Eleni and Karine spent six years making a long distance relationship between Greece and Armenia work.

It was financially gruelling and risky given Armenia’s deeply homophobic society.

With unemployment rising in Greece and the economic state in Armenia even worse, Eleni – an Australian citizen – decided to join her sister in Sydney.

She asked Karine to come.

“At my age, this is my last chance for love. We had already lost so much time,” Eleni said.

Two years on, the couple are living a dream life in a community that allows them to be open about their love.

“Eleni and Karine were fortunate the laws changed allowing couples to qualify for the de facto relationship process without living together for 12 months so long as they registered their relationship.”

“The change provided them with the legal basis to apply for a partner visa even though they hadn’t lived together.”

Alan Rigas, Karine and Eleni’s immigration lawyer.

The rule change was only the first hurdle.

Relaxing in their North Richmond rental on Sydney’s semi-rural fringe, the couple describe their harrowing quest to obtain a statutory declaration signed by a public notary in Armenia in order to register their relationship in Australia.

“I went to six different lawyers. No one would sign it. It would breach Armenian law and they could get into big trouble,” explains Karine.

Finally, Karine got lucky. She went to an office that had just opened run by young lawyers.

“They didn’t realise Eleni was a woman’s name. I shut-up, got my stamp and ran for the door. I will never walk past that office again. It was big luck,” Karine said.

Eleni’s role was infinitely easier with Alan Rigas Solicitors to advise her.

“It was harder for Karine, she was alone in Armenia. All I had to do was follow Alan’s instructions – whatever he said, I did it,” Eleni said.

With her hard-won paperwork, Karine travelled to the Australian Embassy in Russia for an interview with a Department of Immigration case officer.

“I realised straight away the interview did not go well,” she said.

Karine’s visa was denied on the basis that her relationship with Eleni was a friendship, not a genuine de facto relationship.

“It was a big shock for us although Alan [the couple’s Australian immigration lawyer] had prepared us for the possibility,” Eleni said.

“The department’s basis for refusing Karine’s application was weak. I recommended they review the decision with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. This body is independent of the department.”

“Karine and Eleni’s case was compelling. They had a lot of evidence to support that their relationship was genuine – they had future plans together and could demonstrate this.”

Alan Rigas, Karine and Eleni’s immigration lawyer.

Knowing they could have decision reviewed was small comfort.

“We cried a lot. It was not just the waiting and disappointment, the stress was also financial,” Eleni said.

Eleni took a personal loan to cover the cost of the review.

It was worth it. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal overturned the decision and Karine was granted a temporary partner visa. She is now looking forward to obtaining permanent residence.

Despite their struggle, the couple feel that Australia’s immigration laws are “firm but fair”. However, given the complexity of the system, neither wouldn’t recommend negotiating Australia’s visa application or review process alone.

“Alan did everything to help us through this process. We would never have got this far without him,” Eleni said.