Arnie Fagan’s dream came true Thursday.


Two travel weary figures emerged from the customs gates in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. He, his partner and their 1-year old daughter were finally reunited after six weeks apart due to COVID-19 related border closures.


But before his dream was fulfilled, Fagan endured what he called a nightmare.


No way home


Fagan boarded a plane from Bangkok, Thailand, to St. Louis on March 4. The novel coronavirus had spread out of China into neighboring countries. There were even some cases in the United States, but nothing that worried Fagan.


“I thought it would be difficult to get to the U.S.,” he told the Tribune on March 27. “But I thought it would be easy to get back to Asia.”


But a week after he arrived in Columbia on business, the unforeseeable happened. Air travel around the world came to a grinding halt, borders closed and people were stranded. Although Fagan wasn’t stranded outside the U.S., he was far from what he considered home. He is known locally for his store Cool Stuff but has been living in Thailand for four years with his partner, Vilayvanh Soulinthong, also called Nang Noy.


They had a daughter, MaLee, a year ago.


“We were just living such a wonderful life,” Fagan said.


But with him here and them there and a global pandemic raging, there was no knowing when that life would be able to continue. Fagan said he would have boarded a plane in an instant, but he wouldn’t have made it far. By March 25, Thailand’s prime minister had barred all foreigners from entering the country until at least April 30.


Fagan’s course of action was clear – he needed to get his partner and daughter to the United States, at least until they could safely return to Thailand.


“I just want her (my daughter) to be safe,” Fagan said. “I want her to be safe and healthy, and my fear is that where she is, that is not going to be possible.”


But bringing his family to Columbia had its own set of hurdles. His daughter is an American citizen, but his partner is not. They are not married, which means that they could not petition for spousal immigration. That left a tourist visa, a tough order with American consulates closed globally.


So Fagan started asking, begging for help.


Waiting game


For two weeks, Fagan followed an agonizing routine. He spent his days contacting local officials. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Rep. Vicki Hartzler, R-Harrisonville and Missouri Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, all heard from Fagan.


“This was beyond my ability to do by myself,” Fagan said Thursday.


He leveraged unofficial channels as well. Friends and friends of friends contacted people they knew in government, anybody who might be able to cut through the endless bureaucracy standing between Fagan and his family.


Along with the Tribune, ABC News learned of the story and featured Fagan and his family in a report about Americans stuck overseas.


Someone would tell him they had a lead and then that lead would turn into a dead end. A question on one form would lead to yet another form. It went like this over and over.


“It was an emotional roller coaster,” he said.


That was during the day. At night, he would try to get in touch with the American embassy in Thailand. Visa services had been shut down, but there was a possibility, however slight, that Soulinthong could be awarded an emergency hearing.


In the moments between, he would call his family and try to entertain his daughter so his partner could rest.


Fagan said he felt like he was fighting the clock. Not only were the number of flights out of Thailand shrinking by the day, Soulinthong had been sick with a fever and a cough. Luckily, she was able to get a test for COVID-19 that turned out to be negative.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designates Thailand a Level 3 country, meaning COVID-19 cases are increasing rapidly via community spread. There have been 2,672 positive cases in Thailand, but that number only reflects cases that have been confirmed.


Soulinthong herself was turned away from the first hospital she went to for a test. The CDC also warns that “there may be limited access to adequate medical care in affected areas.”


Fagan feared his family’s luck might run out.


A happy beginning


Just as quickly as doors had closed, one finally opened.


Soulinthong was granted an emergency visa hearing. She walked into the American embassy in Bangkok on Tuesday morning. From the other side of the world, Fagan waited.


“They were going to make up their mind about the course of my life with one decision,” he said.


Before knowing what that decision might be, Fagan grappled with his efforts.


“I did everything I could and I feel good about that,” he said in a text message to his friend waiting outside the embassy. “I have no regrets. I did everything.”


Soulinthong walked out of the embassy, a 90-day tourist visa granted, ready to board a flight.


Her and MaLee’s journey to the U.S. had its own set of hurdles, but those, like all the others Fagan and his family had faced in the past six weeks, were also overcome.


Through all his efforts, Fagan never lost hope, however he always knew getting his partner a visa was a long shot. There was a 1% chance, maybe less, it would work, he said.


But in a hotel room in Chicago on Thursday afternoon, Soulinthong resting and MaLee playing with her new teething toy, his hope finally gave way to relief.


“It worked,” he said.


Fagan said he was glad for all the help he received and singled out Hawley’s office for special praise.


In response, Hawley’s spokesperson, Kelli Ford, said the office has worked to help as many Missourians as possible return home.


"We are glad we could help reunite Arnie with his family,“ Ford said. ”Sen. Hawley has been focused on helping Missourians throughout this pandemic, and our office will continue working hard to assist the people of our state during this difficult time.”


The trio now represents what feels like a rarity as the world still grapples with an onslaught of COVID-19 cases — a happy ending.


Although they plan to go back to Thailand as soon as the pandemic eases, for now Fagan is happy the story of his family’s separation has ended and a new, happy story of them together can begin.


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