Alia Youssef sits on the porch at her Lasalle, Ont., home just outside of Windsor, on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020 wearing the same clothes she wore the last time she saw Mohamed, her American fiancee who is stuck in Michigan. Alia has not seen her fiancee since the border between Canada and the United States closed in March. They plan on seeing each other in December. Translation on her shirt reads, “You’re beautiful as you are”. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke

International couples plan reunions in Canada under new travel exception

Alia Youssef and Mohamed El-Sawah have been in a long-distance relationship for the better part of a year, though they live just a 35-minute drive apart.

Youssef lives in Windsor, Ont., El-Sawah in a suburb of Detroit, Mich.

When the Canada-U.S. border was closed in March due to COVID-19, they were forced to place many of the cultural and religious traditions important to their Egyptian, Muslim engagement on hold. Youssef has yet to meet her husband-to-be’s parents in person. The two have been looking at wedding venues and getting to know each other’s families over video calls.

“We’re engaged with no rings, let’s call it that,” El-Sawah said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Couples like Youssef and El-Sawah have been in a grey area since pandemic-related travel restrictions came into effect, unable to reunite due to their unmarried status. But some hope appeared last week when Ottawa announced it would ease some border restrictions.

Starting Thursday, romantic partners of Canadians can apply to enter the country, with documentation proving at least a year-long relationship. Extended family members including grandparents, adult children and grandchildren and those seeking entry for compassionate grounds may also apply. Specifics on who qualifies, what documents are required and how to apply will be defined in greater detail on Thursday.

It’s a welcome avenue for couples whose lives have been placed on hold for the last eight months. Youssef, El-Sawah and others in international engagements can now proceed cautiously with their wedding plans – factoring in quarantine requirements, work obligations and limits on other relatives allowed to travel and participate.

“We’re really happy, but it’s just now we have to take what we have and work with it,” Youssef said.

The pair plan to reunite in December, when El-Sawah can take the required two weeks off from work. At the end of his quarantine, they hope to finally exchange rings and hold a small engagement party, though El-Sawah will be the only member of his biological family there.

While Ottawa has stressed that nobody should make travel plans until they’ve been approved under the program, some have eagerly started booking accommodations and packing their bags. Sarah Campbell of Stratford, Ont., cried tears of happiness at the announcement. She’s been separated from her fiance Jacob Taylor during the pandemic and through a cancer diagnosis this July.

Campbell and Taylor, who lives in Bath, England, are gathering documents showing proof of their relationship in anticipation of the soon-to-be-announced requirements.

“We’re hoping he can be here by Saturday,” she said in a telephone interview. ”Jacob is ready to go.”

If everything goes according to plan, they hope to be married by the end of the month — the day after Taylor’s quarantine ends.

Kaylee Carson of Cleveland, Ohio, also moved quickly after hearing the news. She snapped up an available Airbnb in Barrie, Ont., where her Canadian fiance Darren Quesnel works.

“I went ahead and booked,” Carson said by phone. “I’m going to be there for two months, so I just booked the first month and I figured if I’m not there by then he can just go stay at the Airbnb until I get there.”

She’s happy an end to their separation is in sight, though the eventual wedding date in the U.S. is still to be determined.

“It’s just a relief to know that I’m going to get to go see him,” she said.

David Poon has been running a campaign along with other families not covered by the former travel exemptions, asking Ottawa to adapt immigration measures to accommodate those left out. He said participants are grateful the government found a solution.

“We know that it was an incredibly difficult problem to solve,” he said from Ireland, where the Canadian doctor is currently staying with his partner.

The key demand – allowing adult children and non-married couples to reunite in Canada – has been won, but Poon said the biggest hurdle remaining for the approximately 7,500 people involved in the campaign is inability for many to take time off work to quarantine. Those on temporary visas also face challenges bringing their loved ones to Canada.

He stressed that the campaign isn’t fighting quarantine rules, but looking for a solution so more people can take advantage of the program – like requiring the Canadian partner to isolate once their significant other leaves the country, no matter the length of their stay.

The uncertainty of waiting and the challenges of planning a wedding long-distance during a pandemic have been painful, El-Sawah said. But the experience has brought the couple together on a deeper level, and convinced him beyond a doubt that he’s found a soul mate and life partner in Youssef.

“It affirmed my love for this woman,” he said. “The silver lining to me is I know a thousand per cent, a million per cent that she’s the one and she’s willing to put the effort. Whatever life throws at us, we’ll be able to handle it.”

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