‘Berlin felt like a home that was waiting for us’

A Kurdish-Danish couple navigate visa restrictions and travel bans to find married bliss in Germany

Berlin Danish Kurdish relationship
Portrait of Kurdish-Danish couple Lise Goll and Semih Yildiz, who met in Iraqi Kurdistan and have settled in Berlin. Photographed for Hyphen by Maria Sturm

A passion for cinema helped bring Lise Goll and Semih Yildiz together. Both work in film — Lise is a story producer and Semih is a director of photography — and they immediately bonded over their shared love of cinema when they met in Iraqi Kurdistan just before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

When it was time to go home, however — Lise to Denmark and Semih to Istanbul — both were unsure about where they would be able to live together. They embarked on a long-distance relationship for almost three years, meeting for brief interludes wherever visa and lockdown restrictions would allow. The couple were married in Georgia in June 2021 and Lise gave birth to their daughter, Lea Neval, later that year. They now live in Berlin’s Neukölln district.

These conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

Lise: We met in Iraq, in a city called Dohuk. Kurdish people would call it Southern Kurdistan. I had already been there for seven months working on a film festival when a guy showed up from Istanbul. I heard him speaking Turkish, and I got quite excited — I lived in Turkey for many years and wanted to speak Turkish with him. 

We spent a few weeks in production for a film before we had to go into lockdown because of the coronavirus. In Dohuk, they took it very seriously. No one was allowed to be outside. We ended up quarantining together, which meant we had all the time in the world to get to know one another. I found out that Semih is a very good cook. He was making traditional dishes from his village with a special plant that he found in Dohuk. It is called Gulik, and you can only pick it for a few days a year, during the spring. 

A few months later I had to leave Iraq. I couldn’t travel to Istanbul because I had an entry ban due to working with an NGO that faced political pressure after the 2016 coup attempt, and we had to find a place where Semih didn’t need a visa. There was a whole summer we didn’t see each other, but finally we got to spend 10 days together in Albania, and then spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve together in Belgrade. 

I remember when I arrived in Belgrade, I didn’t have internet access, so I rang the bell of the apartment we were staying in, but no one answered. I thought everything had failed, but then a stranger let me use his phone to call Semih and waited with me to make sure we were reunited.

We ended up having a wonderful time in Belgrade. It was always heartbreaking to say goodbye to one another in an airport, not knowing when we would see each other again. When I got back to Denmark, my brother’s girlfriend told me that she was pregnant. I started crying out of happiness. That night, I dreamt that I was pregnant myself. A few days later, I realized that my dream happened to be true.

We weren’t sure whether we should have a child or not — we didn’t even know which country we would meet in, or when we could see each other. We didn’t know if Semih could come to Denmark and at times it felt impossible. But I think in those moments I realised the power of love, how it gives you the strength to get through even the most difficult times. Semih was able to come to Denmark for the birth of our daughter, and during that time we rented an apartment and spent many beautiful days together. But he had to leave after three months.

We thought Berlin could be our city. There is a Kurdish community here and a creative, international film community. I imagined just walking up and down the streets with our daughter, going around the canals. 

When Semih got the visa, we couldn’t believe it. It felt too good to be true, and we moved here three months ago. You can feel that it is an international city: there are a lot of international couples, like us, as well. It didn’t feel like a strange place; it felt like a home that was waiting for us. 

Semih: I almost didn’t take that trip to Kurdistan. My father had just passed away, and my family was in mourning. But I was so glad I did. During that first conversation with Lise, I felt like I was meeting an old friend who I hadn’t seen in years. 

I was with her when I saw a street vendor selling Gulik. I hadn’t seen it since my childhood and I got very excited. Lise was just as excited as I was; it touched me so much that a person I had just started having feelings for could be so excited about a random plant just because it meant something to me. At that moment, I knew we were sharing something special together. 

I didn’t know how we could have a relationship when we couldn’t be in the same place. I normally hate talking on the phone but, with Lise, I was surprised when two hours would fly by. After spending those 10 days together in Albania, it became easier to imagine that we could continue to see each other this way, a few days in one country here, a few days in another there.

It was so romantic when we saw each other in Belgrade — it was Christmas time, and we went to the city centre where a brass band was playing Goran Bregović melodies, when it started snowing. It felt like we were in the middle of an Emir Kusturica film, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. 

Everything changed when we found out that Lise was pregnant. Suddenly it felt like I couldn’t be with my daughter because someone had made up an arbitrary set of rules, but I knew I couldn’t give up hope. Even when I couldn’t stay in Denmark and our last hope was a visa to Germany, I refused to even imagine a scenario where it didn’t work out. I knew we were going to be together, and that some day Covid would be over.

I never imagined myself having a family. Now that I am living this life, it is so beautiful to come home and have my daughter run towards me. I have only been in Berlin for three months, but Neukölln feels like Beyoğlu in Istanbul — there are people speaking Kurdish, people speaking Turkish and so many different artists and international couples.

I want my daughter to speak Kurdish. I will take her to visit our village. This way, she can choose her traditions for herself. That’s the best way, isn’t it?

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