Last night, I set up a new set of floating shelves in my kitchen. Then, I cried. I cried because every time I make an improvement to my one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights, I realize that the person I’m supposed to be sharing this apartment with is not here. My husband cannot be with me because he is Syrian, and the travel ban has left him stuck indefinitely in Istanbul.
My husband, Bashar, and I got married one year and eleven months ago on January 7, 2017. My family didn’t attend because they were scared for their safety in Turkey. Bashar’s family was not there because Turkey had stopped issuing tourist visas to Syrians by that time. Coincidentally, most of our invited friends were also missing, because our wedding day was also the first day of snow that winter, and it was a blizzard. With the city’s transportation shut down, we said our marriage vows in front of a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founder, with giant flakes of snow falling outside.
It’s been seventy-three days now since Bashar and I parted and six hundred and twenty-three days since we first applied for his visa. It’s been eight hundred and fifteen days since we first met. Immigration has always taken time, but under President Trump, that time has become longer and the outcome, more uncertain. Before, it used to take a green card holder six months to file for citizenship. Now it takes two years. Every step of the immigration process has been nearly doubled. It’s like the United States is telling the world: do not marry foreigners, especially if he or she is Muslim.
Bashar and I decided to get married so quickly – two months after we met – because of all of the uncertainty. We both knew early on that if we didn’t want conflict to separate us, we needed to commit to each other legally. Luckily, we also knew from the very start of our time together that we never wanted to be with anyone else.
The steps for applying for a spouse visa are threefold. First, the US citizen must file a petition with the US Customs and Immigration offices, then after approval, the US citizen files a petition through the National Visa Service. Finally, pending NVC approval, the case moves on to the relevant US embassy, in this case the one in Ankara, for an interview to be scheduled. We first filed for my husband’s visa in mid-March 2017. His interview was scheduled for the end of September 2018 – one year, seven months later.
After the embassy interview, if there are no major problems, the applicant receives their visa and can travel to the United States. But Bashar’s case became unique when President Trump issued his proclamation banning visas for people from Syria and six other countries. Syrian citizens were especially affected – all types of visas, immigrant or non-immigrant, are subject to the ban. Now, although Bashar has already passed through three long rounds of vetting, his case must now undergo “administrative processing,” a term that suggests standard extra screening, but which is unfamiliar to all those involved in the process, including consular officers. Administrative processing is like sitting in a waiting room with only one door, where you know there are people waiting next to you but you can’t look around to see how many, and if you leave your seat you might lose your only chance to exit. If he can pass this step, which has no timeline, he will be granted a waiver to receive a visa to travel under the ban.
As a Syrian, Bashar feels stuck in Istanbul. He had already been living there for two years before we met. He had been homeless at times, jobless, and was fed up with the constant anti-Arab racism so tangible in his everyday life. On the other hand, I came to Istanbul by choice, but being paid in the rapidly devaluing Turkish lira and the random bombings and shootings made life in Istanbul slowly harder for us both. We waited in Istanbul because we had no other choice – as a Syrian and an American, there was no other place we could live together.
During the wait in Istanbul, Columbia accepted Bashar’s application to study at the university. He had been enrolled in university in Syria, but had to leave in his third year because of the war. His lack of a university degree has been a big part of his difficulties finding a stable job in Istanbul. His lack of a stable immigration status in the US – he is neither an international student nor a green card holder – has made it impossible to make concrete financial aid plans or any other kind of plan for his academic future.
We get most of our information about the visa process from Facebook groups and web forums, like visajourney.com. VisaJourney is a website stuck in the aesthetics of the late 1990s. Everything about it looks unreliable, but it’s the most accurate source of information for families stuck in immigration limbo. Thousands of accounts provide data for timelines. We can search for cases that are similar to ours, although the number of current cases with a Syrian spouse can be counted on one hand. We tried to hire an attorney at the beginning, but when we observed that she was scanning our documents unreadably into the National Visa Center website, costing us about three months of unnecessary delays, we decided it was better to go ahead alone. I had a phone consultation with a different, highly reputed immigration attorney right before Bashar’s interview and he told me, “You shouldn’t hire me – you know as much as I or any other attorney do, because no one knows what’s going on now.”
In New York, applying for jobs, I find myself struggling to put on a positive face. My mind is almost always occupied by the visa process, my heart skipping a couple beats when I see an email alert on my phone, wondering if I should call a senator from a different state to inquire on Bashar’s behalf. I check the Facebook groups every time someone posts about administrative processing. My friends ask me about my future plans, and I’m unable to answer them because I just don’t know what will happen in a month, six months, or a year. What if the visa is rejected? Will I move back to Turkey? Will we move to Syria?
Sometimes Bashar and I quarrel because he says I’ve met literally everyone in his life, and he has met so few of the people in mine. I know who he is, I know what he is all about. Because my passport allows me that kind of luxury. I could travel to Syria on a tourist visa to visit his family during a war, but he can’t come to the United States to meet mine, even though he loves country music, has been invited as a musician to play at the US consulates in Turkey on several occasions, and once traveled to the United States on a performance visa to tour with his band, Country for Syria. I wonder if there will ever be a time when our parents will sit together at the same table, not just over video chat. I have come to the conclusion that the world is fundamentally opposed to the success of international relationships.
Almost every day when I leave my apartment I can hear my neighbors on the phone from the hallway, making long-distance phone calls in Spanish with loved ones. In the short seconds of these phone calls I can hear while walking down the stairs, they speak of the next visit, or how things have changed since the last one. I know I am not alone in this world of displacement.
I have two closets in my one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights. I look directly at both of them from my bed every morning. The one on the left is mine. I filled it with two suitcases worth of clothes I collected over two years in Istanbul, strung my handbags over one door and my brown Turkish towel over the other. Bashar’s closet is closed, but inside I put his future keys, his future slippers, 30 some plastic hangers, his wedding jacket, and an unassembled drawer set from Ikea. I bought two pillows, two bedside tables, and an “I heart NYC” mug as a present. Maybe he’ll come next week, it’s possible. Maybe next year.
Kat Thornton is a freelancer living in New York. She spent the last two years in Istanbul, Turkey, where she was an English teacher and a social media manager for various organizations, including the music group Country for Syria. She studied Middle Eastern Studies and Journalism at Brown University and New York University, and is originally from Boise, Idaho. She published an article about urban renewal and international music and made a SXSW-nominated video about the struggles of an intellectual in Cuba. Kat and her husband Bashar were featured in a video by Al Jazeera over the summer of 2018. She enjoys playing darbuka and singing in her spare time.
Photo: Jacob Martin