Three Toronto couples who have gone to extraordinary lengths for love
Roses seem pointless after meeting couples like this
By Vivien Fellegi
Feb 9, 2017
BJ Barone and Frank Nelson
Love is easy in good times. It’s when we struggle – with finances, health or stress – that we discover the real mettle of our relationship, says Toronto-based registered psychotherapist Victoria Lorient-Faibish.
That’s when we need to offer unconditional support to our partners, she says. Lovers need to tune in to their partner’s troubles, then find a way to soothe their suffering. These gifts of the heart pave the way to lasting love.
This Valentine’s Day, let these three GTA couples serve as extraordinary examples: meet Sarah Attia, who relentlessly fought for her husband’s freedom from an Egyptian prison. Oakville’s Hitesh Patel donated a kidney to his partner, Jennifer Malabar. And Toronto’s BJ Barone and Frank Nelson transformed a hateful response to the first photo of their baby son into a celebration of love. When it comes to commitment, these Torontonians have taken it to the next level.
BJ Barone and Frank Nelson
Barone and Nelson are both teachers who met at a bar, connected over a love of family and eventually got married. Their son, Milo, was born in June 2014.
“I experienced an overwhelming feeling of warmth and gratitude – that’s what unconditional love feels like,” says Barone. “I was so happy,” adds Nelson. The pair commemorated the moment by publishing a photo of the two awe-struck, bare-chested men cradling their newborn on Facebook.
It went viral. And in February of 2016, the couple discovered it had been hijacked by an Irish politician, Mary Fitzgibbon, to denounce same-sex parents. The men fought back with a Twitter campaign which inundated her inbox with so many pictures of same-sex couples, she had to make her account private.
The next month, the picture was appropriated again by a homophobic Italian political party. The couple defended their love in newspapers around the world. While they found supporters, they also received hate mail labelling them ¨sick¨ and ¨perverse.¨
Barone especially took the negativity to heart: “I was heated and upset.” His skin broke out in boils, he developed sores in his mouth and landed in hospital for six weeks.
The toughest thing for Nelson was to witness his partner’s collapse. “It was very hard to watch him be sick. He takes things more to heart than I do – I try to protect him.”
Nelson brought their partially completed book, Milo’s Adventures: A Story About Love, to Barone’s bed in the ICU. Together, they finished writing their tale about the different permutations of family. “Focusing on the story of our love took my mind off the negatives and gave me the strength to pull through,” says Barone. “Frank was very nurturing and kind as he took care of me – I knew those things before, now it’s ten-fold.”
Cheol Joon Baek
Jennifer Malabar and Hitesh Patel.
Jennifer Malabar and Hitesh Patel
Hitesh Patel has always been gallant, says his wife Jennifer Malabar. They met in a Cuban resort where he brought her a drink. “I saved her from walking to the bar,” he says.
“Very noble,” she responds.
The Oakville couple is young and vibrant, finishing each other’s sentences and teasing one another. “I guess I’m stuck with you now,” cracks Malabar, chuckling. But the joke has a deeper meaning: Patel’s kidney is inside his wife’s body, keeping her alive.
She didn’t know she was ill until she became pregnant in 2008, and a routine lab result revealed failing kidneys. She became tired and breathless, unable to walk very far without stopping for a rest. The options for treatment were dim. There was a decade-long wait for an organ donor, and dialysis would have curtailed her demanding career as a lawyer.
The illness was tough on Patel, too. “Last thing you want to see is something bad happening to someone you love.”
So he took a blood test to see if his kidney was compatible with her. He was a match.
But concerned relatives tried to pressure Patel to forego the organ donation. “He had to stand up to his family – it wasn’t easy for him,” says Malabar.
The effect of his gift was immediate. Within hours of waking up from the transplant surgery, Malabar’s energy soared back, and her face lit up with colour.
Patel and Malabar feel that no matter what happens in the future, they will support each other. “We went through a traumatic experience and it strengthened our relationship,” says Patel.
The couple have become organ donor activists, founding a local organization, Oakville Be a Donor, to spread awareness about the process. “I was lucky that my husband could do this for me,” says Malabar. “I feel a real responsibility to pay it forward.”
Tears trickle onto her plate as Sarah Attia picks at her flatbread in a Mississauga restaurant. Her husband dabs his eyes surreptitiously with his sleeve. The Al-Qazzazs are only just beginning to talk about their nightmare, and their emotions are still raw.
Khaled Al-Qazzaz and Sarah Attia met at the University of Toronto where both were heavily involved in social justice groups. By the time the best friends got married, they could practically read each other’s thoughts, says Al-Qazzaz.
The pair moved to Al-Qazzaz’s homeland of Egypt in 2005 to help run his father’s chain of private schools. When President Mohammed Morsi became the first freely elected leader in years, Al-Qazzaz signed on as his aide. But in July 2013 the unpopular president was ousted in a military coup, and Al-Qazzaz was arrested alongside his employer.
After five and a half months in a military jail, he was tossed into solitary confinement in Egypt’s most feared prison, the Scorpion. ¨I was in the darkest place you can ever imagine.¨ His cramped cell was infested with insects, devoid of light and fresh air and smelled of sewage.
But even in his worst moments, Al-Qazzaz believed in Attia. ¨I had full faith in my wife. She has always supported me – I knew she wouldn’t give up,¨ he says.
She didn’t. Attia returned to Canada at her husband’s insistence, marshalled their friends and campaigned relentlessly for his release. She began a media blitz, entreating the help of politicians and travelled the world to bring Al-Qazzaz’s plight into the spotlight. Knocking on so many doors wasn’t easy for the shy Attia. But the alternative was so much worse. ¨Some days I just wanted to cry and do nothing,” she says. “But the idea of losing him was something I couldn’t bear.”
Attia and her supporters’ efforts paid off in January 2015, when her husband was finally released from prison. The pair saw each other for the first time at the Cairo airport a month later. The family returned to Canada in August 2016.
Khaled and Sarah with Abdelrahman, Amena, Fatema, and Tahrir
¨I learned that I’m very blessed to have a partner who stands up for me, who literally saved my life,¨ says Al-Qazzaz. ¨He inspires me and makes me love him so much more,¨ adds Attia.
Since returning to Canada, the duo established the Al-Qazzaz Foundation for Education and Development, an NGO providing online educational and mental health tools to refugees and other disadvantaged communities in Canada. ¨We got so much support and love from total strangers – now we’re ready to give back,¨ says Attia.
Get more information on the launch of the Al-Qazzaz Foundation here.