Prior to meeting Jah, Dawn experienced three long-term relationships, and all three were with women. But the moment she met Jah, she experienced instant attraction, and she was wise enough to both recognize it and take action. Dawn had been working as an emergency room nurse for most of her adult life before making the choice to return to graduate school. While working on her PhD, she supervised a study abroad trip for undergraduates in Southern Africa, where she met Jah on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.
He was working as a photographer and videographer for an extreme tourism company that manages the bungee jump overlooking Victoria Falls. Her students wanted to bungee jump and urged Dawn, who is afraid of heights, to at least try the zipline that overlooks the gorge of the Zambezi River. Dawn says, “When it was my turn I chickened out. I am terrified of heights, and it is EXTREMELY high. Jah was working the zipline taking photos and said that I had to go because the view is amazing.” Dawn was not convinced, but Jah offered to go with her.
She insisted he go first, just in case it was all a plot to push her over the edge. At the end, Dawn got nervous climbing up the side of the bridge, and Jah “took his time and helped me get up the bridge then walked me to my students where I introduced him as ‘my baby daddy,’” she laughs. “There was an instant attraction, and I knew that because it was time sensitive, I needed to speak up or lose the moment forever.” Dawn gave Jah her contact information, and they spoke every day for the next seven months while she was back in the U.S.
Dawn worried more about her family and friends’ reaction to her dating a man, rather than the fact that the man was across an ocean in Zambia. But almost everyone was supportive. Dawn says, “Although I tend to think of sexuality as being something that can be fluid for some people, I never really thought of it that way for myself. BUT I also always think that others should be open to love in whatever way it surfaces, so why would I do anything different for myself?” As for the fact that the relationship was long distance and international, she wasn’t too worried.
She had traveled extensively while working as a nurse, and she maintained a small apartment and few things so that she was free to use her energy and money to travel as much as possible. Dawn says, “This travel, I think, prepared me for being open to international experiences in a way that some others may not be. The world did not seem impossible to navigate, so distance was not so much of an issue for me.”
Because there was physical distance, Dawn and Jah had the opportunity to get to know each other deeply by talking every day, often for hours at a time. “We talked about our lives, our families, our spirituality, our goals...things that sometimes other couples never get to talk about before jumping into a relationship.” Jah was respectful of Dawn’s identity, and Dawn was open to learning about Jah’s religion. Seven months after meeting, Dawn traveled back to Zambia in December 2013, and Jah proposed.
“We both understood that dating was not really an option as we lived so far from each other, and we knew that the immigration process was going to be LONG.” There was no doubt that they loved each other. Dawn says, “For me, it was a love I had never felt before,” so she was confident in moving their relationship forward.
They knew it was unlikely that they would be able to gather their families in one place, so they had a wedding ceremony in Zambia with Jah’s family and planned to have one later in the U.S. with Dawn’s family. While she was in Zambia for those six weeks, Jah was working six days a week, so Dawn spent lots of time with Jah’s family, learning new traditions, cooking foods, and practicing the language. “I gained an entire new family,” Dawn says. “On Jah's days off, he would show me everything he could.
We rode elephants, went to parks, took river cruises, hung out with his friends, went to clubs. It felt like we had known each other our entire lives and that it was meant to be.” On the nine hour bus ride back to the airport, Dawn cried the whole way.
She landed in Richmond, Virginia, leaving early the next morning to start the drive back to Ohio with one of her former students. “When we hit the mountains in western Virginia, we hit black ice and my life changed forever. Dawn explains, “The car flipped with my body trapped halfway in and halfway out of the car, and in the process, my neck and back were broken, my vertebral artery was partially severed, and the helicopter could not land to take me to the hospital because of the ice on the mountain.” She was taken to a smaller hospital to be stabilized before being transferred to a trauma hospital.
Dawn would have to learn to walk again. “Because I also had a traumatic brain injury, I also need to learn how to use my hands, write, read, and speak without stuttering and forgetting my words.” While in the hospital, Jah called daily. He was denied an emergency visa, so he sent cards, packages, and gifts instead. Dawn says, “I could not use my hands for part of my time in the hospital, so he would have to talk to me via a speaker phone, and he would speak to me in Tonga and Nyanga so that our conversations would still be special and not be invaded by everyone in my surroundings.”
When Dawn’s life changed forever, Jah stood by her side to love and encourage her: “I was covered in scars, missing most of my hair, could barely walk, and he still loved me. The doctors did not know a long term prognosis, and he still loved me. When I would get upset about my scars being so obvious, he would tell me how beautiful I was. When I couldn't find my words, he would talk me through it. When I was in pain and suffering, he would make me smile.” With Jah emotionally standing by her while she was in the hospital, Dawn made it her mission to be able to walk well enough to return to Zambia in just a few months with another set of study abroad students.
When the students flew home to the U.S., Dawn stayed to travel through six more countries by bus. “I was walking with a cane, but I was walking up MOUNTAINS with a cane.” Jah cared for Dawn when she was in pain, but he also pushed her, telling her nothing could stop her from achieving what she wanted. “In turn, we went cage diving with sharks, rode elephants and camels, rode ATVs, went kayaking with seals, went on safaris, traveled to villages to meet some of his family, walked more miles than I ever thought possible, and had more fun than I ever imagined.”
This unforeseen trauma reinforced Dawn and Jah’s intuitive knowledge that they are a resilient and strong couple with a deep, resurrecting love between them. Jah was soon able to come to the U.S. on a temporary visa while working with a tourism company, during which time they became pregnant with their daughter. Rather than waiting for a spousal visa, they retained an immigration attorney, who assisted Jah in gaining temporary residency. Now with two children, they are still waiting to see if Jah will be granted permanent residency, a process that takes years.
Dawn says, “The process is long and grueling, and immigration infiltrates and invades every part of your life; at times it can feel humiliating.”
But that’s not all; Jah is not comfortable returning to Zambia while he waits given the current administration’s attitude toward green card holders. “The isolation from family (due to not being able to travel freely during the process) and the uncertainty can drive you insane, especially when you have a family you are trying to support and keep together.” Additionally the cost of the process is immense, especially if an attorney is involved.
Through challenges to identity, long distance, cultural differences, trauma, and dealing with immigration, Dawn and Jah’s connection has been the steadfast foundation they rely on. Dawn says, “Having an international marriage, for us, is a beautiful experience.” That’s not to say it is always easy. There are times that they do not understand each other or see things differently, but the core of their relationship is open communication and a mutual desire to understand and learn about each other.
They value both their families and cultures equally and make equal efforts to learn each other’s language and customs, as well as spend time with both families. Dawn says, “Eventually we hope to split our time fairly evenly between countries once Jah has citizenship so that our children are comfortable living in either space. We don’t want them to ever go to Zambia and feel like a visitor or a tourist; we always want them to understand it as home.”