The last time Ramona Abeygunesekera-Kolar (33) saw her husband was ten days after their wedding. “We got married last year on 18 December, and he returned to Slovenia on 28 December,” she told Roar Media. “When he left, I thought, It’s fine, I’ll be with him in a couple of months. We had plenty of plans for 2020, like to move in together in Slovenia. But look what happened.”
Abeygunesekera-Kolar is one of many people around the world who have been separated from their loved ones as a result of global travel restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If I can explain it in one word, it feels horrible. The feelings are intense — it’s loneliness, and disappointment and frustration. Because we’re a newly married couple. And people get married to stay together.”
For Samia* (52), who has been separated from her husband and two of her children since last October, the time apart has become increasingly difficult the longer it has drawn out. “When the pandemic broke out, everybody stayed put, we were very patient,” she said. “But as it has dragged on, it’s become really difficult, mentally. I was forlorn for a very long time, and I felt very hopeless. It’s been a tandem of emotions.”
These sentiments are echoed by many Sri Lankans, particularly those in transnational or long-distance relationships, who have been waiting to reunite with their loved ones for several months now. With countries all around the world having closed their borders or putting travel restrictions in place as a COVID-19 preventive measure, these couples and families have been stranded away from one another with no indication of when they will be reunited.
Several online campaigns have been created in response to this separation, most notably the #LoveIsNotTourism and #LoveIsEssential campaigns, which urge governments to amend travel restrictions and allow the reunion of partners and families, while adhering to quarantine and other safety regulations. Those separated from their loved ones also find support in Facebook groups, where they find an understanding community with which to share feelings and frustrations, as well as information about how they can once again see their families.
Risks And Restrictions
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Sri Lanka in early March, Abeygunesekera-Kolar was in the process of applying for a Slovenian visa. Because there is no Slovenian embassy in Sri Lanka, she was told she would have to visit the embassy in New Delhi, India. “I’ve been in touch with the embassy in India since last year, even before we got married,” she said. “They told me I had to visit them twice in person — once to hand in the application, and about a month later for an interview.”
With the onset of travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine periods, however, traveling abroad was no longer an option. “Visiting India twice means quarantine four times, which is 56 days, and it would cost me a fortune,” Ramona explained. “It’s frustrating that they don’t want to be flexible about it,” she added, “because with or without coronavirus, it’s not humane to ask you to go all that way twice just to be with your loved one.”
Natasha* (50), has been stuck in Hong Kong away from her husband and children in Sri Lanka, the health risk of being on a flight and enduring long hours in transit standing between her and her family.
“If there was a direct flight, I would definitely take it,” she said. “But all the flights go through Dubai, and there’s a 19-hour transit there. I don’t want to do that, because I’d be putting both myself and others at risk. Sometimes, even in transit, you have to be in quarantine, and you have to do the test.
Samia, who has been trying to bring her husband and son — both Irish citizens — back from Turkey, said her attempts have been a last resort; they initially thought they could wait until other stranded Sri Lankans were repatriated. “We didn’t want to tax the system, because we knew that there were destitute people outside [the country] waiting to come back,” she said. “Everybody was safe where they were, we had food to eat and a roof over our heads, so we thought, We’ll just wait.” But by August, Samia said their optimism began wearing thin.
“The major thing, for me, is that we have not allowed our own citizens back. And that is why I held back, until we did our duty and got our own people back. But I’m no longer willing to wait.”
The circumstances of this year have seen many relationships ― even those that aren’t long-distance ― adapt to operate almost exclusively online. For couples separated by great distances and across time zones, the inability to communicate with one another in person and physically be with each other has changed the nature of their relationships.
Dillon Stadhouders (33), a Dutch national, has not seen his Sri Lankan wife since March, and says the separation is made more difficult as a result of the difference between communicating in person and via the internet. “I’m not really good at communication online or through the phone,” he said. “And with the time difference, by the time I finish work, it’s the middle of the night in Sri Lanka.” The separation has, however, deepened Stadhouders’ resolve ― “We’ve decided that, after this, we’re never going to get separated again.”
For Natasha, this Christmas will be her first-ever spent without family. “I keep thinking we can do something over Zoom, but it’s just not the same,” she said. Missing out on special family occasions, including her children’s birthdays, has been hard. “I’ve had days where I’ve really cried myself out, because I’m alone here in an apartment, and that’s not my life. That’s definitely not my life.”
Borders And Barriers
For couples who are unmarried, the process of reuniting is all the more difficult. Tilan Perera (26) last saw his girlfriend in October 2019, when he was visiting her in her native Germany. Since then, he said, “I’ve tried so many times to get a [German] visa, but it hasn’t worked out.” A potential opportunity did arise when the German government introduced a ‘sweetheart visa’, easing the country’s border controls to allow unmarried couples to reunite. But Perera also had Sri Lanka’s own strict and unpredictable border controls to contend with ― “If I entered Germany and the pandemic situation [in Sri Lanka] worsened before my visa expired, I would not be able to return home,” he explained. If travel restrictions in Sri Lanka don’t ease up soon, Perera said he would look into applying for German citizenship.
Subha Wijesiriwardena (32) has not seen her partner, who lives in the United States, since January. Already having applied for an immigrant visa to the U.S. before the pandemic emerged and travel restrictions came into effect, Wijesiriwardena said the wait has been less painful knowing that there is a permanent solution to their separation in the works.
“There is the recognition that people are going to want to be with their families, because it’s a very difficult time. But unfortunately, that recognition is very tied to the idea of marriage, and is so heteronormative as well, and I think that people who do not fit that norm may well be excluded from processes like repatriation and all these efforts states have made to move people back.”
While any separation from a loved one is painful, it is true that the circumstances under which they are occurring this time around were impossible to foresee, and are complicated to contend with. “If there was some other reason we were apart, I think I would have found it more frustrating,” explained Wijesiriwardena. “But throughout this period, nothing is the same, nothing is what we thought it was, and everything is so unprecedented in some way. And I think that has made it more rational ― like, this is another effect of this insane situation that we are all in.”