Carly Harris was a Mormon college student volunteering in November 2015 at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Soufiane El Yassami was a Muslim fast food worker fleeing Morocco in hopes of a better life.
It was a love that neither of them expected.
According to a 2008 report from the Migration Policy Institute, unemployment is highest among the young in Morocco, with 33% of 15-to-24-year-olds and 26% of 25-to-34-year-olds unemployed.
Frustrated with the lack of job opportunities, especially for the growing number of people with college degrees, El Yassami, 25, fled the country in hopes of finding work in Europe. He studied industrial refrigeration at a vocational college but wasn’t able to find a secure well paid job in that field at home.
“It makes for political instability,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications and public affairs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “You have all of these young people who are sitting there who are unable to utilize their college degrees, unable to get stable work, which makes for a lot of pressure.”
But Greece has closed its doors to immigrants from Morocco. The tourist island of Lesbos has become a hot spot for refugees in North Africa and the Middle East to seek asylum, but authorities are overwhelmed. The small island, with a population of 86,000, saw 4,500 refugees in July 2015 alone.
The European Union, with a population of 500 million, took in 1 million illegal migrants last year, the Economist reported. Thousands of other migrants have died making the trip. Most of those refugees are from places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria; they’re making their escape from war zones. But some migrants, like El Yassami, are simply seeking better opportunities.
After several weeks of flirty conversations with Harris at Camp Moria, El Yassami was arrested with a group of North Africans because he was not granted asylum into Europe. Eventually, he was sent back to Morocco.
Harris, 25, became worried when she realized that El Yassami was one of the North African refugees arrested, so she sent him a Facebook message.
“When she sent me a message on Facebook I was really, really happy,” El Yassami recalled. He received the message while still in jail. “I met a lot of different people who came to the camp, but she was the only one who contacted me, who cared about me.”
As their relationship blossomed through Facebook messages, they were hopeful that El Yassami could one day visit her and meet her parents before she finished college. First they looked into a travel visa, but he did not qualify for one. Then the two looked into the K-1 visa for fiancés, which would allow him to go to the United States with a green card if they married. But after extensive research into the visa, they realized that it was not as easy as they had hoped.
“We started checking into visa requirements and realized there was no way that he could ever get one,” Harris said.
The process requires an approved petition looked over by a “qualified relative or a potential employer at a USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) office in the United States” before then applying for the visa. But El Yassami has no job prospects in the United States, and doesn’t have a bank account, both requirements to get the visa.
The couple is concerned the situation will be more difficult because of President Donald Trump’s positions on immigration. A now-on-hold executive order stopped people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Morocco was not one of them, but the move worries El Yassami nonetheless.
“I want to tell Trump that – terrorists? No, they are refugees,” El Yassami said of the order. “They need help. They don’t have anything. Please, please Trump. Help them.”
For now, the two plan to move to Guinea-Bissau, a small country on Africa’s Atlantic coast, after Harris finishes her senior year at the University of Utah.
Harris said she feels hopeful but acknowledges the reality of the current global political climate.
“I think about what a world we could live in if instead of building walls and closing our borders, putting them in camps, making them feel like animals, if we just embraced them,” Harris said. “How much that could change our world.”
Gabriella Lewis and Abdellah Azizi contributed to this story.