Forced to Abandon their Home and Business in Hawaii, Ina and Iva Fight to Defeat DOMA and Return from Exile
Our experience is a little different from the other stories of same-sex bi-national couples affected by DOMA. For one, we’re both originally from Europe. When I was still a teenager I had the dream to one day live in the U.S. While my friends at school were all in love with some rock icon or movie star, I was in love with a country. They drew little hearts in their journals; I drew U.S. flags. Often I went to the travel bureau in my little German village and picked up U.S. brochures, cutting out images and decorating my room with them. I even had a big U.S. flag on my wall. I tried to convince my parents to vacation in the U.S., but it was too far away and expensive. Besides living in the U.S., I also dreamed about living near the ocean. I painted many pictures, all with the same motif—a sandy beach with a palm tree on the left and right and a setting sun in the middle. So it was a very big deal for me when, a few years after my high school graduation, I had saved enough money on my own to afford to finish my Bachelor’s degree in Hawaii. I simply couldn’t believe my luck—in one move, I had accomplished my two lifelong dreams.
For Iva, the story how she came to Hawaii is just as miraculous. She is from Bulgaria, a developing country in Eastern Europe. When Iva told her parents, relatives and friends that she dreamed about moving to Hawaii, they all made fun of her. They didn’t believe that such a move would ever be possible. Long story short, one day she went to an Internet café and by sheer coincidence she met a man in an Internet chat room who happened to live in Hawaii and who was a business owner. His wife worked at a university in Hawaii and they helped her apply to this university to get her Master’s in Computer Science. She even received a partial scholarship. A year after her move to Hawaii and after getting the necessary paperwork done, Iva was able to work part-time at his business. This is where, on Valentine’s Day 2005, we both met. I had just been hired as the new staff writer. We felt the connection between us right away. Neither of us was looking for a relationship, but we nonetheless felt a deep connection, as if our souls had known each other forever.
For a while we were living the dream life. After we both graduated, in addition to our regular day jobs, we started our own internet business in Hawaii’s tourism industry. Then, just when my work permit was about to expire and I would have had to return to Germany, I won in the annual U.S. green card lottery, against odds of about two percent. That was over six years ago, and since then our life has been a constant battle to stay together in Hawaii, the place we love, the place where we built our lives, the place where we built our business. In all these years we never visited our families back home because we knew that it would be next to impossible for Iva to come back to the U.S. on another visa.
The company where Iva worked had told her that they would sponsor her for a work visa, but then they went bankrupt. After that, she worked for another employer, who also promised her to sponsor her. But when the time came, the owner changed his mind because he said he didn’t want to open up his financial and business data to a government agency.
For nine years, Iva worked on renewable permits, and even enrolled at another school so that she could remain in Hawaii. Unfortunately, time ran out for us last fall. Our worst nightmare had come true. In order to stay together, we would have to leave our home, our lives, and our livelihood in Hawaii. We booked seats in the middle section of the plane because we couldn’t bear looking out of the window and seeing the island we called home disappear before our eyes. We still don’t know when and if we’ll be able to visit together anytime soon since Bulgaria is not in the visa waiver program.
The first few weeks were very difficult. Since we didn’t have local jobs or a German credit history, it took us two months after we arrived in Germany until we found a landlord who was willing to rent to us. We felt numb emotionally and cried ourselves to sleep every night. We knew that the only way for both of us to ever move back home in the future would be for me to become a U.S. citizen, in the hopes that, someday, I might be able to sponsor Iva for residency as my wife. We consulted with a U.S. immigration attorney who told us that I should come back as soon as possible to immeidately file the paperwork. So less than twenty-four hours after we had moved into our newly rented apartment, everything still in boxes, I flew back to Hawaii, alone. I returned to Germany in December, so that Iva and I could be together for Christmas, and in January I flew back again to finalize the naturalization process.
During the naturalization ceremony, they played Lee Greenwood “God Bless the USA.” When I heard the lyrics, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free,” I found myself wishing that I really was free—free to live in this country that I’ve always loved, with the person I love. I was probably the only new U.S. citizen who applied for a U.S. passport and the next thing I did was leave my home, in order to be with my wife.
Now, nine months since our departure from the U.S., we are still having trouble adjusting to our new reality. We haven’t been able to find jobs here. It’s especially hard for Iva since she doesn’t speak the language yet. Every day we hope for a miracle that will allow us to go back to Hawaii. We each did it once before, on our own, under very unlikely circumstances. Now, the circumstances are still daunting, but there is one important difference: we have our love, and we have each other. We are determined to return to Hawaii once again, only this time, it will be for good, and we’ll do it together. We do believe that the fight for equality, the fight to love and live with your spouse, is a fight we can win. Please share our story and consider sharing yours with the The DOMA Project and continue to participate in the movement for social justice so that we not only defeat DOMA but so that we are prepared to reunite all families after this cruel law becomes part of history. Participation and representation is, after all, what American democracy is all about. We are grateful to The DOMA Project for the tremendous effort it has made to help our voices be heard.