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Personal Story

Newlywed Dunya’s Dream of Returning to Live in Her Parents’ Ancestral City Collides with Bureaucratic Reality

Snapshot

American Palestinian Dunya meets Jerusalem resident Muhammad in Europe. They fall in love and decide to marry. Initially excited about the prospect of living in Jerusalem, her parents’ original home region, Dunya soon learns she is at the mercy of a labyrinthine bureaucratic process she doesn’t fully understand and that does not embrace the prospect of counting her as a resident. The couple’s quest to make a life together in Jerusalem takes a toll on their marriage.

Background: Palestinian American married to a Palestinian with a Jerusalem permanent-resident ID (family unification)

Status: Has not yet applied for residency

Dunya and Muhammad1 met in 2016 in Europe, where they were both studying. Both are Palestinians and in their mid-twenties. Dunya was born and raised in the United States; her parents are from the Palestinian village of Lifta on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, a village that was attacked, occupied, and depopulated by Israel during the 1948 War.2 She had not lived in Jerusalem before meeting Muhammad. Muhammad was born and raised in Jerusalem and holds an Israeli permanent-resident ID. When they decided to marry, they understood that Dunya would require Israeli permanent-resident status to live in Jerusalem. She could only hope to secure that by applying for family unification, a complicated and lengthy process.

Secret Marriage

When they got engaged, Dunya was excited about the prospect of moving permanently to Jerusalem; she wanted to live in Palestine as a resident rather than as a tourist. She knew that applying for permanent residency would be difficult, but she never doubted that she would eventually obtain it. In 2017, while Dunya was in Jerusalem on a three-month tourist visa, she and Muhammad had their katb al-kitab or Islamic marriage ceremony in the West Bank. They decided not to hold the ceremony in Jerusalem. They feared that if their marriage was known to the Israeli authorities, Dunya might get denied entry to the country. (Tourist visas could be arbitrarily denied at the airport.) Once they were ready to start the application process for Dunya’s residency, they would reveal that they were married.

At the end of her three-month stay (the duration of most tourist visas), Dunya made a quick trip to Jordan and then returned, expecting to get another three-month tourist visa upon reentry, a common practice among those wanting to extend their stay in the country. When she returned, the Israeli border authorities would only give her a one-month tourist visa; they suspected that she was trying to stay in the country permanently by serially renewing a tourist visa.

They feared that if their marriage was known to the Israeli authorities, Dunya might get denied entry to the country.

Fearful and Anxious

This incident changed Dunya’s perspective on her ability to obtain permanent residency once she moved to Jerusalem; she no longer saw it as inevitable. She and Muhammad began to fear everything. When she left for the US in 2017 so she could tie up loose ends and move to Jerusalem, she worried that the Israelis wouldn’t let her back into the country. The thought that she could be denied entry made her very anxious. “I was full of fear about moving here,” she explained. 

Dunya and Muhammad argued constantly about how to handle their situation, and although Dunya decided she would live in Jerusalem, she was so afraid of complications that at one point, she tried to convince Muhammad to move to the US instead.3

Technically, Dunya and Muhammad could have begun her residency application process while she was in the US, but lawyers and staff at the Israeli Ministry of Interior informed them that such an approach would take longer, there was no guarantee she would obtain residency, and applying from outside the country could be used against her when she tried to enter the country.

Collecting Application Documents

For two years, Dunya and Muhammad worked on obtaining all the relevant paperwork she would need, such as her birth certificate and an FBI background check. Since the process of obtaining residency is not clear or transparent, Muhammad, at that time working toward his law degree, consulted with numerous lawyers and undertook extensive research. The process involved a lot of guesswork and obtaining documents that had not been requested but that might be required at a later date. In describing her preparations for a major geographical move to begin her new married life, Dunya said, “I wasn’t concerned about clothes or things to take with me to Palestine. My whole concern was paperwork.”

In the summer of 2019, Dunya moved to Jerusalem. This particular trip was anxiety provoking: she was leaving her family in the US without any idea of when she would be able to return to see them again, and there was always the possibility that she would be denied entry at Ben Gurion Airport and banned for at least a decade for attempting to move to the country. She and Muhammad had consulted lawyers who advised her not to mention their marriage, because the Israelis could use it as a reason not to allow her into the country. (They would likely consider it an indication that she wanted to live in Jerusalem permanently.) Hiding their marriage was one of the main reasons they obtained a Palestinian marriage contract, rather than an Israeli one, in the first place.

“I wasn’t concerned about clothes or things to take with me . . . My whole concern was paperwork.”

Dunya

A Labyrinthine Application Process

Dunya was able to easily get a three-month tourist visa at Ben Gurion Airport. Trouble would come later, however, when she tried to renew her tourist visa at the Wadi al-Joz branch of the Ministry of Interior. (The ministry has several branches in Jerusalem, but Palestinian Jerusalemites are only allowed to conduct such business at the Wadi al-Joz branch in East Jerusalem.) At first, the employee with whom Dunya spoke said that visa extensions were nearly impossible to get, even though Dunya and Muhammad explained that they were married and planned to live in Jerusalem permanently.

They decided to visit the ministry on a different day and see whether a different clerk might take a different stance. The next worker they saw initially said the same thing, but then she decided to consult with her manager. To her apparent surprise, the manager approved the visa extension. “The worker told us that the manager was in a very good mood because of the recent [Jewish] holidays; normally, she wouldn’t approve such a request,” Dunya explained. And just like that, Dunya and Muhammad received a small serendipitous victory in a tiresome and opaque process.

For those attempting to obtain permanent residency through the family unification process, much is unknown, and the frequently opaque process is made even more difficult if the couple doesn’t have an ethical, knowledgeable, and experienced lawyer. Dunya’s husband, a new lawyer, was trying to manage most of the process on his own, since lawyers in this arena generally charge thousands of dollars. Despite all the work and research both Dunya and Muhammad did from 2017 to 2019 regarding the paperwork she needed, they learned only after going to the Israeli Ministry of Interior in Wadi al-Joz that the paperwork had to be presented in a specific way. There is no website to consult, and often lawyers give conflicting information based on anecdotal experiences. For example, Dunya required not only a certified birth certificate but also a notarized letter from the granting entity that it was an official document. Her FBI background check had to be apostilled (authenticated) by the US State Department.4 Her family in the US had to obtain these two documents for her and mail them to Jerusalem. Dunya also learned that she needed to prove that she was not married in the US with a single-status affidavit that she was able to obtain through the US Consulate in Jerusalem.

For those attempting to obtain permanent residency through the family unification process, much is unknown.

While Dunya was able to get the three-month visa extension, she had to wait until May, nearly a year after she moved to Jerusalem, to apply for permanent residency. However, because of the coronavirus pandemic, her May 2020 appointment was canceled. Then she had to wait until the Ministry of Interior resumed full operations to request a new appointment.

Even under normal circumstances, the time frame for appointments to be granted is completely unpredictable; it could take anywhere from months to more than a year to receive an appointment date. Like other Palestinians applying for permanent residency, Muhammad and Dunya are at the mercy of the workers at the Wadi al-Joz branch of the Ministry of Interior. Furthermore, according to Dunya and Muhammad, the process is always a subjective one, because the employees—mostly Palestinian—are typically moody and arrogant. They don’t seem to answer to a higher power and usually make the process more difficult. However, Dunya and Muhammad made a friend of the manager, who seems willing to continue renewing Dunya’s tourist visa until she can apply for and receive a temporary-residency ID, an interim step in the permanent-residency process. This small victory has a heavy price: Dunya’s visa does not allow her to work or leave the country.

Israeli Citizenship

At that point, Muhammad decided to apply for Israeli citizenship. The manager at the Ministry of Interior advised the couple to wait until they receive a response about his citizenship application to resume their formal application for Dunya’s residency, because if Muhammad were to get citizenship, the process of obtaining residency for Dunya would be easier, and she could eventually be eligible for citizenship as well.

For a variety of personal reasons, including the prospect of engaging in yet another arduous and tiresome process, Muhammad did not apply for citizenship until 2020. This was a source of tension between Dunya and Muhammad, because she had asked him to apply for citizenship before she moved to Jerusalem. Dunya read online that if Muhammad was a citizen, it could make life easier for both of them.

In June, Muhammad’s application for Israeli citizenship was denied, because the Ministry of Interior claimed he did not prove that Jerusalem was his “center of life.” Muhammad is appealing the decision, but he does not know when he will receive a response. So for now, Dunya and Muhammad have to wait for one process to finish before starting another one.

Dunya explains that her marriage and professional life help her to maintain some equilibrium as she tries to establish a new life in a new country while she is at the mercy of a cumbersome and often mysterious process of applying for residency. Nationalistic reasons strengthen her resolve: “This is my homeland, and why shouldn’t I live here? Because that’s what [the Israelis] want at the end of the day—for us to leave. They’re trying to make it as difficult as possible for us for that reason. So at the end of the day, I will get my permanent residency. The question is, how long will it take?”

Credit: 

Jerusalem Story

Notes

1

The research for this story was conducted in summer 2020. Identifying information has been changed.

2

“Lifta,” in All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948, ed. Walid Khalidi (Washington, DC: The Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992), 300–302.

3

If Muhammad moved to the US, he would potentially lose his permanent residency, because Jerusalem would no longer be considered his “center of life" (see Precarious, Not Permanent: The Status Held by Palestinian Jerusalemites).

4

For more information, see ”Apostille Requirements,” travel.state.gov.

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