John Legend's "Surefire," which is about love overcoming the odds.)
They got engaged in January 2017, just as the Trump administration imposed a ban on several Muslim-majority countries. She visited him in Greece and later in the Netherlands, where he received asylum. When the Supreme Court upheld the travel ban in the summer of 2018, they were devastated. They did not give up. The following March, they got married in Malmo, Sweden, where most of Ibrahim's family has received asylum. Shedbalkar's family flew in from the U.S. for the traditional Indian Muslim wedding with Syrian touches. And of course, their first dance was to John Legend's "Surefire." "That song is our story," Ibrahim says. "And our story is that no matter what happens, love will win in the end." He applied for a spousal visa to the U.S. As they awaited an answer, the pandemic hit. Shedbalkar couldn't travel to Amsterdam for their first anniversary. They were separated for almost six months — the longest they had been apart — until July 28, when she was finally allowed to enter the Netherlands on a "sweetheart visa." "When COVID happened," she said, "I think a lot of people felt in some way how we have been feeling for almost four years of our life."
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