I’ll be right here waiting for you. Maria promised Junaid when she kissed him the last time.
Since March 2011, we were living in a country, which had exploded into a civil war with a dizzying array of factions fighting with one another. The country was being ravaged. Architectural masterpieces, bustling bazaars and homes annihilated. Towns and cities, blood and bodies, everything was transforming to dust.
Everyday in their home, in Ghouta’s Jobar neighborhood, on the eastern border of Damascus city, behind the old souk, fear grazed the lawns, violence danced in the backyard and chaos infiltrated even the most nubile minds.
By 2015, as fierce battle ensued with air operations, I had no option except to flee our home with Eva. We made every desperate effort to inform Junaid that we could no longer survive the bombshells and massacre around us. Neighbors died, families dispersed, children displaced. Blood and aftermath was a sight I realized, I was staring at for hours at end.
Junaid, my love my habibi, my life. I had trusted him completely these 18 years of our marriage. Junaid, worked for an Italian shipping company. As the Captain of a container ship, he sailed for about 9 to10 months and came home to us for two months in the year. This time we were expecting him home in the next two weeks.
Jobar, was a picturesque neighborhood where we grew up, where we fell in love and where we dreamt of our future. Life was beautiful. Junaid and I spent our time in each other’s arms, listening to our hearts beat for one another. No words, no explanations, no questions ever asked. We did not even discuss religion. I grew up in a staunch Christian family while Junaid was the Friday worshipper at the opulent gold and colored mosaic, Omayyad Mosque in the old city of Damascus. We never let our differences in backgrounds or cultures effect us. Our hearts were always so filled with respect for each other, that there was no place for any transformation.
I was a young tourist guide in Damascus when Joseph at the Travel House first introduced me to Junaid. Tourists visited our beautiful cities to see the monuments from Palmyra, Sidnaya to the old castle in Aleppo and Kasab, where the ancient Folklore Forest stood. I relished leading the British and American tourists through our deep history, through monuments, through souks and bazaars, through restaurants serving local cuisine. There was always abundant to share on our countries. But in these recent years, life had changed from living to living hell. My work came to a standstill. Eva kept me going while thoughts of Junaid crossed my mind a million times.
These were no easy times. In the last four years when Junaid visited home he saw the devastation and unrest increase manifold. Though I managed to convince him we are safe in our country and home, not believing me, he had already applied to Britain for our war refugee status.
It has been exactly 1185 days since we filed our refugee request. The world outside was beginning to notice our plight. There were boatloads of people trying to flee to Turkey, to Germany, to Hungary, to Britain, to any land free of war.
When you see the face of war, it’s distorted, it’s delusional, and it’s disgusting. In these 1185 days, barrel bombs, bullets, chemical attacks and air strikes had obliterated our homeland. While the country witnessed some of the most brutal violence, Eva and I struggled to stay alive.
Communication outside was cut off, food supplies dwindling. Every time I looked into Eva’s eyes, the deep closely set dark black eyes, I could see Junaid. I knew I could not let anything happen to her. Today in the still of the night, Joseph my colleague at the Travel House, had arranged for Eva and me, to escape the fate of Jobar. I did not know what to do then. Eva was precious, pretty and sweet sixteen. If anyone would lay eyes on her I knew she’d be forced to become a sex slave. I had to protect her. I had to decide.
On the other side of the world, Capt. Junaid had applied for leave to get his family out from what he had heard was hell at home. He flew to Britain, he sat outside the embassy every day trying to get information on his wife Maria, daughter Eva and even about his parents. Why no word? His worries multiplied. He was feeling inadequate and so helpless. He scurried to every agency with their papers. He begged to every person to bring him news from home. He was glued to world television but still no news…
Days, months and now two years and ten months had passed since he had heard from his family. Even if his heart didn’t accept, his mind was slowly telling him that he had lost his family forever. He was getting weaker and his search dimmer.
In one such weak moment, he noticed Isabelle, the waitress, at Sundown Diners, as she came to take his order. Every night, Junaid, visited this cozy diner for his only meal of the day. Steak and potatoes filled his stomach and water quenched his thirst. But the throbbing pain of locating a missing family continued deep inside. Isabelle, saw the pain in those eyes. Today she not only took down his standard order but also stared into those deep closely set dark black eyes. There was an ephemeral connection. That moment Junaid saw his love Maria, stand before him. Shaken up he looked away. Every ensuing night, Isabelle, served the same meal to him and quietly walked away.
Today Isabelle was not at the diners. It wasn’t her weekly off either. Abe, the owner, came to serve his order and Junaid couldn’t hold himself back. He had to enquire about Isabelle. Abe, returned with the bill and a small hand written address. I knew it had to lead me to Isabelle. I don’t know why or how I found her place but all I remember as I stood drenched at her doorstep, she let me in without a word. Her little boy Oliver was running high temperature and she was besides him.
We didn’t speak a word all night. She handed me a towel and a blanket while continuing to be by Oliver’s side. Around 6am in the morning, I heard a murmur from Oliver’s room. He was waking up. I tiptoed to his side. Held him in my arms. His fever had subsided. Isabelle was soundly asleep on a narrow bed beside him.
Seated on the breakfast table, Oliver and I chatted over milk and chocolate Kelloggs. In a few minutes, Isabelle walked into the kitchen. I noticed then what a beautiful woman she was. She smiled as she leaned over for a good morning kiss.
From then on, everyday I visited Isabelle after I finished work at office. The same company, with whom I had sailed, had offered me a General Managers post in their West Sussex office.
Life was slowly limping back. It was seven months since I got married to Isabelle. We loved and accepted each other without any doubts or without questions.
My search for Maria and Eva had died a natural death. I had looked high and low, searched everywhere, asked everyone for over three years now but couldn’t find Maria or Eva or my parents. Isabelle and Oliver were my family now. I had settled into a safe haven called Britain.
While Isabelle rushed out to meet some financiers for the fourth franchise of Sunset Diners, I was given the responsibility of attending Parents Day at Oliver’s school. Isabelle and Abe now partners at Sunset Diners had expanded the business reasonably.
Oliver, was thrilled. It was the first time he was going to show his daddy to his fourth grade friends. I had taken the day off. This time I wanted to be a real dad.
As Oliver and I walked into school holding hands, he proudly showed me off to his friends, his principal and even his projects pinned on the board. As we settled down in his colorful classroom it was five minutes for our appointment to meet with his class teacher. At exactly 11am she walked in. I froze. Those were the very same deep closely set dark black eyes. I was tongue tied as I stared into Eva’s eyes. Oliver, broke the silence between us. This is my dad he proudly announced. Eva, went down on her knees, hugged Oliver, whispering loudly, ‘you sure are a lucky boy!’
As our eyes met, I could see pain envelope those beautiful eyes. She stepped aside, Capt. Junaid, sir, you have a smart and handsome son. Try and be the best dad this time around. Saying this she walked away.
I wanted to run after her, to ask about Maria, to know everything that had happened to them. But something in those eyes told me deep inside was buried a secret, a painful story, a war ravaged country’s tale of a survivor. I had to let it go.
That evening I cried in the arms of Isabelle. She held me close. Not a word said, yet she understood everything. Did Isabelle know Oliver’s teacher was my daughter? Did she thereby want me to go see her? I didn’t care to ask.
I knew my daughter had survived. Wars displace families and take loved ones away. Why, why, why my country? Why, why, why me, I’d never know.
The monotonous drumming of ‘I’ll be right here waiting for you’ was gradually fading away from my ears. Just then, I grasped, time heals, life goes on and ‘all is fair in love and war’.