This love story suffered the most cruel border restrictions

When I first fell in love with my now-husband Salem in Istanbul, I felt like we had everything in common. We were both journalists with a deep desire to see the world and tell the stories we thought were important. But there was one key difference: I had a US passport and could travel however I wanted. He came from Syria and was effectively stuck in the Middle East.

At first it didn’t matter. But when the Turkish government began cracking down on refugees in 2015 – and threw Salem out, we suddenly didn’t know where we were going to live anymore. Worse, I didn’t know if we could find an apartment together – where do you go if your boyfriend’s passport isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on?

love across borders is the story of what happened next, but it’s also the stories of dozens of couples like us. It’s the story of Syrian couples who didn’t have the convenience of a US passport, a Yemeni-American couple who defied both the war in Yemen and the Muslim ban on dating, Mexican-American couples who Immigration policies were separated, and many others from around the world. But that’s how it all started.

“I will be banished from Turkey,” Salem’s voice was flat, without even a greeting.

I was in my friend’s living room when I got the call. Salem had just spent the last two weeks in Iraq filming the US-backed military offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS, and I was eagerly awaiting his return after a particularly tumultuous period without me. We were used to communicating frequently when we were apart, but Salem rarely had cell phone signal on the Mosul front. I distracted myself from imagining how an ISIS car bomb could swallow a convoy of journalists by spending long hours with friends, cooking elaborate meals and playing board games with them while we waited together for a snowstorm. We thought it would be a quiet start to the new year.

Instead, an ISIS gunman dressed as Santa Claus stormed an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve 2017 and opened fire on more than 700 people whose only chance of survival was to play dead or jump into the freezing Bosphorus. Though I was far from the nightclub, Salem assumed the worst and chased a signal through the deserted streets of East Mosul until he could reach me. None of us would have thought then that the danger that would change our lives would be lurking at passport control a few days later.

“What are you going to do?” I rationalized and walked briskly through my friend’s apartment. It felt like we were surrounded by disasters, first a war, then a terrorist attack that was too close for our comfort, and now Salem was being told he couldn’t come home. “Throw out a Syrian refugee who has nowhere to go?”

Salem was not the first journalist to be expelled from Turkey. Dozens of other foreign correspondents have recently either been arrested or refused entry, typically after reporting from the Kurdish areas in the east of the country. But while other journalists wore their deportation with a badge of honor — a sign that they had committed journalistic crimes worthy of exile — their definition of exile was to settle down in a comfortable city like Athens or Berlin and do their job like to continue as usual.

By now Salem was already living in exile – and had no way of fleeing to a safer city in Europe or North America like some of our friends did. Worse still, if any bureaucrat decided that he should be sent back to Syria, he would certainly be killed. It was dangerous for everyone. But given Salem’s success story, who was wanted by the regime and made films critical of ISIS together with numerous other jihadist groups, he wouldn’t stand a chance.

I leaned out the window and unusually lit a cigarette, a habit I’d only ever engaged in socially. Istanbul was meant to be our romantic getaway, where it didn’t matter that I was an expat while he was a refugee. An Iranian-Canadian friend once joked that Istanbul Ataturk Airport is the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter which of her two passports she presents. Now I felt like everything was changing; I didn’t see how our love story could survive without the city that brought us together.

As our world began to crumble, I realized how quickly boundaries can bring a love story to a halt. How can two people find their way in a world that doesn’t allow them to be together? As a journalist, I have witnessed how the Syrian civil war uprooted its people, scattering them to Lebanon and Turkey and later to Europe, sometimes causing their loved ones to flee in opposite directions. But this also happened in other parts of the world. I had a US passport and at least I was able to travel and see if a long distance relationship could work. What about people who didn’t?

Xenophobia is not confined to US borders, and neither are these stories.

I set out to write this book to record the stories of people who love each other despite their limitations. It’s the story of Syrian lovers who fell in love despite being separated by the Mediterranean Sea, and of a queer Honduran couple who fled street gangs and death threats to be together, only to be caught upon entering the US by ICE Agents Being Separated It’s about US citizens who have been separated from their partners, some by Obama’s deportation policy, others by Trump’s Muslim ban, and shows that borders continue to get in the way of people trying to be together with loved ones be independent of which party holds political power.

Many parts of this book are inherently American-oriented. I am an American journalist who grew up during the War on Terror and began collecting these stories at a time when Donald Trump was discussing building a wall on the US-Mexico border and ordering a total ban on entry roared by Muslims in the United States. But this xenophobia is not confined to US borders, and neither are these stories. This book also tells the stories of people who came to the UK as subjects of the British Empire, only to have their citizenship unlawfully stripped there in a national scandal that resulted in thousands of families dividing the Caribbean and the UK were stranded. They are the stories of young men from West Africa who dreamed of opportunities in Europe, only to be confronted with the rise of xenophobia and neo-fascism after leaving their loved ones behind.

A book about borders must also address the issue of citizenship and statelessness. That’s why I’ve also included stories of Palestinians who were born stateless in refugee camps, and of people who fell through the bureaucratic cracks as the victors of the war drew the borders of new lands and erased people’s homes from the map. What happens when you belong to a country that no longer exists? Papers are not just the flimsy pages of a passport or the brittle plastic of a residence permit. They are identity documents that anchor us in a society and give us the right to live, work and vote. Sometimes we can transfer those privileges to the people we love. In other cases this is not possible. It inevitably affects the way we move through the world and fall in love.

Sometimes this book is my story. As Salem and I navigated a world that opened its doors to my passport and raised its walls to his, I became obsessed with how arbitrary laws and invented boundaries shaped our ability to be together. Some of these questions were practical. Where could we live in a world that feels like there is no place for our relationship? As we struggled with the aftermath of Syria’s civil war and Muslim prohibition, we met in a strange kind of exile where our love – and my passport – were the only things that held us together. What if our anger at the situation turned into anger at each other? I was afraid of how these rules might limit our love and the jealousy I felt towards couples who could love without restrictions.

Who could we be if these laws didn’t exist?

A photo of the Love Across Borders book cover.

Out of Love Across Borders: Passports, Papers and Romance in a Divided World © 2023 by Anna Lekas ​​Miller. Reprinted with permission from Algonquin Books.

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