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December 2013

The Dream:

A few short years ago, I was in Durham, NH looking out a window onto the quiet town glittering with the reds and yellows of autumn. The trees were so vibrant that the colors could dance on the back of your eyelids long after they have fallen from the sky. My Italian dream-of-a-semester in Ascoli had ended, graduation was fast approaching, and I was writing a piece for my final portfolio. The recount of my trip read like this:

“The breeze is warm. I have never left. Italian floods my mouth again. I am remembering – my world. And suddenly I have visions of grey hair falling soft around my face in Piazza Popolo with my grandchildren chasing pigeons; rattling off Italian that echoes on the stones laid by the Romans. I see a small house with stone flower boxes; vines clinging to the brick. I am airing out my rugs and hanging my laundry on a line. I am old but I am thin. I am healthy. I am more Italian than American…

I am a drifting soul. I have to choose and I know I’ll always be getting on that plane with its nose pointed toward Boston. I know Europe will slip back into my memories as something that is too perfect to be real. Because I am American. Sono Americana. Per sempre. For always, forever. I know my tears will dry by the time I see Boston outside my airplane window, and I’ll call my mother and my brother and I’ll smile because I’ll be home….

…When I am older and the skin around my eyes will be wrinkled from the years of New England sun, but I know that I will still sit on the end of my world as the ocean crashes against the rocks. My heart will strain under my chest and I’ll wonder if I have taken the right path, wonder if my dreams were truly impossible, and wonder if I would be happier if I was standing on the other side of the ocean. Home. My heart beats to the rhythm of each letter.

I dig my feet deeper into the New England soil.”

I thought I had predicted my life then. I thought I had everything sorted out at the age of twenty-two. That is surely what we are preached to do: graduate, get a job, marry, have children, live by the coastline where you were raised, be true to your roots. Dig your own in the same dirt as the ones that raised you. I thought my visions of living abroad could never overpower my love for my family and my home of the Northeast. But within those carefully written lines, my heart was not as content as the facade of my prose.

The wonder was still there; because a part of me had remained in Italy – tangled on the boughs of the olive trees and listing gently in the bottom of a forgotten bottle of Chianti. But even when I boarded a plane for the third time a year after I had written that final portfolio to begin a summer internship in 2012, I believed it was temporary, and that I would be home sooner than later. I told everyone I would be back before the leaves began to change. But I missed the foliage that year – instead I was dancing among the scent of lemon trees, making friendships that will last far past when my hair grows grey, and falling in love in the heat of the Tuscan sun.

I found a man that so happened to make me appreciate coffee – which then led to attraction, gifts of blueberries from the local fruit stand, late nights strolling lesser-known towns around the Italian landscape, drinking wine in abandoned castles, walking arm in arm through street festivals, and whispering stories, hopes, and beliefs in the middle of the night. 

Though Rami did have to work on the night of my birthday, he promised he would make it up to me with one of our signature jaunts around the Italian countryside. On December 8th, we took a ride down to the one town that originally created this love affair I have with Italy and the one I had such longing for when I wrote in 2011 – Ascoli Piceno.

After snaking through the Apennine mountains, we rounded the last corner to see the glimmering lights of the city that stole my heart. Ascoli, with its ancient towers rising out of the sea of terracotta roofs even impressed Rami – especially with its marble-paved piazzas and shimmering Christmas lights. They even had carols lofting through the air from speakers spread throughout downtown. I was on top of the world. Or so I thought, but that night, after a hearty dinner of boar and deep red wine, we made it back to the warmth of the hotel room.

With the moonlight streaming through the window, Rami proposed. 

The rest of our travels that week brought us to new sights on the hills that St. Francis strolled, to underground spas built on the remnants of an ancient roman amphitheater, and back to our favorite fortress on the peak of the town of Montalcino; where we sipped the same ruddy wines as we did the first time we traveled together at the end of the summer in 2012. A full circle of a love story containing old memories, new places, and favorite romances.

My children will chase pigeons on the steps of the Duomo, but also through the Boston Common, and hopefully, someday when the dust settles, Damascus. They will speak English, Italian, and Arabic. I will grow old alongside a man who I love and he loves me unconditionally, and that piece of my heart that had been withheld in the land of Italy was released back to me once again – allowing me to be whole again. But this love story is only beginning – and there are extreme complications.

I am currently engaged to a man that has been banned from the United States for life.

The Reality:

When I first tell people, there’s usually a bit of confusion, then shock, then a skeptical side glance at me wondering if I am getting married to a terrorist. So I wanted to lay this all out to try and remove the confusion and explain our situation. Rami was never a terrorist, nor was he an illegal immigrant. But because he attempted to do the legal thing to stay in the US, he was caught up in a large miscommunication that cost him his freedom to travel there.

Rami studied in California for four years on a student visa, but unfortunately was in a motorcycle accident in the last year, severely inhibiting his health, as well as his studies. Because of this, he couldn’t complete his degree in the allotted timeframe of his student visa. When he returned to Florence on a visit in 2008, he went to the  American Consulate in Florence to ask for an extension of his visa so he could complete his schooling and sell his car and take care of finances before moving home to Italy. This had all been approved by the school he was attending. At the consulate, they told him if it was simply for a few more months to complete school, he did not need an extension and could travel freely on a VWP (or Visa Waiver Program)- how many are able to travel for short amounts of time without a visa. For example, if a US citizen wants to go to Italy for a two week vacation, we don’t need a visa, we just show them our passport.

Rami never over-stayed, and never had a problem after the meeting with the Consulate.  He did travel back and forth to the States twice,  but on the third trip back to the US, his Syrian background struck as odd when he was passing through security in Chicago in 2009. The officer thought his name was strange (for an Italian passport) and that he spoke English too well ( he doesn’t have an accent at all. If you were speaking with him you’d think he was American…minus the tight Armani t-shirt) and he was taken in for more questioning. After reading his file, the officers at the airport asked if he had ever been denied a visa, to which Rami responded no – for he was never informed that he had been denied anything. But somehow, it was on his record from the consulate.

What we think may have happened is that this was the only code that could be programmed into the computer when he asked for an extension, or maybe the consulate just gave confusing information. Regardless, because Rami was thought to be lying to the US when they asked him if he had been denied, they considered this fraud. Rami was thought to be a potential immigrant attempting to over-stay in the US after already being denied entry. This caused a permanent ban to be placed on him. He was sent home to Italy in handcuffs – even though his home for the past years was in the opposite direction – in California.

Of course, he explained this to me I first met him, but it didn’t stop me from loving him. I never thought that this could be such a complicated problem, but as our relationship grew stronger, I realized we were going to have to do some research to figure out how to get him back into the States. Soon, I was skilled in visa applications, government websites, and legal lingo that I never in my wildest dreams would’ve thought I would need to know. I began to understand the complexities and the corruption of my own country’s legal system, and how difficult it may be to bring my future-husband to my hometown – even just for a visit during Christmas.

So, what is our plan so far?

We will hopefully be married this summer in Florence, Italy – if all in the Italian legal system goes well. This way, I will at least be able to travel back and forth between countries without a limit on time. Currently, I’m only allowed over in the EU for 90 days, and then have to return home for 90 in order to maintain my legal status. Once we’re married, our relationship will have a little more flexibility because I will be able to stay with him.  Then we’ll focus on getting Rami access into the US again. Of course, we could simply stay in Italy or  move elsewhere in the world, but that would mean that every time I wanted to go home – even just to visit, Rami would have to stay behind. All holidays spent with my family would be alone. Later in life, I would have to bring our kids back and forth without him.  I don’t want this in the slightest, and neither does he.

To fix this, our choices are slim – I will have to apply for a Spousal Visa with something called an Extreme Hardship Waiver included because of the ban. The waiver will prove that I, as an American Citizen, am in need of Rami in the country. Simple sadness and longing to have him with me is not enough. Even if we have children, this changes nothing. I will have to go to therapy, my expenses will be looked at, and family will be thoroughly questioned – trying to prove that I need my husband with me in all areas of life – something I believed to be common sense up until recently. Since when is love government-regulated? Many have thought that if we get married, surely you can just bring your husband into the US – nope. It’s incredibly complicated. The process will cost us thousands of dollars, years of time, and stress to the max – simply because we want to be together in both of our homes.

The US wants us to prove that we aren’t marrying just for Green Cards, which I understand, but I feel like there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. I understand that to many, this whole process will be extremely strange and foreign to them, but it is more common than you think. I just recently met another girl in the same predicament.”They even have my husband’s Facebook password,” she told me. No stone is left unturned in their investigation. I’ve been prepared to show journal entries, photos, and receipts proving that we’ve been on vacations together. They’ll want phone transcripts, medical histories, and all the bills in our names. Then, after a year or so (let’s hope it’s only that long) we’ll be able to celebrate.

I think that I have found a lawyer that will aid us in the case, but it won’t begin until we’re married. So currently, we’re focused on a sunny, gorgeous summer within the walls of Florence, Italy. Afterwards, I’ll hopefully be able to remain in the EU with him as we focus on getting him here.

I know most of my friends and family are upset that we aren’t having a big wedding yet, but the plan is to have a huge bash with everyone back in the States when we can get there. Not to worry. This celebration will be one for the books and I’ll be the happiest bride – if only because I’ll have waited so long for my dream day to come and there is so much more to celebrate.

I need to thank my mother and brother for helping us through all of this, as well as my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends that have loved me and supported me even if they don’t really understand my life at the moment. I appreciate it so much and cannot wait to put all of this struggle behind us and celebrate with you all. It means the world to me.

A Roman poet once said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and a certain someone always put a poem in my head that told me Never to Quit, and it’s been said the couples that are ‘meant to be’ are the ones who go through everything that is meant to tear them apart and come out even stronger than before. I know that our love will cross oceans, break through government red tape, and we will come out of this stronger than we’ve ever been.

But for right now, I am just happy that I have my happily ever after – regardless of where in the world I will spend it.