Abdulmonem Kitouh was on top of the world. It was December 2015 and he had just married the love of his life.
He and Rana Damien had met in Aleppo, often in secret, because he was a Muslim and she a Christian. When the war in Syria upended their lives, he moved to Istanbul and she to Beirut, her family dead-set against the marriage.
When Damien’s family moved to Canada after their asylum application was accepted, their opposition softened. She called Kitouh in ecstasy, telling him she would arrive at the airport the next day. They got married, and after three months of bliss in Turkey, Damien went back to Canada to finish her paperwork.
She would never use the return ticket. In January 2016, the Turkish government introduced fresh visa requirements for Syrian citizens, and Damien has been rejected three times without explanation. Meanwhile, Kitouh’s application for an entry permit to Canada has been in limbo for more than a year. A love story that survived the Syrian civil war was brought to a halt by the cold logic of visa rules.
“Ask one of those visa officers to put themselves in my shoes for just a moment, to imagine that they’re spending all this time away from the woman they loved,” Kitouh said in an interview in Istanbul. “When we were in Syria, we at least saw each other, even in secret. When we left Syria we could no longer see each other, because states stopped us from being together.
“I feel like I’ve lost so much of my life already, and I don’t know why, just because I’m Syrian.”
Even before Donald Trump’s travel ban on nationals from six Muslim-majority countries to the US, Syrians endured onerous travel restrictions imposed by states in the Middle East and the west.
In cities with high demand for Turkish visas, such as Beirut, waiting periods for appointments at the Turkish consulate can last as long as nine months. Applications are often rejected without clear reasons. Lebanon hosts 3 million Syrian refugees.
In Jordan, which hosts 600,000 Syrian refugees, it is difficult to get an entry permit unless you’re attending a conference, and Egypt has introduced entry rules that can sometimes cost upwards of $3,000 (£2,400) to circumvent. Many European countries simply do not grant visas.
The resulting uncertainty has split families and forced refugees to navigate unsympathetic and byzantine immigration rules.
“She fought the whole world so we can be together,” Kitouh said. “As Syrians we’re always looking for a chance for salvation. Like those people who took the boats to find salvation from war, she was that for me.”
Oudai Alhomsi followed the refugee trail to Germany but has not seen his family since October 2015.
Oudai Alhomsi ended up taking one of those boats. In March 2012 he met Alaa Masalmaa in his city of Deraa, where protests had sparked the Syrian uprising a year earlier. She went to his shop to fix her laptop. Three weeks later they were married.
“I used to worry about him being taken to serve in the military when he went to work,” Masalmaa said, teasing her husband. “I would sometimes go to the shop so we could leave together and they wouldn’t take him away from me.”
But when the army asked for Alhomsi by name, they knew it was time to leave. Masalmaa was seven months pregnant, but they made the trek across the border into Jordan, and arrived at the Zaatari refugee camp.
“It was not easy but it was safe, you’re not scared of death or detention, you don’t sleep to the sound of gunfire, you don’t worry someone will knock on the door and take away the most precious thing in your life,” Masalmaa said.
After a stint in the camp and then a Jordanian village in Irbid, where their son, Samer, was born, the family moved to Amman. But they knew they couldn’t stay too long. They worked hard to survive and realised there was no future there. So they decided Alhomsi would follow the refugee trail to Germany, and then try to bring the rest of the family along.
The journey took Alhomsi in October 2015 by plane to Turkey and then by boat to Greece. From there he travelled through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria to Germany, where he eventually settled in Berlin.
Alhomsi applied for refugee status in November that year. It took a year for his paperwork to come through, only for him to find out he had been granted temporary protection status, which meant he was not eligible for family reunification until 2018. Alhomsi said he would appeal against the decision.
“That day I cried the tears of two whole years,” said Masalmaa.
His son, now four, often runs out to their porch in Amman when a plane flies overhead and calls out to his father, thinking he is still on the plane he took in 2015.
“I miss waking up in the morning to the aroma of coffee made by the hands that I love,” Alhomsi said. “A refugee is a human being, forced by circumstances to leave his country.”
Ahmed al-Taleb and Melina Nardi get to share a cup of coffee in the morning in Istanbul, but Belgian bureaucracy appears determined to keep them apart.
Al-Taleb, a biologist, grew up in Damascus and left Syria in 2013 after being detained by the security services for taking part in protests. He was in the middle of pursuing a master’s degree in immunology. He met Nardi, a Belgian-French-Italian marketing professional, in 2015 at a couchsurfing event.
A little over a year later, they were engaged. But when they tried to get married in Turkey so they could begin the process of resettling in Europe, the Belgian consulate put up barriers.
To get married in Turkey, residents need a “non-impeachment” document from their home country confirming that they are still officially single. Nardi said the consulate in Istanbul asked her husband-to-be to get a letter from the civil registry in Syria, have it stamped by the Syrian embassy in Lebanon and by the Lebanese foreign ministry, and then bring it to the Belgian consulate in Istanbul.
Al-Taleb, a 33-year-old who speaks four languages, cannot leave Istanbul because he is in the middle of an application for refugee status. As a result, their marriage is on hold while they search for other solutions.
“They’re not saying it like that, but it’s clear they don’t want me to be married to a Syrian,” Nardi said. “They never even accepted to meet me, all our conversations [with the consulate] were by phone or email.”
Nardi said the impossible demands by her home country’s consulate were arguably unconstitutional, because they were putting up insurmountable barriers to her marrying the man she loves, a basic human right.
“Their goal is for me to say it’s too complicated and I’m not going to marry him,” she said.
Al-Taleb said he organised another engagement party earlier this month to cheer up his future wife.
“I dont want them to steal our happiness and stress her out,” he said. “They were sucking the love out of our relationship, but they will not win.”
Now the couple just wait, trying to figure out a solution with the Italian and French consulates, with which Nardi also has citizenship. Her parents have always wanted to meet al-Taleb, but he cannot go to see them, and her mother has a perforated eardrum, and cannot travel to meet her future son-in-law.
They spend their days visiting Istanbul’s museums, walking around the city that brought them together.
Nardi has received a job offer in Spain, but refuses to leave al-Taleb, worried that his refugee application might get rejected and he would be deported. His brother lives in Spain, and has a doctorate in physics.
“I’m actually scared,” she said. “There is something new every day. I don’t want to be away and one day they’ll just decide to deport Syrians. I’d be leaving him in a country that is not protecting him.”