In Islamic State territory, a mother’s desperate getaway is thwarted

Umm Osama, 35, is getting desperate. Her husband, Abu Osama, fled the war four years ago after losing his job as a construction worker in the couple’s home city of Deir e-Zor. With only enough money for him to travel, Abu Osama paid smugglers to take him north to Sweden. He hoped his wife and four children would soon join him on a family reunification visa, granted to spouses and children of asylum seekers in Sweden.

But just one year later, Islamic State fighters seized almost all of Deir e-Zor province and much of its eponymous capital—including Umm Osama’s neighborhood. She and her children were trapped.

Another year went by, and an airstrike hit their house, burning Umm Osama’s passport and marriage contract “into ash,” she tells Syria Direct’s Majdoleen a-Zouabi from her home in Deir e-Zor.

Without them, a family reunification visa would be impossible.

 A woman from Deir e-Zor walks in the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria’s Hasakah province in February 2017. Photo courtesy of Delil Souliman/AFP/Getty Images.

The more dangerous option was to find a smuggler to guide Umm Osama and her children out of Deir e-Zor, then travel 400km southwest through IS territory to Damascus. From there, Umm Osama hoped, she could renew her destroyed documents and have a chance at a Swedish visa.

By April 2017, everything was set. Through long-distance phone calls, Umm Osama and her husband had settled on a smuggler they both trusted—an old friend of theirs still living in Deir e-Zor. And there was just enough cash saved for Umm Osama and her children to make the dangerous trip south.

All they had to do was get into the friend’s car and go, hoping for the best.

Q: What happened after you got into the car?  

About an hour into our trip, we parked away from the road in an area with trees. My husband’s friend told us to walk carefully without making any loud noises.

As we were walking, two gunmen approached us and asked us where we were going. I said nothing. My husband’s friend told them we were going on a day trip. He put his arms around my children, who were scared and crying.

One of the gunmen asked me why my daughter was not wearing sharia-compliant clothing—a veil and a long, loose dress. I answered that she was still just a little girl. That’s when they started beating me and threw me to the ground.

An hour after stopping us, one of the gunmen said to me: ‘Give me all of your money, and I’ll let you and your children go.’ I had all of my money on me: $2,000.

The gunmen brought my children and me back to our house. I still don’t know anything about what happened to my husband’s friend.

Q: How are your children coping with the trauma of this experience?

After we returned home, my children passed out from exhaustion. I tried to contact my husband to tell him what happened, but then my daughter Sarah woke up crying and shouting: “Don’t hit my mom!” She had been dreaming about the two gunmen.

My son Osama said to me: ‘I don’t want to travel to dad. This time we were able to come back home. Next time, we might not be so lucky.’

Q: What was your husband’s reaction when you told him what had happened to you?

My husband was quiet for a few minutes. He had felt overjoyed that he would reunite with his family. When he did speak, he said to me in a voice filled with tears and sadness: ‘It wasn’t meant to be.’

Q: Stepping back in time a few years: Your husband left for Sweden in September 2013. What impact did his departure have on you and your children? 

When my husband first left home, he couldn’t send us any money for six months. He was sick with anemia and under a lot of psychological stress.

So, my 17-year-old son Osama had to start working after school in a produce market for a small salary. We now eat only one meal per day. My children don’t get enough nourishment from their diet, and are vulnerable to illness.

Whenever one of them gets sick, I can’t to take them to a doctor because it costs money that I just don’t have. I give them herbs or other home remedies.

After [those first six months], my husband sent me $2,000. Just getting the money to me was difficult because I’m living in Islamic State territory. He had to give the money to an old neighbor of ours from Deir e-Zor who is living in Sweden. This neighbor’s family, who still live in Deir e-Zor, then passed the money along to me.

Q: How did your children cope with losing their father?

At first, my children—especially my 13-year-old son Ahmad and 10-year-old daughter Sarah—struggled to adapt to their father’s absence. They were very attached to him. The two of them would constantly cry and ask me why their friends live with their fathers while our family doesn’t.

For me personally, it was a lot of pressure to take on the role of both mother and father at the same time.

We still keep in touch [with my husband], but not very often because the internet connection is weak in Deir e-Zor.

Q: It is now one month after your failed escape attempt. Do you think you will try again to flee Deir e-Zor?

Right now, I’m not thinking about leaving. My children are terrified, and I haven’t been able to convince them to make another attempt.

My husband is trying to find another trustworthy smuggler to get us out of Deir e-Zor safely. 

Majdoleen a-Zouabi

Majdoline is from Daraa province. She studied journalism in Syria before moving to Jordan in 2013.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.