September 2016, Palmyra* (Homs), Syria
The sun was almost out.
His heart rate sped through his mind and whirred to heights. The sweat on his face had begun to drip. His breath was heavy. His eyes wandered towards the wooden window from where the sunlight had started peeping in and then back to the face in front of him. He smiled. With a delicate push, he was done. Turning over, spent and panting, he turned towards her. I love you, he mouthed the expression. The soundless words glided in the air before they rested on her lips like a kiss. Her demure smile lit up her eyes as she buried her face in his shoulder.
This was the day Nick was to return to his base in Jordan, from where he was assigned on special duty in Homs, a few months ago. Haala looked at his face glowing in the morning sun as he peacefully slept by her side. She put on her clothes, fixed her headscarf and headed out of the makeshift billet that was their den all these months. She gave him a last glance. A few strands of his soft, light hair fell on his eyes. She was so tempted to push them behind his ear and look at his face for the last time. Lest she’d wake him up, she decided to move away. If that is the last glimpse that I’d be living with for the rest of my life, then so be it, she thought to herself. Tiny droplets of tears appeared in her eyes as she realized, yet again, that this was the last time she would ever see him. At least, for a while.
“Do you realize what it means when someone doesn’t return the whole night? And you have been away for two,” Sadaa’s concern was valid. He reminded Haala that an absence normally meant that the wandering children, especially girls, would be kidnapped by the black brigade and the family would most likely never see them.
Haala towered 3 inches over Sadaa, even though she was 2 years younger. But at 18 years of age, Haala had more endurance than her sibling whose tenacity lay in looking after a family of 8 children left behind from war, two years ago. Sadaa depended on the aid provided by UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to raise whatever he could of his siblings and cousins. Haala’s job was to ensure the tribe stayed close while Sadaa would be away. Sometimes she would venture out with her siblings or cousins just to rediscover fragments of freedom scattered in the city, among the rubbles.
It was once when Haala and her younger sibling were caught in a crossfire that she met Nick. He very bravely ensured that they reached home in spite of the thunderous onslaught of continuous shelling. But from that moment on, Haala’s vagrant heart kept looking for him. She would discreetly venture into unknown terrain looking for him, though the next time she found him was in the UNHCR camp itself.
Cordial smiles turned into coy ones soon enough. The days and months brought them closer when they started spending more time at an abandoned, ruptured home that they turned into their distinct space. “You wouldn’t just leave me here one day, would you?” the innocent teen had asked Nick once.
“Of course, not. I love you and I will take you along with me,” Nick had looked deep into her eyes while committing this. To seal the deal, he placed a delicate kiss on her forehead.
When her home was shelled taking her parents and relatives away, she was broken. Left with 8 siblings and cousins, 5 of whom were younger than her, was not easy either. Living each day on UN aid and sometimes having to sacrifice food for the younger ones was more taxing than having to skip school. But seeing Nick leave her behind was completely devastating.
Nick had mobilized a few people in his unit to figure out the process of migrating Haala with him. Her having no legal papers was making the case even more difficult. With another 5 months left for his deployment, he needed to find out a way sooner than later. UNHCR could only help her get to Jordan, but that would have caused even more problems for Nick since he was presently deployed there. The only thing they could do was to keep trying to make it possible. With Nick in Jordan and Haala in Syria, the situation demanded more of them.
“There is all the possibility that he will never come,” Sadaa pronounced when he learnt about Nick. Haala had asked him to help her contact more people at UNHCR.
“Why would you say that? He loves me and he will take me with him,” Haala was quick to argue.
“If he wanted to, he could have taken you along.”
Whether it was a real concern or scoff, Haala could not judge. But she knew for sure that Nick would not deceive her such. He loved her.
November 2016, Zarqa, Jordan
“…and you want to marry her?” The Colonel was surprised to get this unusual news in spite of how much the soldiers were advised not to interact much with the locals.
“And how is that going to fare with your contract?”
“I know that I am risking it, but I need to get her back to the US when I am done.”
Nick nodded. Melancholia had overtaken his sleep and he was unsure when a breakthrough would be seen. But he was not one to give up.
“Have you considered getting her here in Jordan?”
“She has yet to get her papers in place in Syria.”
“Alright then, let us try to get that in place. Once she is here, we’ll get her a refugee status which shall make it easier to get her resettled in the US.” Nick possibly knew all of this. He simply wanted reassurance from someone that all would be fine in the end. Coming from Colonel, this was all that he wished to hear, at present.
Sadaa did not really have any contacts in UNHCR. He was one of the millions who would come and go at definite times to gather their provisions. Nevertheless, he sought help from a few to find out if Haala had a chance to cross the border.
The situation was not too favourable, it seemed. With the current foreign policies of the US, even the supporting nations had raised their walls for the refugees. The closest that they could get was to a phone call to Nick, three months later.
“Believe me, I am trying. It isn’t getting any better,” Nick complained.
“I know. I trust you,” Haala bit her quivering lips to hold back her tears.
“But don’t you worry. I am trying to figure out a way for you to get to Jordon. Once that is done, we will be together.” He consoled her.
“Even if we’re apart, I’ll always be with you,” she closed the call as she broke down in Sadaa’s arms.
With so many tears around, Sadaa was constantly finding himself in a pool of grief. He needed to find a way to source a smile for his little sister. Even if that meant risking his own life. A local contact soon told him that he could find a breakthrough by reaching the Jaber border crossing from where Haala could be smuggled out. This was 10 hours away on road. But the challenge really was to gather funds to bribe the smugglers. This was definitely not going to be as simple as it seemed. Nevertheless, Sadaa packed Haala in a bus and headed to the destination he was completely unsure of. Fortunately, on the way, he found a family of four who agreed to add Haala to their troupe and get her across. Sadaa could not have been more grateful.
At the Nassib border, a tearful goodbye promised a point of no return for Halla. Sadaa caressed her head with his hand just as he recalled their father used to. Indebted by her brother’s surrender, Haala could only utter, “Allah Haafiz.”
At the Jabber border crossing, the family Haala had joined got some relatives to ferry them in a car. Another 5 hours of travel for a mere 23 km landed her in Al-Mafraq. It was now time for her to find her own way from here.
Soon, destiny took her to the Zaatari refugee camp where she was advised to apply for her refugee status immediately. She was eager to get in touch with Nick, though. Here at the camp, it was not easy to get in touch with the deployed army, so she connected with a volunteer who seemed considerate.
“I am not the right person, my dear,” the Norwegian volunteer stated in an attempt to comfort her. Holding Haala’s hands in hers she continued, “The best I can do is to find out if the Area Support Group has any news of Nick. I am about to drive there soon, I will see what I can do.”
In the meantime, Sadaa tried getting in touch with Nick as well. Seemingly, Nick was travelling to the US in a bid to seek renewal for his contract term.
February 2017, Chicago, Illinois
“There definitely could have been some scope earlier, Nick. Right now, it just seems impossible. Another few months and we shall have more clarity on the state’s stand on immigration. Already the Syrians are suspended for at least 3 months. We can only be sure after that.” Comdt. Sgt. Demitri stated. “In the meantime, send in an application. Mobilize the process at least. Sometimes, it takes as much as 2 years; so start now.”
Dejected Nick returned home. He was no longer interested in the renewal of his own contract. Haala’s immigration and resettlement was his primary goal. With that appearing tougher than before, he needed to find a way soon. He missed her much.
June 2017, Amman, Jordan
“Sorry, your visa is not going through, Haala. We will have to give it another few months now.” The officer behind the glass screen had now started recognizing her. This was her third visit since the first time she had applied, the previous year.
“It is okay. It is not your fault. Asylum seekers are required to live with hope at all times.” Haala returned to the refugee camp that was her home for the last seven months.
“Ever since he returned to the US, he has not contacted base here,” Haala’s Norwegian volunteer friend told her. “Why don’t you return to Syria. At least you will be together with your family. Or just find a way to get them here. You can’t stay alone forever.”
“I am not alone. I have you,” Haala smiled feigning cheerfulness.
Both smiled at each other, knowing pretty well that either of the options was a tough choice they had little control over to materialize them.
Looking at the little children playing football in the refugee compound, Haala’s memory jogged to her own childhood where she abashedly played in the streets with her siblings and cousins. Her heart went out to Sadaa and tears welled up in her eyes. Across the blur of the blobs of water, she saw someone approaching her. A mirage. An illusion. A water body over the shiny sands that beckoned her. And even before she could extend her arm and reach out, she found herself in his arms. It was really him. Haala’s Nick.
“How…what…how…” was all she could voice among the confluence of smiles and tears that fluttered through her face. She was almost a slobbering mess when the smiles turned into laughter and overtook her snivels.
“I am sorry, I am so late,” Nick planted a kiss on her lips.
“Better late than never,” Haala’s laughed through her tears. And they hugged.
“How did you even find me?”
“I had to find a way to get through to Sadaa, who told me about your escape here. I just tracked your steps.”
“Oh, so thankful. Now what?”
“I am here to get you.”
“Get me where? I don’t even have a visa yet.”
“You don’t need a visa anymore.”
“Nope. Because I got dual citizenship here. And a job.”
“Yes.” The monosyllable brought out the starry sparkle in Haala’s eyes as Nick promised to never let her go, ever again.
As sourced from UNHCR in October 2019, over 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011, seeking safety in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and beyond. Millions more are displaced inside Syria and, as the war continues, hope is fading fast.
According to Filippo Grandi, UNHCR High Commissioner, “Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world.”
* Palmyra is an ancient Semitic city in present-day Homs Governorate, Syria. It lies 215 km northeast of the Syrian capital, Damascus, in an oasis surrounded by palms. The site at Palmyra provides evidence for a Neolithic settlement near Efqa, with stone tools dated 7500 BC. Archaeological sounding in the tell beneath the Temple of Bel uncovered a mud-brick structure built around 2500 BC, followed by structures built during the Middle Bronze Age and Iron Age. Since 2015, ISIL has destroyed large parts of the ancient sites. Though in March 2017 the Syrian Army had taken control of the city and are attempting to restore the ancient city.
Just to give you a brief idea of the disaster, here are a few pictures of Palmyra, Syria (Before and Now)
or simply click here
BUT THE MAJOR DAMAGE HAS BEEN DONE TO THE PEOPLE WHOSE LIFE WILL NEVER BE RESTORED TO ITS ORIGINAL FORM.
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