PETALING JAYA: Life over the past two years has been a rollercoaster ride for Noor. Her husband, who is from China but now stranded in Singapore, is unable to return to Malaysia to join her and their 21-month-old son.

Sara is in the same predicament. She was looking forward to her wedding but the lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 in March last year prevented her from joining her fiancé in the United States.

Noor and her husband, and Sara and her fiancé, are just two among 21,000 couples, known as “bi-national” couples, who have been separated by national borders because of the pandemic.

Among factors that have kept them apart despite their ties are regulatory issues that the Foreign Spouses Support Group (FSSG) has described as “gender discriminatory”.

FSSG and another group called Family Frontiers, which is also helping to reunite couples, depend heavily on social media to offer advice and provide a platform for discussions on matters of mutual concern.

Noor’s anxiety over her long separation from her husband has been exacerbated by his heart problem. He has a blocked artery and had planned to get an angiogram in Malaysia but that has to wait.

Noor had a scare when he passed out during the Chinese New Year celebrations and she was not there to be with him.

The couple had worked together in Singapore before they were married two years ago. Noor returned to Malaysia after their wedding but her husband stayed on in Singapore, planning to join her later.

Noor said FSSG has been helping her keep up to date with the process of bringing her husband home.

Sara’s application for a visa to travel to the US to be married has been rejected, and she worries that time is running out for her.

“We want to start a family soon, but the pandemic has forced us to keep those plans on hold,” she said.

“I feel like Covid-19 has taken my important years of womanhood. I am already 34 and I am well aware of the risks of a pregnancy at a later age.”

For Eva, the day is spent pining for a soulmate half a world away. Her Brazilian partner had returned home upon graduation to be with his family, but planned to return to work in Malaysia.

“However, his flight back here has been repeatedly rescheduled,” she said dejectedly.

Eva tried to get an entry permit for him through the MyTravelPass application, but has failed in all 13 attempts to date. She also tried to get an exit visa to travel to Brazil but both times, her application was rejected.

For Mari and her husband, trying to return from the Philippines to their five-year-old daughter has been an impossible challenge.

Mari, a Filipino, and her husband, a Sabahan, had travelled to the Philippines when her father passed away in March last year but the country’s border closed before they could return home.

Family Frontiers programme manager Melinda Anne Sharlini said some key issues they have advocated in response to the challenges faced by the bi-national community are uncertainty about their legal status and family separation.

FSSG co-founder Bina Ramanand said 300 spouses were put into various WhatsApp groups to provide them a safe space to discuss their issues, to assist with their return to Malaysia and the quarantine process.

She estimated that about 100 Malaysian mothers have been affected by what she called the “gender discriminatory” laws. In Malaysia, it is easier for a man to have his foreign wife join him than for a woman to have her foreign husband to be with her.