06/11/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
When Bahraini Princess Meriam Al-Khalifa and her husband, former Marine Jason Johnson, returned to Las Vegas on Memorial Day weekend, gambling was probably the last thing on their minds. After all, they had already hit the jackpot. On May 24, Al-Khalifa—whose flight from her country in November 1999 to marry Johnson provoked the wrath of both her royal relatives and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (which claimed she had entered the U.S. illegally)—received permanent residency papers that will permit her to stay in America. "I'm just so thankful, so relieved," said the princess, 19, shortly after meeting with her attorney in San Diego. "It's been a terrible time for me, but now we can finally live our life in this country the way we wanted to."
The past 18 months haven't been easy. Johnson, 26, who was busted from lance corporal to private for using forged papers to help his bride-to-be escape, says some Marines "really treated me like crap" before his honorable discharge in October. Al-Khalifa had to contend with homesickness, deportation proceedings, even death threats from Muslim fundamentalists. "I was very afraid," she says.
Now with her status resolved, the couple are putting their plans in gear. For at least the next year or two they expect to stay in Las Vegas, where Johnson has relatives. After they finish collaborating on a book about their romance, both hope to pursue college degrees. They are eager to start a family—as well as to reestablish a relationship with Al-Khalifa's. "I don't know if I will ever see my sisters or my parents again," says the princess, "but that is my dream."