GREENFIELD — It’s been 986 days.

Mallory Willits rattles the number off without hesitation: it’s been 986 days since she met Wisdom Gakpo in that little shop in his hometown in Africa; since she started to fall in love with the man she now calls her husband; since their journey began.

Sitting together Sunday — surrounded by Willits’ family and friends for the first time as they celebrated Gakpo’s immigration and the couple’s second wedding anniversary — they exchanged looks of unmistakable fondness and tenderness. They smiled and laughed loudly, joked that the chilly February temperatures will surely be the most difficult adjustment for Gakpo, coming to Indiana from the African west coast.

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They wouldn’t be here were it not for one unbreakable bond, Willits remarked; she’s sure that nearly a year and a half of waiting, of fighting through federal red tape to bring her husband to America, would surely have destroyed a couple less committed. Perhaps that’s really the point of all the hoops, fees and bureaucracy, she mused aloud — to assure these relationships can withstand the trials ahead.

Now, together at last and ready to start their future, Willits and Gakpo are opening up about their journey, hoping those who have never dealt with the immigration system firsthand will come to better understand its difficulties — especially in a time wrought by criticism of the system and calls for reform from some of the nation’s top leaders.

“No matter where you stand on the (political) spectrum, until you truly go through the immigration process, you can’t speak to it,” Willits said. “It’s not easy, it’s not affordable and if you didn’t have a strong relationship, it will break you.”

“I want people to understand what our journey was,” she continued. “… And maybe it would make them think for a second about our story before they cast judgement on someone else.”

Love in a new land

Willits traveled to Ghana — a small country on Africa’s west coast, bordering the Atlantic Ocean — in June 2014. She’d recently earned her bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Southern Indiana and was looking to complete an internship abroad before starting work toward a master’s degree.She had intended for the trip to be an experience to bolster her résumé, all while helping people in a foreign land and creating unforgettable memories. She never thought it would change her life — at least not like this.Gakpo was running the little shop where she stopped on her first day in town to get a soda, and he quickly became infatuated with the young woman, her bright smile and even brighter personality, he said. But it was her sense of humor that really left him smitten.

During Willits’ eight-week stay in Ghana, they quickly forged a friendship as he helped her navigate a new land, language and culture. Just as quickly, it became apparent to both of them their connection was more than just a fleeting romance.

Their talks of love turned to talks of commitment, of families and forever.

When Willits returned to the United States, she stayed in contact with Gakpo, navigating the five-hour time difference with phone calls and text messages. He met her family via video chat, and she started to plan a second trip to Ghana to see him again. Meanwhile, an ocean away, he started to plan their engagement.

Willits returned to Ghana in January 2015, and Gakpo purposed during a surprise birthday party he’d planned for her. They were married two days later, keeping with the local culture, Willits said.

But Willits returned to America alone, not knowing when exactly she would see her new husband again. Gakpo said he always intended to come to the United States after marrying Willits — it’s traditional in Africa for the husband to leave his family and join his wife where her family lives, he said — but they needed to figure out how.

And so, their journey through American immigration began. Now, Willits admits she never realized then the months of headache, heartache and overwhelming hope that were to come.

Long road to a new life

Willits visited Ghana a third time in May 2015 to collect the records the couple would need before submitting Gakpo’s immigration application a few months later.They underwent background checks, financial history checks and tests to prove the depth of their relationship. They turned over to the federal government the itineraries of each of Willits’ trips to Ghana along with photos of them together during the visits, records of their phone calls and anything else that served as evidence their relationship was real.Each form brought a new fee, sometimes a few hundred dollars at a time. Willits eventually launched an online fundraiser campaign to keep up with the payments, which totaled in the thousands, she said.

Once their paperwork was completed, the couple started a nearly 18-month waiting period before finding out whether Gakpo would move on to the final step in the immigration application — a one-on-one, in-person interview with an immigration official — before he could be approved for his green card.

Each day of their wait was emotional, Willits said: she felt anticipation for when she’d be with Gakpo again; frustration for how long things were taking; worry a flaw in their paperwork might start the costly process over again, bumping them back to the end of the line; and fear Gakpo might be denied altogether.

There was also the nagging concern that immigration laws might change while Gakpo’s application was pending, which could leave the couple permanently in flux, their questions unanswered, with nowhere to turn.

The thought of it still brings tears to Willits’ eyes.

Her husband was still in Ghana when President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring travel from seven Muslim-majority countries in Africa and the Middle East and halting the national refugee program. Though Ghana wasn’t included in the now revoked travel ban, it added another layer of doubt and concern to Willits’ and Gakpo’s wait. And it broke her heart to hear some families’ immigration plans were terminated, Willits said.

“I was angry,” she said. “Knowing what we’d been through in our immigration process, … I felt for them. I hurt for them.”

Together at last

In early January, Gakpo’s application was approved, and he was ordered to appear later in the month for an interview in Ghana’s capital city, Accra.Willits flew to Ghana one last time to hold her husband’s hand through that final, essential step — only to be told by officials at the embassy in Accra she couldn’t be in the room while the interview was taking place.But the conversation with the immigration officials wasn’t too difficult, perhaps the easiest bit of it all, Gakpo said. The interview lasted only five minutes, during which he had to recall random facts about his wife, from her birthday to her annual income to tidbits about dates they’d been on.

The couple received word a few days later that Gakpo was granted a green card and could travel to the United States. He arrived in Washington D.C. on Feb. 11 and has spent the past few weeks adjusting to life in America.

He met his in-laws for the first time in person last week, and on Sunday, the family hosted a party in Greenfield so friends, relatives and all those who followed the couple’s journey via updates on social media could meet Gakpo and welcome him to the United States.

The couple’s next few months will be spent finding Gakpo a steady job (the business degree he earned in Ghana doesn’t transfer to the United States) and preparing for their American wedding, which is slated for this fall in Brown County. Then their eyes will once again turn to the future, to a family of their own and saving for trips back to Gakpo’s homeland to visit his family again.

From time to time — they aren’t sure how often — immigration officials will check in on them, ask questions and check that Gakpo’s 10-year green card is being properly maintained. In three years, Gakpo can apply to become an American citizen.

Without the support of their friends and family, they wonder if they could have made it this far. They know the years ahead won’t be easy — immigrants lives usually aren’t, Willits said — but having a great support system has and will help to keep them positive and their love as strong as ever.

“The nay-sayers are few compared to the army we have behind us,” Willits said.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.