Duty-free shops, Christina Lamb’s book Farewell Kabul and free WiFi had me equipped for an eight hour layover at the Abu Dhabi International Airport. I was on my way back home to India from New York, completely distraught. It had been a tough couple of months on the personal and professional front and I had begun to feel like a failure in my own eyes. But an encounter with Heba, changed my entire outlook.
Clad in a golden Hijab, a lovely Maroon gown and wearing a contagious smile, it was impossible for anyone to ignore Heba’s presence . Seated on the chair beside me, she was busy clicking pictures of the airport and sending it to someone through her phone. But her enthusiasm to be at an airport, seemed out of place at that ungodly hour of three in the morning.
Unable to mirror her cheerful mood, I occupied myself with other things. However that did not last too long as her amiable and chatty nature, drew us into conversation. “I’m Heba from the city of Douma in Syria. I’m now flying to Sao Paolo in Brazil, to get married!” she exclaimed.
At first, that was a lot of information for me to process but it peaked my curiosity. Douma(Arabic: دوما Dūmā)which lies towards the north east of the Syrian capital Damsacus, is one of the largest rebel held regions in the country. Ever since the Civil War began in Syria, many of Douma’s residents have suffered under The Assad regime. Though the region is now under the control of the Free Syria Army(FSA), the fighting and bloodshed continue.
“Are the rest of your family members still in Douma?”, I asked. She expressed that they were currently residing in Damascus. “Douma is not safe anymore. it was once a city bustling with activity, but today there is a lot of bloodshed. The Assad regime has made us face enough injustice. We had to move.”
Our conversation stopped abruptly with a telephone call. It was Heba’s mother, calling to enquire if she was okay. The next few minutes passed with her updating her family about her journey so far. Heba also insisted that I pose for a picture with her. Being partial to a “selfie” I readily agreed and we sent a picture of our tired faces to her mother. In an age where it is the trend to befriend someone on every social media platform you are a part of after meeting them, Heba and I made sure we ticked that box as well.
But I’m glad we both realised that trying to figure out each others personalities through a Facebook profile, was not going to tell us much. She also seemed very eager to tell me about how she fell in love and we got back to exchanging details about our lives.
I learned that before moving out of Douma, Heba had enjoyed her childhood and excelled at school. She came from a family who always believed in serving humanity. She said “I enjoy helping people in need. I feel my purpose in life is to serve mankind and I will do that by becoming a doctor.”
But the war changed her life. At the age of fifteen, she was forced to stop going to school because of the violence. Her parents sent her to Damascus, hoping she could continue her education there. But within no time she had to discontinue her studies there as well. Heba moved to another region near Douma because The Regime had decided to arrest people from Douma residing in and around Damascus.
“I was exhausted and frustrated”, she said. All I wanted was to study, become a doctor and help the wounded. But the never ending war and uncertainty made me feel like giving up.”
But Heba regained faith when she received a wedding proposal. She said “My family told me about a boy who was three years older than me. He lived in Brazil and they wanted me to marry him. But I refused.” Back then she had no intention of getting married. All she wanted was to full fill her ambitions.
However, long conversations with the boy through the internet, played cupid and Heba fell in love. “I felt like he was God’s gift in my life. Though I had never met him in person, we really connected”, she said.
Sadly, Heba’s happiness was soon overshadowed by extreme sorrow. At the beginning of 2016, her brother was killed. He had gone out to get some food for his wife and children and never returned. Like many other families in Syria, Heba’s was one more facing the harsh realities of the war.
“We cried a lot. Knowing that we could never see him again was very difficult to imagine. But he lives in a better place now. Far away from all this misery,” said Heba.
Whilst showing me some pictures of her brother and his family, she expressed that what infuriated her the most about his death was the fact that he was still alive when he was taken to the hospital but died due to the lack of hospital staff . But it was this anger which inspired her to study again at the medical school of Damascus University.
Our conversation now moved to a McDonald’s joint in the airport. Heba had never tried a burger there and wanted to taste one. “I want to try out food from all over the world. We get burgers back home too but these are good”, she said. At the same time, a very handsome man passed by us, distracting us from our meal. Realising that we both were staring at him, we burst out laughing. “This always happened with my friends back home too”, said Heba. “I feel like I am back in Douma.”
In the next few minutes, I realised that my flight was going to depart soon. But Heba seemed uncomfortable with the thought of waiting at the airport alone. “I don’t know who I will talk to for the next few hours. I wish you did not have to leave so soon”, she said. Our meeting ended with a hug and both of us assuring each other that we had an uncertain but exciting future to look forward to.
On my flight back, I kept thinking about her. I thought about everything she had been through and realised how strong she had been despite her troubles. I narrated her story to a lot of people back home and kept wondering if she had reached safely and got married.
After a few weeks, a beautiful picture of a girl in a white veil and a man dressed in a smart suit, appeared on my Facebook newsfeed. “Heba got married!” I squealed with joy to my mother. I was relieved she was fine and instantly sent her a message to congratulate her. “Priyanka, I ran into his arms and hugged him as soon I saw him. I am so happy”, said Heba.
After a love story that lasted for a year and a half through the internet, Heba is now happily married and hopes to complete her education. Her husband runs his own Shawarma store to fund her education. But unfortunately, public universities have not yet accepted her degree and she would have to take up a few complex tests to study medicine.
“We are recognised as refugees in Brazil but do not get any special benefits. However after everything I have faced in life, I am not going to give up. I hope to become a doctor and return to Syria someday”, she said.
I will always cherish my meeting with Heba. Her positive disposition despite all her problems motivates me every time I feel low.
In the words of Heba, “Strength, steadfastness and creativity are also born from the womb of war and struggle. One day it is these qualities which will help us rebuild our lives once again.”