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.
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.”