‘Love is a school and you have to keep learning’

Living as a mixed-race couple in Paris comes with challenges — and the deepest happiness

Benoit Pascal and Wafa Kmala
Wafa Kmala and Benoit Pascal in their Paris home. Photography for Hyphen by Mayssa Jaoudat

Benoit Pascal first met Wafa Kmala when they were at university. Even though they didn’t have any classes together — she was studying Arabic, and he was reading history — they ran into each other frequently and shared mutual friends. At the time, Wafa was seeing someone else. To Benoit, that was the only obstacle to them being together.

They chatted on Facebook every so often, but only as friends. In 2018, their paths crossed in Tunisia. Wafa had decided to study abroad, while Benoit was on holiday. They spent time together, discussing politics and culture and bonding over their many shared interests, from global affairs to hip-hop. It didn’t matter to them that Wafa was French and from a Tunisian background, while Benoit was from Haiti. They were falling in love and wanted to get engaged.

But when they came back to Paris, everything changed. Wafa’s parents didn’t approve of her seeing a Black man and threatened to disown her, despite Benoit also being Muslim. Wafa had to stand up to them, hoping that she could be with the man she loved without losing her family. Last year, she and Benoit got married and they now live together in Paris

These conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

Benoit: We had a small wedding — it was mostly our friends and my family. Wafa’s family wasn’t there. Her parents didn’t accept me because of my ethnicity and that has been very difficult for us. 

I discovered how complicated it is to be in a mixed-race relationship, especially when you are Black and you have a partner who is Arab. I didn’t want to introduce them to my family, because I didn’t want to expose my family to that racism

It was complicated for us, too, because we couldn’t feel free. We couldn’t meet at a cafe, like an ordinary couple, because someone from her family might see us there. Psychologically, it has been quite difficult. 

Wafa has confronted her family for me. It gives me even more motivation to fight this battle together. We also have our faith. When you are a believer, you tell yourself that there is a reason for everything. Whether it is easy or difficult, there must be a reason for the ordeals that we go through. I told myself that there had to be a reason for this, and that I needed to commit to this battle just as much as she did. 

If I were to give advice to another couple going through this kind of situation, I would tell them to make sure that the fight is worth it, and if it is, to tell them that they will be better when they come out the other side. If you feel like it makes you better and you are moving in a direction that makes you a better person and leads you to the right path, you must not stop and you must continue forwards. 

Love is a school and you have to keep learning. We are not just two people who love each other.

We are two people who have a shared dream and are working together to make it happen.

Wafa: I always thought that my parents were very open-minded, so it came as a shock when they were so against our relationship. My father gave me a choice. He told me that I could either stop dating Benoit, or that I would no longer be a part of his life and he would disown me.

We put our relationship on hold for a while — you could say we broke up. I didn’t want to get into a relationship only to make the other person suffer. I realised that this was also my life and my happiness, that even though my parents wanted what they thought was best, we have to make choices for ourselves, not for other people. So we got back together, and I told my parents that I had made my decision: I was going to be with Benoit. 

It was very complicated for me. I always considered my father to be right. He is an authoritative figure and always knew what was best. But here, this was not the case. How should I react?

When we were in Tunis, it was very simple. But when we went out in Paris, we constantly got dirty looks from passersby — especially when we held hands. I typically don’t care when young people in the street stare, but Benoit is very aware of it. I think it exhausted him. I cannot even imagine how much. It was all very, very complicated up until our marriage.

Today, I see that going through all of that means that we have done things well. I’m proud of us. It is true that hardship strengthens a couple. 

I think that my spirituality and my relationship with God has helped me a lot. I always say that Benoit is in my life for a reason. I ask for strength from God to be able to continue. No matter what, God has always been there, and he knows that I need Benoit. Today, I am working on myself, and with a therapist who helps me to choose myself. The strength to do that comes from me.

Love is not forcing the other person to do what you want them to do and it is not imposing your ideas or your choices on others. It is something you learn every day, which can be expressed differently. For example, I love to cook for others. It is not necessarily how Benoit shows his love, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me.

With Benoit, I realised that being in a relationship means also being yourself without being afraid that your partner will judge you or become fed up with you. What I’ve learnt from him is how to improve every day, little by little, and how we can help, support and encourage each other.

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