The Invisible Lines that Break Our Hearts

Living through a London lockdown, with couples unable to legally meet, the writer Anna Lekas Miller ponders how her own relationship has been shaped by – and almost broken by – borders

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The Invisible Lines that Break Our Hearts
A young couple look out to sea at sunset on March 19, 2020 in New Brighton, EnglandChristopher Furlong/Getty Images

I distinctly remember the feeling of going into lockdown in London.

I would have normally been at work during the day, except I was at home — a feeling that was as liberating as it was disorienting. I spent the afternoons looking out the window of the East London flat that I shared with my partner, Salem, watching our once-bustling neighborhood slow to an unprecedented stillness, the soundtrack of the city replaced by an eerie silence, occasionally punctuated by ambulance sirens.

Would this be the moment that the Western world finally had a taste of what it means to live without freedom of movement? Would the rest of the world finally understand the frustration of a missed opportunity due to an impenetrable border, the punch in the gut of a loved one so close, but so far away? During these first few days, several countries suddenly closed their borders to contain the virus. Stay-at-home orders meant that even people in the same country could not legally see someone who lived in a different household.

I must confess that I have a vested interest in these questions. While I am American, Salem is Syrian — and the countries that we come from and the passports that we hold have shaped everything about our relationship, from the city where we first laid eyes on each other to the countries where we could (and, more often, could not) build a life together. We first met in Istanbul, which I will always remember as the magical city that allowed us to fall in love without worrying that I was an expat and he was a refugee.

However, all of this changed a few months into our relationship when Salem was stopped at the airport while coming back from an assignment in Northern Iraq and told he didn’t have the right papers to enter. It was the beginning of a wider crackdown on Syrians living in Turkey, which would see Syrians forced to register in their municipality and punished if they traveled outside it without permission.

Perhaps luckily, Salem was put on a flight back to Erbil, sent back the way he came — and I followed. I imagined that we would come up with a plan, but our plan turned into nine months of living in limbo, covering the Mosul operation while trying to figure out where in the world a Syrian guy and an American gal could build a future together. It was deeply frustrating to feel as if everything from European xenophobia to former President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries (commonly referred to as the “Muslim ban”) had the potential to strangle our relationship, and even more frustrating to know that while some couples were broken by borders, others could exist without knowing they existed at all.

Our quest for a country finally came to an end when Salem got a visa to the United Kingdom and claimed asylum. While I could visit him in London, I soon realized that it would be difficult to build a life with someone with a finite number of days in the country and no right to work. I obsessed over the strict spouse visa requirements, which I learned separates hundreds of other binational couples every year. I didn’t think that the U.K. government would allow anyone who wasn’t British to sponsor their spouse, but luckily, I was wrong. Much to our amusement, I ended up marrying Salem for papers, rather than the other way around.

Five years, three countries, and a pile of immigration paperwork later, I can honestly say that borders have shaped, challenged, and strengthened our love for one another. Still, I know that borders could have just as easily broken us. What if I had a job that kept me tethered to one place, or we had children whose safety we had to put first? What if the pressure had mounted on our budding relationship and made us lash out at one another and fall out of love just as quickly as we had fallen into it?

What if we hadn’t been able to create a home in a country that, only through belonging to neither of us, can now belong to both of us?

For this reason, lockdown felt like the social experiment of my wildest fantasies. After months of deliberating over whether to leave the European Union with or without a deal, Britain would suddenly be shocked into the realities of closed borders. Four years of Trump screaming that he was going to build a wall to keep out “bad hombres,” and now it was Mexico that was closing its border with the United States. Overnight, the world’s most privileged people could no longer treat the world as their playground, and in those early days, it felt as if the virus could just as easily infect the rich and powerful as it could anyone else.

Would the pandemic put borders into perspective? Would we emerge from the lockdown stronger, more loving, more empathetic?

Of course, I was most curious about how this would impact couples. After years of experiencing the way that sudden crackdowns, arbitrary travel bans, and lengthy immigration processes could shape and challenge a relationship, I wanted to see how those who were used to living a life without restrictions would react to the new rules.

On the first day of lockdown, a friend — whom I will call Jay — and I were experimenting with Microsoft Teams video calling and getting used to the two-dimensional versions of one another. As usual, we were discussing his dating life — his far more exciting than mine — and the way that the spread of the then-novel coronavirus had stopped it in its tracks.

“Some people are going to have a lot of sex over the next few weeks,” he told me, his relationship status evident in his sexual frustration.

“Others just aren’t!”

I laughed at the way he assumed that cohabiting couples enjoyed (and acted upon) round-the-clock lust for one another. Still, he was not wrong in predicting the way that the pandemic would force couples together or keep them apart. Over the next few weeks, many couples made the choice to quarantine together, a decision that had the potential to fast-track a relationship from the mysterious allure of casual dating to the complete lack thereof, like retirees watching serial soap operas.

Like borders, lockdown restrictions forced snap decisions and erased ambiguity. You either meant something to one another, or you didn’t. The romantic limbo of the modern-day “situationship” — a term described in the Urban Dictionary as a sexual relationship in which you have all the problems but none of the labels of an actual relationship — was impossible; the glory days of convincing yourself that you were using one another for casual sex were gone. Touch was one of the deadliest of sins, and lockdown was anything but casual. Sharing the moment with anyone else came with a kind of naked vulnerability that stripped us of our pretenses and laid us bare.

Some relationships flourished in this environment. My friend Shara, who was living in Beirut at the time, remembers how it created a unique kind of intimacy as she got to know someone new.

“We couldn’t go get just one drink or hang out in a group setting,” she tells me while we caught up one afternoon, reminding me of all the ways that people dance around real intimacy when getting to know one another. With a full lockdown and strict curfews, there were no social spaces to flirtatiously mingle while still staying guarded, to dip your toe in the dating pool yet remain emotionally grounded on land.

“We also had to have very serious conversations early on,” she continues, confessing that choosing to keep seeing one another required being honest about who else they were seeing and how safe they were. While that sentence might have once described someone trying to gauge whether a new romantic interest was sleeping with anyone else, in this case it refers to quite literally seeing someone — and whether they were exposing themselves to the virus.

“You could get to know someone a lot through these questions,” she continued. “You could really see where the other person was on the moral spectrum based on how they understood the consequences of breaking the rules.”

Without the sexual smorgasbord of dating apps, the power of proximity was in effect during the early days of lockdown as well. On a rooftop in Amman, my friend Rawan found herself falling for a neighbor, watching the sunset together every night in the only space they were allowed to share.

“We spent every evening together because there was nothing else to do,” she told me, sharing how one month of getting to know one another in this way felt much longer and more meaningful.

“I told him early on that I had feelings for him, and he was surprised at how upfront I was,” she continued. “Something about lockdown made us cut the bullshit.”

Hearing stories about how lockdowns in cities around the world created unexpected intimacy reminded me of the ways that borders had brought Salem and I closer over the years. Moving to Erbil just to be with him felt stronger than any wedding vows. Weathering the highs and lows of travel bans and deportations made it difficult to pick fights, even one year into the lockdown. We may have been physically separated at times, but standing together against a force that was larger than us made us feel like one, even if we were on opposite sides of the world.

During the lockdown, I also noticed the way the digital sphere became a space where lovers and loved ones could connect, sometimes through video calls, other times through broadening their horizons to people they wouldn’t have otherwise met. With both travel and skin-to-skin contact off the table, dating apps like Tinder and Bumble encouraged users to use the aptly named Passport and Travel features of the apps to meet — and sext — with attractive strangers from around the world.

Watching the world lean on technology to love and feel loved, I couldn’t help thinking of all the times I had used messaging apps and video calls to connect with loved ones across borders. There was the New Year’s Eve I spent in California, first beaming into a bacchanalian gathering celebrating the stroke of midnight in Istanbul, then blowing a kiss to Salem over FaceTime to mark it in London two hours later. Eight hours after that, I called him back, stumbling down the street somewhere in Berkeley while he vicariously laughed with me while drinking his morning coffee.

There were countless other times when either one or both of us were traveling or stuck somewhere, and even the most banal conversations made us feel more connected. I often found myself frustrated with my family on one side of the world and Salem on the other, never quite able to spend as much time as I wanted with both because travel bans and family obligations kept us from being able to meet in the same place.

Of course, this is a common theme among diasporas — and one that is often exacerbated by borders. While many of our Syrian friends are geographically much closer to their families, those seeking asylum in European countries are not allowed to travel until their asylum is approved, a rule that resembles a lockdown for many. Most countries advertise family reunification as a human right available to all refugees, but it can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to approve the paperwork. WhatsApp groups keep the family together while they wait.

It is common to postpone events like weddings and engagements until a family can be together — and people with families separated across borders were broadcasting major life events over Skype long before the COVID-era Zoom wedding became a pillar of the wedding industrial complex.

I wondered if our sudden universal reliance on technology would shine a light on how borders separated families long before lockdowns.

But as the pandemic dragged on, the honeymoon period of lockdown came to its inevitable end. Video conferencing (like the coronavirus) was no longer novel, and Zoom fatigue could refer to everything from the way that your eyes crossed after a day of staring at screens to the existential question of why you were spending your days as a cog in the machine of capitalism when nothing mattered but the health and safety of your loved ones.

As infection rates dropped, some countries cautiously opened travel corridors to save the tourism industry and restore a sense of normalcy. But when infection rates inevitably rose, British holidaymakers had their trips cut short with overnight quarantine requirements. There was such a media frenzy that Salem and I wondered what would have happened if they had to spend a day living in a refugee camp.

Open borders were only a priority for so long, and soon they were replaced with much more permanent-sounding travel bans, a prelude to the second wave. While the term “travel ban” is indelibly inked in my mind as the recently defunct Muslim ban, it can now refer to everything from the fact that EU citizens cannot travel to the U.S. to the fact that as of the beginning of this year, U.K. citizens can no longer travel to Europe.

While spouses can often make the case for an exemption, unmarried couples cannot.

“My girlfriend, Moe, was supposed to come to the U.K. to surprise me for my birthday in March of last year,” a British woman named Samantha told me over a Facebook chat.

“Of course, she had to cancel her trip — that was the beginning of one long year of canceled trips, where we only were able to see each other once.”

I met Samantha in a Facebook group for couples who have been separated by the COVID-19 travel restrictions. While most are split between Europe and the U.S., some are from other parts of the world, such as the Philippines, Australia, and Brazil. Some share success stories; others share heartbreak. Most are trying to find workarounds, weighing the pros and cons of visas and quarantines, or even getting married online to legitimize travel to see their loved ones in the eyes of the state. All are infuriated and cannot wait for the day that the lockdown ends.

As binational couples trying to love across or in spite of borders, it can often feel as if we are being punished — or worse, stripped of our rights — for daring to fall in love with someone who was born somewhere else.

It reminds me of the other groups that have sprung up to support British women navigating the complicated process to bring their foreign-born spouses to the U.K. and American women whose husbands have been deported to Mexico. As binational couples trying to love across or in spite of borders, it can often feel as if we are being punished — or worse, stripped of our rights — for daring to fall in love with someone who was born somewhere else. I had seen it happen with couples separated by the Muslim ban, by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and now by the travel bans. When you associate your government with travel bans and xenophobia, you turn to strangers on the internet with shared experiences for comfort and solidarity.

“I’ve been researching all of the third countries where we could meet and get married,” Samantha continued, explaining that many of the countries were places she didn’t feel safe visiting and definitely did not offer same-sex marriage.

“I really wish that I could do a romantic proposal and it wasn’t so transactional,” she continued. “But that’s how it is right now.”

Samantha is not the only one in the group researching complicated workarounds. A Dutch woman shares that she is currently quarantining in Aruba for two weeks before trying to enter the U.S. to visit her boyfriend in Hawaii. Others swap stories about doing the same in Mexico, explaining where to get a PCR test (considered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be the gold standard in detecting COVID-19) in Cancun or Tulum. Another woman ecstatically shares that she was able to sneak a romantic getaway with her boyfriend in Turkey due to more lenient rules around visas and quarantine requirements. It reminds me of the time that Salem and I went on vacation to Malaysia, mostly because it was one of the few places that would accept his Syrian passport.

More significantly, it also reminds me of the way that we got married to overcome the borders that we knew could separate us.

Now, more and more people around the world are getting the vaccine, and the idea of our world returning to the way it once was becomes easier to imagine every day. Lifting travel bans and ending lockdowns for good will make long-awaited reunions possible for many, and the world will undoubtedly be better when more people can move freely without the fear of catching a virus or infecting their loved ones. But what about those who were separated by borders before the lockdowns? Going back to normal does little for families who have been separated by ICE, the U.K. Home Office, and the numerous other immigration enforcement agencies that continued to reject family reunification applications and deport people during the pandemic. A vaccine passport is of little use to citizens of countries that are systematically denied visas.

Lockdown may have forever changed the way we live and love, but if we emerge from lockdown without questioning the way that borders divide us, no one will have learned anything at all.

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