You need to leave.
They are coming for you.
The voice on the other end is whispering in hushed, forceful gasps.
It’s 4 a.m. on a late July night, 2012, in a seaside city in northwest Syria.
He is standing by the phone, trying to control the panic, the fear crippling his body. He hears his wife scream from a back bedroom, where she cradles the other phone, listening in. He hears her cries until she finally faints, falling to the floor unconscious.
He recognizes the terrified voice on the other end. It’s a young man who years ago had worked as a farmhand on his 15 acres of hillside orchards. Now a member of the Islamic State, the man slipped away from the band of armed men to warn his old boss:
They are coming to kidnap you and drive you to the village.
They will behead you in the public square.
They will make your family watch.
This is what they do to Christians who don’t convert.
With two bags of clothes and $3,000 folded in his pockets, Gabriel Jabbour ducks his tall frame into a nephew’s taxi and inhales the fresh Syrian air one last time. He does not cry. Throughout the two-hour ride to the Lebanese border, he talks with God and comforts his wife as he watches the sun rise. There are no memorized prayers for moments like these, so he asks for peace. Just peace. Again and again. Peace. Peace. Peace.
On a single muggy night more than three years ago, the devout 57-year-old farmer, the devoted head of a family of more than 700 Catholic Syrians, lost his home, his country and his purpose.
Now 60, the farmer’s mustache has grayed; his hair has thinned. The nights spent lying awake, night after night in a West Omaha apartment, show on his face. His gaze is unfocused, distant, faraway. He is often quiet and serious, surrounded by a language he doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to learn. But when he does speak, his voice grows strong, resolved: As soon as his village is ISIS-free, he will return to his beloved homeland.
But there’s a hitch: Going home means abandoning his son and daughter here in Nebraska. It means leaving his only grandchild — a darling 3-year-old with dark pigtails and a quick smile. It also means giving up the possibility of ever returning to the U.S.
For months, he’s tried to explain it to his wife and his daughter: In Syria, the man who does not love his country more than his children loses all honor. A man not ready to die on his land is not worthy to live.
In a crowded Omaha restaurant, the tears come a lot easier. They flow into his hands, dampen his mustache. He begins to sob and his shoulders shudder, rising and falling as he tries to speak. He swallows hard and the words eventually tumble out. He longs to stand in the shade of the peach and fig trees his father planted. At the opposite end of the table, his granddaughter hums happily, squirming in her tiny seat.
Gabriel bows his head for a long moment, opens his eyes and stares across the table at his daughter and his wife.
“I need to go home to see my mother and father’s graves,” he finally says.
Today, the man who escaped death in Syria spends his days in Nebraska dreaming of the distant cemetery, the one surrounded by rolling foothills of tall grass and wispy trees.
“I am living to go back to my home to die.”
Gabriel is sitting on a second-hand couch in a sparsely decorated Omaha apartment. It’s nearing midnight on New Year’s Eve, 2015, and he’s leaning toward the television, trying to hear the news over the exploding firecrackers outside. This is the Arabic channel he relies on to find out when he can go home.
The screen is filled with scenes of holiday celebrations in the Holy Land. The camera zooms in on an Arab singer performing a haunting chant of poetry called ataaba — “dirge” — an improvised folk song that sounds more like praying than singing.
As fireworks bloom in colorful bursts outside the apartment, the vocalist from Syria chants about love of homeland, about pride for his country. At the end of the song, the man on the screen raises his hand and his voice: “We will go back home no matter what.”
Gabriel ends his year in tears.
He believes 2016 will bring him home to Kinesbba. But he knows the village where he spent every weekend is not the same. The family members who have not fled give him realities in small doses over the phone. They email before- and after-ISIS photos to his daughter’s inbox.
The village he remembers — the tall tan homes with unlocked doors and open windows, the gently sloping roads winding through the rolling hills, the rooftop gardens of hanging vines — is now just a pile of pockmarked rubble.
Gabriel was on his way to America when ISIS forces first stormed into Kinsebba at the end of July 2012. He was in the clouds somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean as the walls of his family’s home took the first barrage of bullets and grenades. He sat in a Chicago airport as men toting torches set ablaze his neat rows of vineyards and turned his parked car into a mangled mess of charred metal. He prayed silently, reciting the Apostle’s Creed, as militants marched into his Catholic church and shot bullets into the altar, ripped down depictions of saints, stole the Lenten candelabras.
Gabriel helped build the St. Elijah church in 2004, after collecting $80,000 from devout villagers. It was to be the only Christian church within the 80 surrounding towns, but he insisted then that the cross must not be displayed on the roof. He wanted Muslims to feel welcome in this house of God, too.
This is the church at the heart of a village that was Christian centuries before Islam existed. This is the church that houses an etched stone dating back more than two millennia. This is the church where he mourned at the funerals of his mother and father. This is the church Gabriel attended every Sunday, always sitting in the front row.
As summer turned to winter and the Syrian nights grew cold and damp, ISIS fighters chopped the polished pews of his church into firewood. They huddled around the flames, warming their hands as the splintered wood turned to ash.
When they discuss St. Elijah Cemetery, Gabriel’s children talk in English so their father won’t understand. Propaganda videos show camouflage-clad ISIS militants running amid gravestones in Christian cemeteries across Syria and Iraq. They swing sledgehammers into ancient grave markers and mausoleums and then smile at the camera as they rest their weapons on the littered burial ground. The hill where four generations of Jabbours are buried — where he dreams of being laid to rest — is likely a pile of crumbled concrete, too.
Today, Gabriel spends many of his mornings dialing long-distance, praying he’ll hear good news from family members in the Syrian army. In late January, the Russian-assisted airstrikes pushed ISIS out of Kinsebba. Gabriel had hope. He called his relatives and told them to look for an affordable used car he could drive when he returned.
But less than two weeks later, the rebels were back in the village. A phone call on a mid-February morning confirmed it: They’d come in and torched the remaining walls of his church. Gabriel stayed quiet for the rest of the day. In the evening, he dipped his finger into the holy water near the door of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Omaha. He crossed himself and dropped his head to his chest.
His daughter, Rula Jabbour, stood beside him. She touched him gently and looked at him for a long moment. As a child, Rula was expected to stand up when her father entered the room. Now she is his chauffeur, his translator, his caretaker.
Back on that July night in 2012, one of Gabriel’s first calls was to Rula. It was 10 p.m. in Omaha when her cellphone rang. She was seven months pregnant and had already arranged for her parents’ visas, hoping they would come visit the U.S. for their first grandchild’s birth.
Gabriel had been insistent then: “I cannot make it to America. Your mother can go but not me. It is dangerous now and my family here needs me much more.”
For months, Rula jumped through bureaucratic hoops to try to find him a part-time job, temporary driver’s licenses, English courses. Every job required English; every English course required a willing participant. Gabriel felt that learning the language was an act of submission.
“I watched him have to leave the heaven of home to live through his own hell here,” Rula said. “At 57 years old, he was really forced to be reborn.”
For the first two years, Gabriel spent his days inside his humble apartment, watching television, praying, waiting. He would open his worn Bible, rereading passages from Revelations — lines like, “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.”
But he was weary. The depression came in waves of boredom and loneliness.
“I was in a maze,” he said. “I didn’t know where I was going. I could not go back and I could not go forward. A dead end.”
When the night came, Gabriel lay in bed, counting the hours until morning. When the morning came, he longed for the quiet comfort of the night.
“Every minute of every day, I thought about my village, my family,” he said, bringing his hand to his chest. “Hundreds of times a day I felt it push on my heart — my purpose is there.”
But he’s found purpose here, too. That’s what God wants him to do, he said. All of this — the war, the fleeing, the depression — a lesson from Him. One who has faith does not ask, “Why?”
In 2014, Gabriel began working with Rula’s husband, Awad Qumseya, a Palestinian Catholic from Bethlehem who runs a business selling carvings from the Holy Land to Catholic churches around the Midwest. Gabriel spends every Sunday in a different church, holding a hymnbook he cannot read, listening to sermons he cannot translate.
He lines up the polished figurines and crosses and prays for the Christian families in the Holy Land. So many of them have left, but Awad’s business supports the ones who have chosen not to flee.
Gabriel has been saving the paychecks. There are nights he doesn’t want to go out to eat with his family because he’s calculating just how much money it will take to get home. This is for you, he tells his children.
“If I go back, I know that you can one day come home, too.”
Gabriel is sitting on the floor of Rula’s living room, his granddaughter Sama sitting in his lap. She reaches to his face and touches her fingertips to his mustache, giggling at the pricks of the coarse hair. She tugs at his collar. His face grows soft and he mimics the funny faces she’s making at him. He chuckles at her curiosity, plays with the toys she piles around him.
“That little girl is what has healed his soul,” Rula said. “She reminds the macho man how to be a child again.”
But the afternoons spent laughing with his only grandchild aren’t enough to keep him here. These are the moments he knows his family is safe and happy. His daughter has built something here — a family, a career, an American life. And she did it without him.
He has so much to rebuild in Kinsebba. So many Christian families have already left, but he’s promised many he would come back to restore the village.
Over the phone, he reassures them that peace will come again. “After this is over, only the good people will be left there,” he said.
Rula would love to share her father’s hope, but she continues to plead with him to stay. She worries that once he leaves, she may never see him again.
“He wants to be a hero, but this is a war without heroes,” she said. “He’ll be another number if he goes back. Instead of 1,000 dead and buried, it will be 1,001.”
Still, he cannot extinguish the hope, cannot relinquish the dream, a dream he clings to when the darkness closes in.
In his dream, he’s again in that cemetery on the grassy hill, walking past the cypress trees toward the humble gravestones where he knows his parents and their parents and their grandparents are buried. Someday, when God grants peace, when only the good people remain, he wants to run his fingers over the stone, wants to bend down on one knee and tell them the good news.
I came home, he’ll tell his parents. I came home.
Mara Klecker is a 2016 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. She has interned at newspapers in Nebraska, Arkansas and Minnesota and assisted with student-produced documentary projects in Ecuador, Nicaragua and Nepal.