A Mother Rescues Her Daughter From War-Torn Syria
Louise Monaghan's journey to Syria to rescue her kidnapped daughter begins years ago at a club in Cyprus. It was there she met a Syrian man named Mostafa, whom she would marry.
"I was smitten from the first second," she tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "I felt he was what I needed. He made me feel safe."
But Monaghan was not safe. Mostafa was verbally abusive and beat her. They married, and the couple had a daughter named May. When they divorced, Mostafa was given visitation rights, but he wanted more.
In 2011, when May was 6 years old, he kidnapped her and took her back to his family's home in Syria.
Monaghan went after them. She and her sister went to the Turkish border to hire men to rescue May, but then she realized getting her daughter back would require an even tougher choice. Monaghan would have to cross into Syria herself.
The story of Monaghan's journey through Syria is the subject of her book, Stolen: Escape from Syria.
On the decision to go into Syria to get her daughter
"The initial plan was, was that for money, of course, [the Turkish men] would go over the border and snatch May back and take her back to safety in Turkey until we reached her. But the Turkish men were becoming less enthusiastic about going over to get May because they thought it was getting more dangerous. So I made the heartbreaking decision to leave my sister there and go over alone."
On realizing she and her 6-year-old daughter would have to walk out of Syria
"[The two hired smugglers] said to May and I, 'OK, you go now, bye.' And I looked across, and I couldn't see anything but mountaintops and desert and higher terrain. And I was completely dumbstruck. And I remember saying, 'Sorry?' and he said, 'Bye now, you walk.'"
On being in an abusive relationship
"I was particularly, I know, very vulnerable, and perhaps quite naive. And I perceived his control for affection and love. And I now know more about abusive relationships and abusers, and unfortunately as a victim you don't see it until it's too late."
On the problem of parental abduction
"Parental abduction is a huge problem on a worldwide basis, especially in the U.S. Unfortunately with parental abduction, especially to Middle Eastern countries, there is no Hague Convention. ... It's a not a law in most Middle Eastern countries, and in Syria in particular."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Parental abduction of children happens everywhere in the world. Rates in the United States are particularly high. But when one partner abducts a child to a country with drastically different rules on family law or a war-torn country, a nightmare can follow.
Louise Monaghan, an Irish woman, moved to Cyprus after the devastating death of her mother to live what she called the simple life. Then one night, after dinner with friends, she went to a club. There, she met a man.
LOUISE MONAGHAN: My eyes met the eyes of this complete handsome stranger. He was very attractive, tall, had a commanding presence about him, kind face, kind eyes. And we got talking, and I was smitten from the first second. I felt he was what I needed. He made me feel safe. How ironic is that now when I think back because - after what's going to happen afterwards.
LYDEN: Monaghan chronicles everything that happened afterwards in her new book called "Stolen: Escape from Syria." It takes place at the height of the civil war raging there. Monaghan's husband was named Mostafa Assad(ph). And not long after they met, Monaghan was pregnant. Despite realizing that he was both unfaithful and abusive, despite a dire warning about his stability from Mostafa's own brother, Monaghan eventually married the father of her child named May.
MONAGHAN: I was particularly, I know, very vulnerable and perhaps quite naive. And I perceived his control for affection and love. And I now know more about abusive relationships and abusers. And unfortunately, as a victim, you don't see it until it's too late.
LYDEN: Finally, after a litany of abuse, the two were divorced. Under Cypriot law, Mostafa Assad was given visitation rights three days a week with his daughter, but he wanted more. One day in the fall of 2011 when May was just 6 years old, he came to pick her up for a day at the beach.
MONAGHAN: It was a Wednesday. And he told me the previous evening that he was going to take her daughter to the beach. I packed her bag, but I have to say that morning, I felt he was acting differently. He was uneasy, cagey, quiet. So I tried to call at about 1 o'clock that day, and his phone was off. And to my horror, I realized he'd taken our daughter and taken her to war-torn Syria.
LYDEN: So your ex-husband, who's Syrian, you reached him, and you had been to Syria with him before. This wasn't a place were you had never been. What happened after that? He tells you to come to Syria if you want to see her.
MONAGHAN: Yeah. He basically demanded that I join him in Syria and be a good Muslim wife. So my sister and I, we contacted Turkish men. My family had befriend this family, this Turkish family. And one gentleman in particular, he was quite friendly with my aunt. And he assured us, after a phone call, that he would round up some Turkish men.
So the initial plan was, was that - for money, of course - they would go over the border and snatch May back and take her back to safety in Turkey until we reached her. But the Turkish men were becoming less enthusiastic about going over to get May because they thought it was becoming more dangerous. So I made the heartbreaking decision to leave my sister there and go over alone.
LYDEN: Let's talk about the help you received from so many, many Syrians. It is now civil war. You're there as a civilian. You're not a journalist. You're not an NGO worker. You're not accustomed to seeing the things that you're seeing in any way. But I want to talk about the people who helped you. You couldn't have made the journey without them.
MONAGHAN: No. I basically had to have my visa renewed. So Mostafa drove May and I in a car, his dad's car to Idlip town center and left us in the car. And in those 10 seconds, I grabbed my daughter's hand and ran. We jumped into a taxi, and the man wouldn't drive off. And he said to May, in Arabic, where's your dad? And May said, without any prompting, my father is dead. So he drove, and we remain in the seat on the bottom of the floor of the car, and he drove us to a bus station.
And he refused to drive any further because he said it was too dangerous. I jumped into a second taxi. The man had a kind face. And he readily agreed to drive us all the way across Syria, which is about five hours to Damascus.
LYDEN: You call that particular driver your angel. The whole thing utterly falls apart. You're eventually asked by the Irish government to hide out in a convent, and one day, you bolt. Smugglers come back into the picture. Tell us about that.
MONAGHAN: We were picked up by a gentleman in a black Audi car. I went to the outside of Damascus and into a garage, and we changed over to a big four-by-four car - jeep with blacked out windows. There was a man at the back. I noticed that he was holding a machine gun of some sort, and he had a hand gun in his top of his jeans. And we drove, and then it got darker, and the terrain became very steep. And we got to the very top, and two men said to May and I: OK, you go now. Bye.
And I looked across, and I couldn't see anything but mountaintops and desert and higher terrain. And I was completely dumbstruck, and I remember saying: Sorry? And he said: Bye now. You walk.
LYDEN: So what happened then? You're literally climbing, walking, sliding.
MONAGHAN: Yes. We started walking - it was getting dark - eventually what seemed like hours, and it never ended. And eventually, we got to the mountaintop, and one of the Syrian men, the one what I would say with the beard, said to me: There's Lebanon. You can see it, so keep going. And we slid down this big rock face, and we climbed back up this ridge, and there was a jeep there.
And the Syrian man said: Come here a moment. I want to show you something. And he showed me a Lebanese license plate, and he said: You're here. You're in Lebanon.
LYDEN: I just have to ask, tens and tens of thousands of people have died in Syria, many people have had to escape. Do you think about all the refugees who've had to, one way or another, leave the country?
MONAGHAN: Absolutely. It's devastating. I can't tell you - it's a very surreal feeling. But when I was there with my daughter, you really do feel that you don't count, that you don't matter, that you're not even prepared, you're not a human being. You're only a number. It's - I think the Syrian people, I mean, if it wasn't for Syrians, I wouldn't be here now. And more importantly, my daughter wouldn't be here.
These complete strangers literally put their lives at risk to help somebody, only because they felt it was correct and right thing to do.
LYDEN: What lesson do you take from this? Are you trying to help other people who have been the victims of international child abductions where two parents, one goes to one country and then - and the child is missing?
MONAGHAN: Parental abduction is a huge problem on a worldwide basis, especially in the U.S. Unfortunately, with parental abduction, especially to Middle Eastern countries, there is no Hague Convention. The Hague Convention, basically, is a legal system that brings back children to their country of birth. And that doesn't exist. It's a not a law in most Middle Eastern countries, and in Syria, in particular.
LYDEN: Louise Monaghan still lives in Cyprus with her daughter May who, she says, is adjusting nicely after the ordeal. Monaghan's book is called "Stolen: Escape from Syria."
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