Tuesday, March 4, 2003
Our government lives on long lies. It was 10 o’clock in the morning and I, unknowingly, was about to witness another one. I was in my kitchen with a framed painting in one hand and a hammer in the other, searching for that right spot on the wall. As I was climbing down the ladder, the phone rang.
“Ms. Roush? This is Bill McCulla from American Citizens Services at the Department of State. I have some news for you.”
I braced myself against the refrigerator as that pitting feeling in my stomach returned. “Is something wrong? Did something happen in Saudi Arabia?”
“Assistant Secretary of State Burns has asked me to tell you he will not be able to meet with you personally but will be sending you a letter sometime in the future.”
“I never asked to meet with him personally. I just asked him to negotiate for the release of my daughters from Saudi Arabia.”
“Ms. Roush, I have something else to tell you, and you are not going to like what I have to say. Your oldest daughter was married last week.”
I was shaking. My body became numb and limp.
“What? What did you say? – You bastards! You waited so long and now she has been destroyed! After all these years of pleading with you for help, and now it is too late! I want to talk to Burns. Why didn’t he call me? Why did he have you do his dirty work for him? For 16 years, I have waited for that special call from someone with the State Department telling me that my daughters were coming home. And now this – my worst nightmare, come true?” I hung up the phone and fell to the floor.
After nearly two decades of continuous effort spent in lobbying four secretaries of state and four U.S. presidents, spending every bit of money I had on three teams of mercenaries to covertly rescue my children, working for major changes in state and federal legislation, and hounding the press for coverage, my 23-year-old daughter was sold by her Saudi father into an arranged marriage.
The child I had cherished and loved beyond belief who had been ripped away from me was now in a harem inside Saudi Arabia. A letter, signed by 23 U.S. senators, had been hand-delivered to Secretary of State Colin Powell just three weeks before, asking for his intervention with the Saudi king “in the most urgent terms for the release and repatriation of Alia and Aisha Gheshayan.” One of his subordinates wrote the usual Washington “kiss off” response. Now Alia’s fate was sealed.
A daughter’s wedding day should be one of the happiest moments in her life, shared with her mother, and I was not even aware of it. I found out about this sacred rite of passage from a secondary counselor officer at a governmental office. It was as if I had been erased from her life.
Overwhelmed with grief, I had to get out of the house. I got into the car and drove to the beach. The waves calmed me like a lullaby. My mind drifted to happier days. I could see the girls in the water, laughing and playing with me. Three-year-old Aisha was on my back in the shallow water. As I waded along the shore with her arms tightly wrapped around my neck, Alia, 6, swam alongside us and shouted, “Mommy, watch me! I can swim underwater. Watch!”
She swam like a fish with her little blue-polka-dot bathing suit clinging to her small wet body and her long, dark brown hair wrapping around her head and neck like kelp. She had learned to swim at summer camp and enjoyed showing off her new skill.
My eyes blinked and I was back on the beach – alone.
Returning to the house, I opened the front door and went straight to my office. Tracings of 16 years of work lined the walls: a kidnapped children’s poster displaying the faces of my daughters; awards; pictures of me with senators, mayors, celebrities, the girls; Aisha’s framed finger painting from preschool; neatly framed articles from print media; and file cabinets and storage boxes filled with documents and papers.
I slumped into the chair near my desk in front of my computer and penned a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell requesting that I be granted an immediate visa to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to see my daughters and this man, whomever he might be, that had just married Alia.
Then, in an almost obtunded state, I wandered into the kitchen, made a cup of tea, and made my way to a white Adirondack chair on the deck. I allowed my head to come to a comfortable rest on the back of the chair and looked skyward. Now what?
I had one last thing to do for them.
Walking back into my office, I grabbed my laptop and returned to the deck. Placing it on top of the glass table, I began:
Dearest Alia and Aisha,
I have missed you so much all these years and love you beyond heaven and earth. I want to give you this gift. The only treasure I can give that will be of value to you – the gift of the truth. So I am writing the story of what happened – your story and mine – and hope that one day, you will come to know how much your mother loves you …