But there was one thing Assad had not factored into his plans. He was dealing with an Irish woman, and an Irish mother at that. He did not anticipate her resolve to rescue her only child.
“Every fear and every dread I ever had came to life that day,” Monaghan says. “I can’t describe to you the shock and terror I felt when I realized May was gone.”
Knowing her ex-husband, she realized the only way to see her child again would be to play his game and appease him, hard as that would be.
“He had kept his cell phone and I realized that would be the only line I had to her. I told him I would join him in Syria and live as a Muslim wife,” she says.
“I don’t know where I found the resolve. It was just there. When I went inside myself to find it I found it.”
At great danger to their life and limb, Monaghan traveled to the Syrian border accompanied by her sister. “My sister had never experienced Islamic life and she was just astounded. How repressed they were, how backward things are, the chaos and the smells,” she says.
At the border things were even worse. White refugee tents were everywhere. Children ran around barefoot, people cooked meat in the streets and the stench was overpowering. More refugees were arriving by the hour with all their worldly possessions on their backs.
When she reached the huge iron gates that divided Turkey from Syria she drove toward what everyone else was fleeing. Her ex-husband lived 30 minutes from the Syrian border and he was persuaded to meet her because she had convinced him it was in his best interests.
“He handed me a hijab and said, ‘That’s what you’re wearing from now on.’ Then he drove me to his village and I met my daughter for the first time in six days,” Monaghan recalls.
“She was already changed. I knew I was in deep trouble.”
Unknown to Assad, Monaghan and her sister had arranged with Turkish smugglers to have her daughter and herself spirited away in the dead of night. To distinguish the right house she hung a white sheet on the roof on the designated night.
But the plan fell though and Monaghan realized she would have to be her own rescue party. “I had to get us out. After two weeks the opportunity arouse,” she said.
“He kept telling me that May would never leave Syria. He would repeat this like a mantra. On the day he had to take me to town to renew my visa he left us in the car for three minutes. I grabbed her hand and ran.”
They caught a taxi. May threw herself onto the floor terrified and crying. The taxi driver asked the little girl where her father was and she replied he was dead. He instantly refused to take them out of the town.
They found another taxi driver. This time Monaghan called her friend who spoke Arabic and she arranged with the driver for him to drive them to Damascus.
It was the start of their harrowing escape, but it would take weeks, living on their nerves, to make it out. The new book tells her shocking story.
“Now I sleep with one eye open,” says Monaghan, who has since returned with May to Cyprus. “I have no faith in passports and watch lists, since my ex-husband abducted May and she didn’t even have a passport.
“I want to work now to prevent other parents from going through what I did. I want to get the word out. This happens all the time. More than 200,000 children were abducted by a parent in the U.S. last year. It can’t be allowed to go on.”