It's the stuff of nightmares. One afternoon last September Dublin woman Louise Monaghan, 36, discovered that her Syrian ex-husband had forcibly abducted her six-year old daughter May from their prosperous home and had taken off with her to the strife-torn nation, vowing never to return.
Most people want to run from a violent civil war, but Monaghan’s ex was calmly leading his daughter toward it. That left the increasingly frantic Monaghan with few choices.
She realized she would have to cross Syria’s heavily guarded border, not knowing what lay ahead of her, in the faint hope of finding her missing child and then fleeing for their lives.
But how did all of this begin? Monaghan’s compelling new book 'Stolen: Escape from Syria' (St. Martin’s Press) tells the tale of her heart-stopping escape from the country where an estimated 90,000 people have been killed in the last year alone.
So who in their right mind would look at that level of conflict and think, this is where I will bring my daughter now?
It all started, Monaghan tells the Irish Voice, with her life-changing move to Cyprus in 2002 where a new job and a new life awaited her. Still reeling from the death of her beloved mother in a car crash in 2001, Monaghan, originally from Swords, Co. Dublin, welcomed the distraction of being wooed by a handsome and attentive stranger as a terrific fix for the broken heart she was still nursing. It was as if he had been the answer to her prayers.
“It was very much the stereotypical clichéd romance,” says Monaghan. “I was a career girl who went to Cyprus for a break after the death of my mother in a car crash. I needed to clear my head.
“I ended up opening a business there with some Welsh friends. Then one night at a disco my eyes met with my ex-husbands and it was love at first sight.”
Mostafa Assad, the man who would become her husband and the father of their child May, stood out from the crowd. Tall, handsome, considerate and charming, he was exactly what she was looking for.
“I think he was everything I needed at the time,” says Monaghan, with her characteristic self-awareness. “But in hindsight I was vulnerable and suffering from depression, and I think he saw that want in me.”
Monaghan met Assad in Cyprus in 2003. May was born in 2005. They married in 2007 and their marriage had completely disintegrated by late 2010.
“I feel that the cultural differences between us were linked to the personal ones,” Monaghan explains.
“He was controlling, he wanted me to wear clothes that he was comfortable with. He was also possessive and jealous, and he told my friends that if I were allowed out for dinner he would collect me at the restaurant at a set time. I found it unbearable. I thought I was losing myself.”
The final straw in the relationship was when the years of emotional abuse tipped over into actual physical abuse, Monaghan says. One night, while she held their daughter in her lap, Assad aimed a kick at Monaghan that missed and hit May instead. That’s when the police and social services became involved.
“That was the final nail in the coffin of our relationship,” Monaghan explains.
Monaghan finally made the decision to divorce him. “I had been a very confident outgoing businesswoman, and it’s amazing how much one individual can change you so dramatically,” she said.
“It’s still a shock to me looking back. He was so manipulative. I thought at first he was doing it because he loved me and wanted to protect me. Only over time I realized his behavior was not doing me any good, or my child.”
In the book Monaghan admits she often had a concern that Assad might one day take flight with their daughter. It was a mother’s instinct.
She simply didn’t trust him, but a court order gave her no choice. He was entitled to see May three times a week, and for those hours she had to comply.
“After our divorce I had a very good idea of his character. I took steps to have Mostafa mentally assessed but the Cypriot authorities refused,” Monaghan says.
“So I went to court and got a stop order that said he couldn’t remove the child from the country without the other parent’s consent.”
Monaghan was being threatened with imprisonment if she didn’t permit Assad’s three weekly visits. “That was very difficult, and it was ongoing up to the day he abducted her,” she explains.
Assad executed his flight plan flawlessly. Within a day both he and May were in Syria and Monaghan was left behind, at first too distraught to figure out how to proceed.
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