The following post was written in 2012 when I lived in Bahrain.
I knew it was going to be one of those days as soon as the alarm went off. Waking, dressing, and feeding three children before 7:00am is no small feat for a parent on the best of days and this wasn’t the best of days. One child was upset about her clothing options, another about the fact that her sister had eaten the last of the Cheerios, and another complained of a stomachache. By the time we finally rushed out the door already late, my head was pounding.
Maybe I woke up in a grumpy mood because I knew that the day ahead was going to be packed with errands I did not want to run and meetings I did not want to attend. A restless night left me with an energy deficit that I was too tired to fight. And I was still angry about an argument Tony and I had over something so insignificant that I couldn’t even remember what it was about. Whatever the reason, I faced the world in a very bad mood.
The first thing to check off my to-do list was a visit to my daughter’s third grade classroom where she and her classmates had prepared a special breakfast for their parents. She brought me a muffin, and I poured myself a cup of much needed coffee. She climbed on my lap and proudly spouted off the title of the book that she had written and illustrated, The Perfect Pet. She opened it to the first page which read, “This book is dedicated to my cousins Madison and Lily.” A sweet sentiment that threatened to soften my own.
After our breakfast book reading, I excused her from class to take her to the US Embassy in Manama, Bahrain with me where, after three failed attempts I would try again to get my children’s travel documents in order. Dealing with bureaucracy brings out the worst in me, and given that I’d already made several trips and spent hours waiting only to walk away with nothing to show for it, my anxiety level began to rise like the mercury on the thermometer. To make matters worse, I had two impatient children alongside who were bored and thirsty before we even got out of the car. My bad mood returned as we traipsed across the dusty sand lot in the 113◦F heat.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that despite the fact that we had made appointments, we had to wait. Neither should I have been surprised that we were treated rather suspiciously as the guards scrutinized our paperwork and interrogated me about the whereabouts of the children’s father. By the time we were led into the second of two waiting areas so they could contact Tony to validate my claims, I was furious.
While the children climbed the walls, and I convinced myself with self-righteous indignation that I was most definitely entitled to better service, a Muslim woman walked in and took the empty seat beside me. I smiled politely but I was in no mood for chit chat, so I avoided eye contact. Yet despite my grouchy affect, she spoke first. “Are you American?” she asked.
I briefly explained my situation. I was bored just listening to myself talk about it, so her keen interest intrigued me. I wondered why she cared, and then my curiosity about her reason for being there trumped my bad mood and I asked her.
The woman was Serbian and years ago, she married a man whose job took them to the US. She had two boys while living in the States, became a nurse’s aide, and earned citizenship. Her marriage (by Islamic Sharia Law, i.e., arranged) took a turn for the worse and her husband left her and the two boys without any kind of support. She remained in Des Moines until her family arranged yet another marriage for her with a man who promised a good life for her and her sons on one condition: that they move to the Middle East.
She took him up on the offer only to learn that he really didn’t want her boys to be a part of their new family life. So her seven and nine year-old sons were sent to Serbia to live with extended family. Just weeks after discovering that she was pregnant, her husband decided that he didn’t want to be married to her anymore because he was tired of hearing her cry about missing her sons.
Tears flowed as she searched her bag for a photograph. She apologized that she didn’t have one of the daughter she gave birth to eleven days ago! She was at the embassy hoping someone would help her get a birth certificate for her daughter so that she could return to the US with all three of her children. If she didn’t succeed, she faced the possibility of leaving her daughter behind for her husband to raise.
The noise of the rowdy children running circles in the waiting room faded into a convicting drone. My mood changed. I was guilty, humbled, and embarrassed by my sense of entitlement.
Even though I was there first and my children were making a scene, they called her name next. Before she got up, she looked me in the eye, woman-to-woman, mother-to-mother. She said that the best days of her life were spent in America (Des Moines of all places!) and that she’ll do everything she can to return there to work and raise her three kids on her own–an opportunity that is so appealing she’s willing to risk the trouble she could face if she fails.
I fumbled around for some words of encouragement, but all that came was, “Your God is my God and I will pray for you.” She smiled and said Insha’Allah, God willing. Then I felt my own eyes dampen as she walked off.
It was finally my turn. After taking my oath declaring all of my paperwork to be legitimate, I left the building with two of my three children in tow. The wind whipped up sand that stung our faces as we crossed the dusty lot to our car. The lyrics of one of my favorite songs came to mind (which I altered slightly to suit my gender), “Love will hold us together, make us a shelter to weather the storm; and I will be my [sister’s] keeper so that the whole world will know that we’re not alone.”