The sun beat down on Sultan Farwan as his piercing green eyes peered out over the Syrian countryside. Next to him were his rifle and an armed comrade.
They had been waiting hours, but it would be worth it.
From the distance came the sound of a vehicle moving along pavement. Sultan stood and watched as it grew from a dot on the horizon to a van. He wasn’t nervous. By now combat was natural. He’d traveled dozens of kilometers by foot, stopping in villages to help them fight the Syrian army. He’d killed enemy soldiers before, and today he would do it again.
Sultan had received intelligence that a Syrian Army commander would be arriving to Ghabagheb, in Syria’s southern municipality of Dara’a. This commander had done awful things to Syrian people, and as far as Sultan was concerned he deserved to die. He was to arrive shortly to the village, alone, and there his soul would return to where it came from.
As the van grew nearer, Sultan processed the sight ahead of him. The commander was in the van. But he wasn’t alone. More than half a dozen enemy soldiers sat on either side of him. Sultan was outnumbered, but it was too late to run — he had already been seen.
Someone would die today, but it wouldn’t be the commander.
The commander spotted Sultan. He smiled and beckoned Sultan with his pointer finger. Sultan smiled back and pointed to his rifle. The commander nodded. In this brutal war where death is as ubiquitous as life, the two enemies exchanged a moment of irreverence toward their blood-fueled quarrel.
Then the shots rang out.
Maha Alasil is the daughter of an Iraqi diplomat father and an Arabic teacher mother. She was born in Baghdad, but because of her father’s work, the memories imprinted in her mind come from Argentina, Brazil, Kenya and Spain. She grew up in Western society and returned to Baghdad as a teenager.
The culture shift was difficult for her at first, but things would soon get even harder. Two years after returning to Iraq the first Gulf War broke out. She stayed on in Iraq and studied Spanish at university. After graduation she worked seven years at the Spanish Embassy in Baghdad, but soon came another war. This time her family decided not to wait for it to pass.
Over the next few years, she moved from place to place, trying to find her way in life. She settled in Jordan for six months, then moved to the U.K. for another six before settling in Spain for three years, obtaining a residency permit, and then moving to Morocco for another three years. In her early 30s, she moved back to an upper-class neighborhood of Amman, the capital of Jordan, to live with her retired parents.
Maha spent much of that year in reflection. She wondered how her life would be defined. She saw herself doing something meaningful, but her applications to relief agencies and the United Nations went nowhere.
Then in 2011, peaceful protests in Syria turned into violent uprising, then brutal civil war. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled their homes in Syria and relocated in northern Jordan and Amman.
Other people’s suffering gave Maha purpose, and she went to work. She started raising from wealthy benefactors and sympathetic Westerners and providing for refugees’ basic needs. Before long, she gained a reputation among displaced Syrians as a sort of Mother Theresa. She even bought a second mobile phone for her humanitarian work.
One day she received a phone call from a Syrian woman who told her about a young man who had been badly wounded and was stuck in a hospital in northern Jordan. He hadn’t seen his family in eight months, and neither he nor his parents could afford to visit him because they lived in Mafraq, almost 200 kilometers away.
The wounded soldier had a proud family. They so disliked handouts that they had abandoned the Syrian refugee camp of Zaatari, in northern Jordan, to struggle with some dignity. But they accepted Maha’s generosity, and she wired them 20 Jordanian dinars for transportation costs. Soon after, she received a text message: “Thank you Madame Maha.”
As the two corresponded further, Maha learned the young man needed surgery on his leg. She used her connections to get an orthopedic surgeon to see him and treat him free of charge.
A few days later, Maha was visiting Zaatari. She decided to stop in to the hospital to see the young man’s X-rays. When she saw him in his room, she was struck by his piercing green eyes.
Sultan was born to a Sunni Muslim family in Dara’a, southern Syria, and spent most of his life in a suburban area before moving to the capital Damascus. His father was a government functionary and his mother worked at home. They weren’t well off, but Sultan had a happy childhood.
He finished basic schooling but avoided university. Sultan was clever enough, however, to get a job as a civil servant like his father. He augmented his income as a Honda car salesman. He had an apartment in the city, a good job and a fiance. Life was good.
Then in 2011, when Sultan was around 23 (he doesn’t know his birthday), the government began brutally dispatching its opponents. He disagreed with the cruelty, but his job made him a loyalist by default. For the first time in his life, he was torn about what to do.
As the protesters took up arms and the conflict became a war, an opposition emerged calling itself the Free Syrian Army, or FSA.
Sultan was stuck in the middle: He quietly rooted for the FSA to liberate Syria, but his feet were firmly planted on the regime side. He watched the government bomb civilian areas and blame it on the FSA, labeling them as “terrorists” in the state media. They would kidnap and smuggle people to police stations and torture them. Sultan couldn’t look at himself in the mirror anymore.
He called his uncle, an FSA battalion leader in Dara’a. The uncle had encouraged him to join the opposition before, and now Sultan assured him he was ready. He connected Sultan with an intermediary who would tell him where to meet, what to wear and what to say to join the group.
That day, Sultan went home to see his parents. He didn’t know if it would be the last time. When he greeted his mother, she knew something was amiss. “Are you going to defect?” she asked with concern. He wouldn’t give her a straight answer, but she knew the truth.
The next day, Sultan went to a rendezvous point on the edge of town. He waited anxiously until the intermediary showed up and drove him outside the city, through deserted areas and into a graveyard in the suburbs. He dropped Sultan off and said, “I can’t take you any further. Wait here.”
Another car arrived with two men inside.
“Are you Sultan?” they asked.
They got out of the car and blindfolded him. They put Sultan in the back seat and drove for about a half hour. Still blindfolded, he was handed over to five more men, who also asked him to confirm his identity. Finally he reached an FSA checkpoint guarded by armed rebels. From here, they took Sultan to an abandoned villa. Inside, he saw his uncle and the battalion.
After a few months fighting with the FSA, Sultan realized he disliked taking orders from a commander. He’d always been independent; that’s why he never tried for university. His father called him “the crazy child.”
During this time, his parents had moved back to Dara’a where they planned to leave for the relative safety of Jordan. Sultan was in east Ghouta, near Damascus, but wanted to see his family before they went.
So Sultan began a six-month journey by foot. He stopped in each town and help the local FSA brigade fight the regime in exchange for shelter. Sometimes he’d sleep in empty bullet-pocked villas void of electricity and water. Other times he’d curl up on the street with others who had lost their homes. He’d fight his way out of the village, then move on to the next place, fighting and moving south.
But by the time he reached Dara’a, his family had already left. There was nothing to do but continue fighting. That’s when he received his mission to assassinate a regime commander. The informant had said the commander would be alone, but he wasn’t. Whether he was lying or misinformed, it didn’t matter: The informant was later executed for the blunder.
As shots rang out, Sultan’s comrade ran away. Loud gunshots, screaming men, bullets striking structures and flesh — the chaos of battle clouded his senses. Sultan thinks he killed two enemy soldiers before he felt hit. When he saw the remains of his right leg, shredded by three exploding bullets, the fear that had crawled up his spine vanished. He checked his torso and his other limbs and noted no wounds. A miracle, he thought.
With gunfire bursting around him, Sultan dragged himself and his bloodied leg behind a building where he hid until reinforcements arrived and took him to a field hospital.
At the hospital, there were few supplies, little — if any — anesthetic and more wounded soldiers arriving every day. The doctor examining Sultan’s leg advised him to seek treatment in Jordan. It would be risky, but it was the only way to salvage the leg. Sultan’s uncle arranged a transport the next morning at 4 a.m.
Of course, there were no ambulances. Instead, Sultan was loaded into the back of a truck filled with grain. He took only one item on his journey: a hand grenade. If he fell under attack, he could detonate the truck and himself to avoid capture.
In war, fear of death turns to relief when death is evaded, put off for another day. Sultan had glanced death before, briefly sensing its cold breeze. But worse than death is helplessness. And that was Sultan: crippled and covered in grain with only a hand grenade and his prayers.
The truck navigated the Syrian roads toward the Jordanian border early that morning. It was a three-hour trip, each anxious second mimicking an eternity. Sultan knew he could be discovered at any moment.
And then suddenly, the truck stopped.
“Don’t make any noise,” the truck driver told Sultan. Scared to breathe, Sultan held perfectly still and listening to what was unfolding. He heard a bit of rumbling and voices. Then the back door of the truck opened and Sultan was face to face with armed men in uniform. The fear subsided a little when he realized these men were not Syrian. They had made it to a checkpoint on the Jordanian border and the men staring at him were in the Jordanian Armed Forces.
They asked Sultan where he was from. “Dera’a,” he said, but his accent was tinted with Damascene.
“You’re lying,” one of them said.
They handcuffed him and put him in a holding cell. That night the Jordanians vetted him to make sure he wasn’t part of the Islamic State or Nusra Front. Then they gave him 10 dinars, about $14, and sent him to a hospital. He used the money to buy phone credit and called his parents to tell them his situation. But his parents were farther from his hospital than they could afford to go. Sultan was wounded, in pain and alone in a country that was not his own.
One day a doctor was cleaning Sultan’s wound when he looked up from bed. There she was. He wasn’t sure how he knew she was Maha — the kind stranger who had wired his parents money to see him — but he did.
When Sultan met Maha, he was smitten by her class and humility. She dressed modestly and wore a veil, but her beauty was obvious from her kind, oval-shaped face and almond-shaped eyes.
In Sultan’s mind she was already his, and one of the first things he said was, “Who is that with you?” Maha introduced Sultan to her companion, a British journalist.
The first meeting didn’t last long. And for Sultan it didn’t need to. As soon as she left he rang a mutual friend for all the details on Maha. Was she married? Was this foreign guy her boyfriend or just a friend?
In this hospital his life — like his country — was in ruins. But an ember lit in Sultan’s spirit that day. Maha belonged to him. She just didn’t know it yet.
He began texting her every day. At first she was reluctant. He was always asking where she was and who she was with. The journalist wasn’t significant, but Sultan burned with jealousy. He was respectful, but she was an independent woman a decade his elder. So she kept her distance.
Things changed after he was discharged from the hospital. Sultan’s protectiveness made her feel warm. It wasn’t oppressive but caring. His persistence was endearing. And those striking eyes.
Maha met Sultan’s family. Sultan moved to Amman. Free hospitals there could heal his leg, but Sultan had another motive. He could see Maha every day.
Meanwhile, Maha was worried. She liked Sultan, but her family and her society would never approve. For her the appropriate husband should be worldly, educated, maybe someone who spoke multiple languages like her. Sultan only spoke Arabic. Loving him would be disgraceful.
Maha responded to her apprehensions by pushing Sultan away. She told him they had to stop talking, that there was no realistic future for them.
“OK,” he said. “But I will always wait for you until you are married. I won’t marry at all unless you marry the right person. When I make sure you are in the right hands I will give up on you. But until then, I will never give up on you.”
Hearing that was too much. She had seen suitors come and go, and she knew Sultan’s devotion was pure. She could either live a lie, or tell her parents about the man who had her heart. So she told them.
Their reaction was as bad as she imagined. They weren’t sure what was worse, the fact Sultan was a refugee or that he was just a kid.
“What if he is just using you?” they asked.
Sultan stuck by her through this period. He told her he would always be there for her at the end.
But problems at home worsened. Maha’s mother fell into a deep depression. Not sure what else she could do, Maha asked Sultan to leave her alone.
Sultan was heartbroken. The situation in Syria was worsening by the day. Radical groups were grabbing headlines, and the Assad regime that had taken his leg was reclaiming land and victories. All he had were brief moments with Maha. And now those were as fleeting as his visions of a liberated Syria.
There was nothing left to lose, so he decided to go back to visit his parents’ house and then return to the front lines of the war in Syria. His leg wasn’t fully healed, and it never would be. But he was determined to liberate his homeland or, more likely, die trying.
Maha, meanwhile, was trying to shake Sultan’s ghost. Her parents had arranged four suitors, all older men from respectable families, to come and meet her. Most were in their 50s. One was already married and looking for a second wife. She couldn’t see a happy life with any of them.
Her relatives scorned her for refusing these men, but they knew it as clearly as Maha did: She loved Sultan.
These were the hardest three months of their lives.
Finally, Maha learned through mutual contacts of Sultan’s plans to return to Syria. Her heart sank at the idea of him putting himself in danger. She couldn’t stand it, and she broke the silence. She asked Sultan to message her once per day, but not to call.
Sultan obliged and put off his decision to return to Syria. As they talked, Maha’s emotions quickly got the best of her. Their love was forbidden, but they couldn’t live without each other, so she devised a way to reunite.
She asked Sultan to come back to Amman and help her with a new fundraising project to help Syrian refugees called 1,000 Families.
“We’re going to be together again?” Sultan asked Maha.
“We were never apart,” Maha replied. “We were just in different cities. We never stopped loving each other.”
Maha and Sultan launched their project, 1,000 Families, on June 15. They’re currently collecting money to support Syrian refugee families during Ramadan, which started last week.
Maha’s mother — once sick at the prospect of Maha marrying a refugee — had begun getting to know Sultan. The family still had doubts about his prospects for finding work, but it was hard not to see how much he cared for Maha. A couple of months ago, her family began to reluctantly welcome Sultan into their home.
On May 29, Sultan sent me a photo on Facebook. It showed him in a black suit and red tie, flushed red cheeks and his hair slicked back, sitting in a chair in Maha’s home. Next to him was Maha’s father, the retired diplomat, a smile across his creviced face.
The note accompanying the photo was written in English, meaning Maha had typed it for him. It was a single line: “With my father in law.”
Edited by Ben Wolford.