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In 2008, off the coast of Libya, a Tunisian man climbed into a tiny boat with seventy-two other people and fled to the small island of Lampeduza, Italy. Across the three day voyage, they battled through a storm, empty stomachs, and the cramped conditions which didn’t even allow them to stand up and move their legs. As the boat moved toward Lampeduza and away from an oppressive dictatorship, this man made peace with mortality—aware that this journey could be his life’s last adventure.
Three years later, as I was leaving the gardens behind Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, I walked by a man as he looked into my eyes and said, “Bonjour.” We fell in love quickly—the kind of love that is all-encompassing in the best and worst ways.
He didn’t speak English when I met him. We spoke a hybrid of Italian, French, gestures, and Google Translate. I learned him and he learned me—through movements and unspoken words and it was as beautiful as falling in love could be.
I HAD TO ASK HIM TO RISK HIS FREEDOM FOR ME, TO TRUST THAT A COUNTRY WHICH IS OPENLY HOSTILE TO PEOPLE OF HIS FAITH WOULD GRANT HIM THE OPPORTUNITY TO BE WITH THE PERSON HE LOVED.
We lived in Paris for a year. My visa expired. His visa never existed. There was an understanding that my transgression as an American would easily be overlooked. But, his? As a Tunisian, he would be sent back to his country at best or into jail at worst. It was an impossible love, an impossible situation.
Within months, we were engaged. The logistics of immigration overwhelmed us. He could not enter the United States without a visa. He could not receive a visa without returning to his country. He could not return to his country without risk, without the uncertainty that perhaps he’d go back to Tunisia and never be able to leave. He’d risked his life to flee the country before. Who could ask him to do that again? I had to ask him to risk his freedom for me, to trust that a country which is openly hostile to people of his faith would grant him the opportunity to be with the person he loved.
When we spoke to other Tunisians who had attempted to receive a visa from the United States, the stories were terrifying. One person had been waiting two years without word. Another person had been denied a visa multiple times. Another had been in limbo with immigration for ten years. “Ten years” rang in our ears, made us question whether our love could withstand that risk.
In our fear, we prolonged his journey home. He had been in Europe for five years and, while he longed to see his family once again, there was no evidence we could comfort ourselves with that said this process would be easy, that there was any guarantee. At every conversation, a silent thought would always underline my worries: he’s Muslim. Would the United States deny a couple in love the chance to marry and build a life because of tensions between them and the Middle East? It was a potentially naive fear, but one that I could not shake.
In October 2011, when Gaddafi was killed in Libya, one of my husband’s friends called him in a panic and said he could not go back to Tunisia, that America would never approve his visa. We moved into another apartment in Paris (nine in total) as we grasped for any sense of certainty we could muster. I sometimes felt we were either looking for hope or hoping we’d simply give up.
So, we fought. We fought over inconsequential things, because we were both angry at something we could not control. I keep saying it was impossible, because it was. It was an impossible love and an impossible situation.
Eventually, we had to make a choice. Risk for a hope of an ‘us.’ Or, go on our separate journeys. Another impossible choice.
We chose the hope of us—not easily or quickly—and after a year in Paris and four months in Berlin, we were finally ready for him to go home and wait. We had come to an impossible crossroads: our life in Europe could not continue and yet there was no positive affirmation that a K-1 Finance Visa would be approved in a timely fashion—or ever. All we had was blind hope.
I don't want him to watch the news. I don’t want him to see that the country we fought to be able to live in is a country that is oftentimes unwelcoming to who he is.
We spent eight months apart—me in California; him in Tunisia—until finally he was granted a visa to enter the United States and marry me. We had ninety days to marry and then we could apply for his permanent residence. It was an arduous, long, stressful process, which trudged on through the years, no matter what his current status. We are now in the process of removing his conditional residence, which requires another stack of paperwork proving our love is legitimate.
We weathered a storm in order to be married, to have the life we have now. And, yet, I will tell you that I sometimes feel as though I should not have brought him here. I don’t want him to watch the news. I don’t want him to understand the ways in which too many Americans refuse to acknowledge their bias toward Arabs, toward Arab Muslims. I don’t want him to see that the country we fought to be able to live in is a country that is oftentimes unwelcoming to who he is. Of course, he understands. He sees. He is a much better person than I am.
But, when he comes home from work and tells me that one of his young American coworkers is openly racist toward him, my heart breaks. Because, this is my country, these are my people, and sometimes it feels like I’ve led him directly into a hornet’s nest. I silently and ashamedly am thankful that he doesn’t “look” Muslim or Arabic, that he is “passable.” He is thankful, too, although it’s not for the same reason I am. He likes the idea of being American, that he can pass off as one. And, me? I just like the idea he’s not a target.