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A Syria refugee's tale of lost and found

A young mother displaced by fighting in Syria is reunited with her own long-lost mother in Jordan, thanks to an old photo, the Web and sheer determination.

January 18, 2013|By Alexandra Sandels and Maher Abukhater, Los Angeles Times
  • A Jordanian man greets a Syrian relative at the Bashabsheh refugee camp in Ramtha, Jordan. Among the Syrian refugees at the camp was Umm Riaan, who had an emotional reunion of her own with her long-lost mother.
A Jordanian man greets a Syrian relative at the Bashabsheh refugee camp… (Jamal Nasrallah, European…)

RAMTHA, Jordan — As a child and young adult, the woman now known as Umm Riaan kept the worn photo carefully tucked away. Maybe the fading snapshot of her as a newborn, cradled in her mother's arms, would help unravel her life's central mystery: What had become of her mother?

She never quite believed her father's account, that her mother was a "bad" person, had abandoned the family in Syria when Umm Riaan was an infant and later died in a car crash.

Umm Riaan had no memory of her mother, but her resolve to find her deepened last spring as clashes raged outside her home in a suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, and she faced a defining personal moment: At 22, she was pregnant with her first child.

Amid the depredation of Syria's bloody conflict, uplifting stories still can be found. The saga of Umm Riaan and her mother — reunited through an old photo, the Web and a daughter's determination — unspools from a refugee compound in a barren industrial tract just south of the Syrian border.

It is a forlorn place, a forgotten technology park with a paradoxically futuristic name, Cyber City.

Umm Riaan, who asked to be identified only by her nickname (Mother of Riaan in Arabic) for security reasons, recounts the details from her home in a crumbling concrete block where hundreds of Syrian refugees, mostly of Palestinian origin, live dormitory style.

Amid the grayness, the room Umm Riaan shares with her husband and infant daughter is a cheerful haven. It has a mini-stove, a TV, a bed and a makeshift closet containing baby clothes. In the corner stands a princess-like child's bed where the baby is sleeping.

"My mother, who lives in Jerusalem, brought me all these things," explains Umm Riaan, dressed in a black robe and a colorful, flower-patterned veil. She has a thin, oval face and is light-skinned and petite, just like her mother.

Her mother, Riaan Abu Hawa, was born in Syria in 1963, among the first generation of Palestinians born abroad after the creation of Israel in 1948. She lived in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia and married a fellow Palestinian, Mahmoud, a chef.

The couple's only child was born in 1990. Eighteen months later, Abu Hawa says, her husband divorced her and insisted on maintaining custody of their daughter. It was the bitter culmination of what she calls an abusive, unhappy marriage.

Abu Hawa moved to Jordan, where she worked in airline marketing. She tried to find her daughter, she says, but her ex-husband and his family thwarted her efforts.

"Every time I would ask about her, no one would tell me anything," recalls Abu Hawa, now 49, a modern, well-dressed professional with green eyes and unveiled light brown hair.

On a trip to Jerusalem, Abu Hawa met her current husband, also a Palestinian and a chef, who lives in East Jerusalem and has Israeli residency.

Eventually, she moved to Jerusalem, where she found the stability she never had in Syria. She became an elementary school teacher and had two sons, now 16 and 12.

But she had lost her daughter. As an Israeli resident, she could never look for her in Syria, Israel's avowed enemy.

"I just stopped asking or looking," Abu Hawa says with tears in her eyes, speaking at her modest home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Tur, on the Mount of Olives.

In Syria, Umm Riaan says her father told her to forget about her mother, but she couldn't.

"I always had a feeling deep inside that she was alive," she says.

When her father remarried for a third time, Umm Riaan was sent to live with a paternal aunt in Damascus, where she met her future husband. He sensed that his wife's family was not telling the whole story about her mother.

"They were avoiding the subject," the husband says.

Try the Internet, he advised his new wife: "That's how disappeared people find each other these days."

One day last spring Umm Riaan logged on to Skype, the Internet phone service. In her hand was that photograph of her mother holding her as an infant.

Abu Hawa was at home in Jerusalem, surfing the Web. An "Add a Contact" request popped up on her Skype account.

"Who are you?" asked Abu Hawa. The caller replied, "I am your daughter."

"I thought the whole thing was a joke," recalls Abu Hawa. But Umm Riaan started to give details. "She told me about my father's funeral in Syria.... And when I became sure that she was my long-lost daughter, we both cried for a long time."

After their electronic reunion, the two began talking daily. They longed to see each other. Security was deteriorating in Umm Riaan's city, and her first child was due in just a few weeks. Jordan, which borders both Syria and Israel, offered safety, Umm Riaan reasoned, and three generations of her family could meet.

One evening in June, Umm Riaan and her husband crossed into Jordan, carrying their week-old daughter, named after her rediscovered grandmother. Jordanian authorities placed them in the Bashabsheh refugee camp, not far from the Syrian border.

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