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He's from Rwanda, she's from Canada. This married couple had never spent a Christmas together — until now

Ben Tuyisenge and Emily Knope have been together for four years, married for almost two, but they've never spent a Christmas together — until now.

Ben Tuyisenge and Emily Knope applied 4 years in a row for him to come to Toronto

He’s from Rwanda, she’s from Canada. They’ve been together for four years, married for almost two. But they've never spent a Christmas together — until now. (Submitted by Graham Knope)

Emily Knope never once questioned if it was worth it.

Despite being more than 11,000 kilometres away from the love of her life, having to communicate over a crackly phone connection and repeated failed attempts to bring him to Canada, she knew almost from the start that they had to be together.

Ben Tuyisenge never doubted it either. Within three dates, he says he knew the two had something special.

"We didn't know at the time that we were going to get married and end up together. But we had to try," Knope said.

The question was: How?

Knope, 25, is from Toronto; Tuyisenge, 31, is from Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. The pair met in 2015 while Knope was travelling in East Africa during a semester off from university. And within the span of just a few weeks they knew they were falling in love.

Tuyisenge and Knope met in Rwanda in 2015. They knew almost instantly that they had to be together. (Submitted by Emily Knope)

"It seemed crazy because we were from two different countries and what felt like two different worlds," Knope said. But as she prepared to head back home, she and Tuyisenge decided they were going to try to make it work long distance, across oceans.

'We knew there was something serious there'

Over the next several months, the couple kept in touch by phone, email, text and Facetime — anything to make the distance feel shorter.

"It was hard, but because we knew there was something serious there, we kept trying," Tuyisenge said. "We were prepared mentally for that. We always knew that anything that comes and challenges our relationship builds it and gives us more reasons to be together."

Knope was in university at the time and each time she'd get a break, she would fly to Rwanda — sometimes for months at a time. The flight alone averages $1,300. 

It's a horrible feeling when you've been through something as traumatic as the genocide.- Emily Knope

But when it came to Tuyisenge coming to Canada, that wasn't an option, the couple learned. The first time they tried to apply for a visitor's visa around Christmas 2016, they were denied.

Among the reasons: Tuyisenge's lack of family ties in his home country.

There's a reason for that, Tuyisenge says. He lost his mother and much of his family during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. His father survived but died soon after. In the months afterward, Tuyisenge, still a child, made it to a refugee camp near Congo, where he became separated from his younger brother. His older brother, the eldest of the three, eventually settled in the United States. 

But for Tuyisenge, the people he called family in Rwanda were mostly his closest friends — something the Canadian government considered a red flag.

"It's a horrible feeling when you've been through something as traumatic as the genocide ... losing your parents, losing connection with your brothers, losing aunts and uncles and then almost having to defend it, saying, 'No, but I am a good person and you should accept me,'" said Knope.

"It made me feel like I was worthless," Tuyisenge recalled.

Married but denied again

The next Christmas, the pair tried for a visitor's visa again. By then they were engaged to be married. 

But once again Tuyisenge was denied. 

The following spring, Knope returned to Rwanda — this time with her family in tow. She and Tuyisenge were married there on May 18, 2018. Surely now he could move to Canada so that they could build a life together.

Knope and Tuyisenge were married in Rwanda on May 18, 2018. They hoped he could come to Canada so they could build a life together. (Hervé Irankunda)

At least that's what they thought.

Then came the crushing news: Tuyisenge was denied a third time. 

"That was really heartbreaking," he said, recalling the experience. "I'm not allowed to travel because I don't have my family members.... It was like being an orphan became another problem."

Each rejection became a reminder of his childhood trauma, feeding a fear that his future would forever be dictated by it. 

"You blame yourself," Tuyisenge said. "When you go through that, there's always those moments where you think: 'Maybe I'm not worth living. Why am I still around? Maybe I should have gone with my family.' Because everyone is treating you differently."

Knope and Tuyisenge pictured on their honeymoon in Arusha, Tanzania. The pair would have to wait another year and a half before they could be together in Canada. (Submitted by Emily Knope)

In January 2019, the pair decided to try again, this time applying for Tuyisenge to become a permanent resident. 

It took weeks to get their documentation ready, collecting personal emails and taking screenshots of their Facetime conversations, all to make the case to the Canadian government to allow Tuyisenge to join his wife Knope.

A cruel twist 

Then, in a cruel twist, their paperwork was lost.

That meant restarting the process — and months more apart as they waited.

Finally, on a September morning, an email that would change their lives.

Tuyisenge was at work at a non-profit organization in Kigali when an email came from the Canadian government saying he would have to undergo a medical check.

In November, the news they had been waiting for: Tuyisenge had finally been accepted to come to Canada. 

On Dec. 21, just days before Christmas, Tuyisenge arrived at Toronto's Pearson airport after a 21-hour trip, exhausted and nervous — but more than anything, elated. 

Emily Knope and Ben Tuyisenge have spent the holidays apart for the last three years. He was approved to come Canada, just in time for Christmas. 1:19

Knope and her entire family were there waiting, cheering as he walked through the arrivals gate and into her arms.

Overcome with emotion, Tuyisenge says one thought occurred to him in that moment:

"This looks like family, this is what family does… Seeing how happy everyone was, welcoming me, it made me feel like even though my family passed away, I still have another family," he said. 

'I felt like I was coming home'

"Some of them you've never met but when you see their faces, how happy they are, hugging you, it's another level of humanity.

"I felt like I was coming home … even though it was my first time being there."

Through it all, Knope says, the pair have learned about patience, love and what matters most.

"To me, he has always been worth it.… We got through it together and it really did make us stronger."

For Christmas, the pair say they haven't planned much. On the agenda: taking it slow, spending as much time as possible with family.

Tuyisenge is also slowly adjusting to the cold and getting acquainted with life in a brand new city. 

"Putting on all those layers, I feel like I'm heavy, almost like I'm congested?" he says with a laugh.

"I'm like a kid, looking around.... Everything is different."

About the Author

Shanifa Nasser

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Shanifa Nasser is an award-winning journalist interested in national security, the justice system and stories with a heartbeat. Her work has led to two investigations by CBC's The Fifth Estate. She was previously a Munk Journalism Fellow and holds an MA in Islamic Studies from the University of Toronto. shanifa.nasser@cbc.ca

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