8,000 miles and a war between usPublished: November 11, 2011
When Beth Bowman ’11 was at Brandeis, she was an International and Global Studies and Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies major, an IMES Undergraduate Department Representative, a member of the Equestrian Team and an active participant in many other clubs and organizations. After graduating, Bowman chose to take a year off and combine her two passions, horses and the Middle East. She found a job at a Syrian riding academy and took it. The job ended up not being what she had expected, but she got more out of it than she had hoped. The Webster, New York native recently became a finalist in a contest at the Webster Golf Club. Facebook votes cast until Nov. 29 will determine whether she and Mohammed, her fiancé, will win a free wedding at the club, giving them opportunities they never would have had otherwise.
One week after I graduated from college, I boarded a plane to Damascus, Syria, to train horses and students with the Syrian National Equestrian Team. The beauty of the farm wore off quickly as I worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week in 120 degree weather for meager pay. I hand-washed my clothes, showered when the manager allowed me to, and ate yogurt and bread for almost every meal. I was there for the students and the horses—I wanted to help them and show them kindness that they certainly had never experienced before. But my strength to stay was waning.
I sat in the clubhouse crying, missing my family and not knowing how to leave the farm, when in walked a man I had not met before. He introduced himself as Mohammed and we chatted a bit in Arabic. He gave me good advice: “Be patient.” That advice would become the mantra of our relationship.
We did not get along at first. I thought he was immature and oblivious to the world; he thought I was a stuck-up American, too good for everyone else. He did not know much about horses, so I taught him, and the manager told me to not let him out of my sight. We worked together every day, cleaning the stalls, exercising and grooming the horses, unloading trucks of horse feed, cooking, washing the dishes … if it needed to be done, it was our job.
The initial negative impressions slowly melted away. We cooked lunch and dinner together every day in the tiny kitchen, comparing American and Syrian food. We would take breaks from our work to sit and talk when we knew the manager wasn’t paying attention. We shared so much, we talked about our families, our childhoods, our dreams for the future … we shared smiles, laughs, meals, sweat, tears. We came from opposite sides of the world but we complemented each other perfectly. I had found my other half in the most unlikely of places.
We were patient at the farm, working diligently and waiting for our time to be together and to be free.
After four months of work, we left the farm and I continued to live in Damascus for another four months. I spent every weekend with Mohammed’s family, hoping they would eventually grant him permission to marry an American girl. They welcomed me and treated me like one of their daughters.
Mohammed juggled his studies and his job and managed to spend every free moment with me. He took me safely around the city and we wandered through the streets of the oldest city in the world, our love feeling as though it were as deeply rooted as the history of Damascus itself.
We knew that our love would only end one way—in marriage. There was no debate or decision to be made, it was clear that we were meant for one another and we simply had to be patient to let everything fall into place. We knew there would be more struggles than just getting our parents to agree to the marriage—the U.S. government and immigration processes stood between us and our future.
I eventually had to return to America for financial reasons and leaving Mohammed at the airport on Jan. 25 was the hardest thing I have ever done. We had known each other for eight months but it felt like a lifetime. Now, for an equal period of time, we have been 8,000 miles apart.
We are going through the process of applying for a fiancé visa. It is a difficult, intrusive process. We have submitted more than 800 pages of documentation of our relationship to the U.S. government and been subject to extensive background checks.
A month after I left Syria, the government started a bloody campaign against the civilians who are pushing for human rights. More than 2,500 people have died, many of them children, many of them simply walking to work or going to buy groceries for their family. The news constantly shows pictures of government tanks shelling the cities of Syria, bodies in the streets, protesters being beaten and jailed. Every minute of every day, I am gripped with crippling fear, wondering if they will come for him next. He loves freedom for his country and his people and he stands against the brutality of the regime … but that puts him in an incredibly dangerous situation.
We pray that he is granted his visa as soon as possible, but it is all in the hands of the government. We hope he will be here by the spring of 2012 and, under the rules of his visa, we must get married within three months of his arrival. We are so excited just to see one another again and, by the time that happens, it will have been a year since we have seen each other.
Due to the financial burdens of the visa and the short time frame, we thought it would not be possible to have more than a small civil ceremony and dinner with my parents for our wedding celebration. Having Mohammed here and safe, far from the bloodshed and violence is the first thing I want. I also want to share the beauty of my town and my community with Mohammed, just as he did with me, and this would be a gift not just to us, but to all the people of Syria, to show them that a better life is possible and there is hope in the future. All you need is to be patient.