(Author’s note: This account is based on extensive interviews conducted over three years with Jami and Jenna Slim and their mother, Angie Romans. Where possible, the facts have been independently verified.)
I have become so unhappy. I don’t want this life anymore. – Jami
Sweat collects under the hijab that hides her long brown hair. The crowded bus emits a pungent odor of stale sweat and garlic, but she is not offended. Jami glances at her sister, Jenna, who does not wear a hijab; her sunlit mane flows to her waist. Freedom not to wear the hijab was a birthday gift from their Dad this year, when Jenna turned fifteen. She begged for it tirelessly. Funny, Jami never considered asking for such a lofty present.
Kacy, the sisters’ dear friend and neighbor, has stolen away in support of their escape. She is traveling to Beirut to see them safely board the flight to America, then she will return to Komatieh, their village. Jami was seven, Jenna was five, and Jessica only two when their dad kidnapped them from St. Thomas, Canada, after he and their mother divorced. During his weekend visitation, instead of going to his apartment he took them to the airport to board a flight to Beirut, Lebanon. He told the girls that their mom would join them later. She didn’t, but over the years she could call them.
“Hello, Mommy, can you bring my water gun when you come,” Jami would beg.
“Honey, Mommy can’t come right now. It’s not safe right now,” Mom would say.
“But Dad said you are coming on the plane to live with us. Why won’t you come? I miss you, Mommy. Please, when are you coming?”
“Sweetheart, Mommy loves you so much. You don’t ever forget that. No matter how long it takes me to see you. Don’t forget, I love you! Promise me you won’t forget,” Mom would cry.
“I hate you! You are a liar! You aren’t coming. You are just saying that. You just don’t want to be with us,” Jami would scream.
Jami didn’t mean any of the things she said to Mom. She knew Mom didn’t believe the hurtful words, either, because Mom kept calling, every week without fail.
Jami is old enough to remember Mom, before they were separated—her smile, the sound of her laughter, her warm hugs and her blue-green eyes, always sparkling. Living without her has been agony.
Sneaking away from school this morning without the guards noticing was a pure miracle. Finding the bus route and a driver was tricky, since Dad is also a bus driver. They all know him. The girls pay bus fare with the spare Lira they have collected and some American money they took from their Dad’s closet. It’s money Mom sent to them, but that he kept.
The first leg of their journey got them two blocks down the road, then the van overheated. Farther down the street they manage to board a larger bus to carry them the full thirty-five minute trip to Beirut.
Jessica, now 12, is not with them. Their situation is risky enough. Age 16 and 15, Jami and her younger sister Jenna are barely old enough to leave the country by themselves. Making it through airport security will be challenging. Even saying goodbye to Jessica would have been too dangerous.
Jami’s knees scrape the back of the seat as she wiggles into a more comfortable position. The three are squished together on one seat. Cheeks pressing up against the window, Jami stares out trying not to think any more about Jessica. Up ahead, two cars have stopped in the middle of the road, and one driver jumps out yelling at the other driver. She sighs as their bus steers around the congestion. Street vendors line the sidewalks shoulder to shoulder selling vegetables, jewelry, fabrics. She wonders if she’ll ever come back.
Jenna breaks into her thoughts. “Jami, what are you staring at?”
“Nothing. Everything,” she tells her. “I don’t want to forget, but I can hardly wait to leave.”
“I have dreamt of this moment for so long. I always believed it would come true,” Jenna says.
Kacy leans toward them, smiles, and cups her hands over theirs gently squeezing. “This is it! Jenna, Jami. You are really doing this. Finally after all the planning, you are escaping. This time it is real. Not like last time.”
Jenna’s green eyes flash. “This time the escape is our choice! Dad can’t hurt us anymore. Not now. Not ever. But the best part of all, we are finally going to be with Mom!”
Their giddy chatter continues as if they have a million things to share and only one moment to say it all. As the bus approaches Beirut, time seems to slip away more and more quickly. They catch each other’s giggles like a bad cold, and Jami locks eyes with an elderly lady sitting across the aisle from them. The lady reminds her of her grandmother. Her disapproving eyes are the color of her black scarf and it’s difficult to tell where the scarf ends and her black smock top begins. Jami doesn’t care. This is their adventure. No one can ruin it.
She leans her head against the window again and closes her eyes, hoping the sunshine will calm her thoughts, soothe her into sleep. When was the last time she polished the kitchen floor? Who would do this now? She doesn’t care. That’s no longer her job. Random feelings trickle through her mind as she drifts off.
Memories of the fight they had with Dad a month ago pummel her mind. His unpredictable mood swings and anger frightened her. On rare occasions she had seen him relaxed, enjoying his family. But mostly—especially after the divorce—she remembers him being irritable, angry, yelling. She remembers him striking out toward her and Jenna—to Jenna more often because she can’t keep her words inside her mouth. Jenna tried to act tough, like it didn’t hurt. But her words were the match that ignited Dad’s fury.
I remember him saying he loved me, but only once. – Jami
As the bus jostles them down the road, Jami attempts to stop her thoughts from rewinding to last month’s fight with their dad.
“Get out,” he roared as the sun set over their apartment building. “I don’t care where you go—even if it’s to your Mom. Get out! I don’t want you here!”
His angry words pierced their ears, its meaning seeping in as they rushed to their room. Only one other time had he had thrown them out like this, but they were much younger and they didn’t understand it.
They didn’t wait to see where he went. They did not speak. Their hearts raced and their hands shook as they packed, paying little attention to the items they hurled into their bags. Jami tossed one shoe in and didn’t bother to find the mate. It happened so fast she didn’t notice what Jessica and her stepbrothers were doing. Mostly, when their Dad raged, they hid—in their bed, under the covers.
Fifteen minutes later, bags in hand, they made their exit without turning back. Jami didn’t give a thought to the dirty dishes still in the sink. Barely down one flight of stairs, they realized that their bags were too heavy to carry much farther. They stashed them behind the stairwell closet on the ground floor, across from their grandparents’ apartment.
“We can get it later. If we need it,” Jami whispered. They knew if their grandparents saw them they would run to tell Dad.
“Let’s go to the Kacy’s building—to the roof,” Jenna said. “She said there’s an empty apartment there, and we can get a key from her later. It should be safe.”
Their eagerness carried them to the apartments next door. Without attracting suspicion, they slipped through the door to the stairwell and climbed five flights to the roof, where they hid behind the shed that housed the water tank.
Jami’s eyes panned the horizon like a camera documenting a story. Beyond the walls and the rooftops, the majestic mountains surrounding their village and the chiseled silhouettes of buildings comforted them like a familiar blanket. They sat on the cold concrete, propping themselves against the wall and facing the exit door, a possible escape route.
“We can’t stay here forever,” Jami said, her older-sister authority rising within her. “We need a plan. If we don’t get some help, eventually Dad will find us. It should be safe to stay here through the night. We’ll find Kacy in the morning. Maybe she can help.”
Jenna popped up and began pacing, her tempo increasing with her agitation.
“I can’t go back!” she announced. “One way or another, I have to find a way out—away from, Dad. I’m working on a real escape.”
“I know how hard it is, and I’m ready to leave, too.”
After burning off her nervous energy, Jenna sat and rested her head on Jami’s shoulder.
“If this doesn’t work out, I won’t go back home. I just can’t,” she said.
Nightfall crept around them. They had no idea what to do next. Their plan was as empty as their stomachs.
“Do you smell that,” Jenna asked finally, breaking the silence.
They inhaled the fragrance of meat and cinnamon. It was as though the whole building were having kafta. This made their hunger fiercer.
Frogs began croaking their evening lullaby. Jenna nodded off while Jami stared at the stars, no longer feeling the concrete beneath her. She didn’t remember dozing off, either, but as she gazed at the moon, the night fled and made way for the day. It was a serene moment but it didn’t last. Whatever peace the night brought was quickly replaced by the shock of waking in a strange place. It took them a moment to regain their wits. The crisp November air cooled them, and they were glad to have their jackets. The sun was still behind the clouds and the moon had disappeared into a rosy dawn. Instinctively, they placed their fingers over their lips, making a silent shh. Then they laughed. Jenna knuckled the sleep from her eyes and ran her fingers through her blonde hair, brushing it back into a secure ponytail.
“Maybe Kacy is up and getting ready for school,” she said. “Let’s go try to catch her before she leaves. She should have a key to her neighbors’ vacation apartment and we can hide there,” she said. The apartment belonged to a Swedish couple.
“How long will they be gone?”
“A few weeks, I think.”
Dusting off their clothes, they left the roof and crept down the stairwell to the third floor, Kacy’s floor. As if on cue, Kacy walked out of her apartment. They waved to her and ducked back into the stairwell.
“What are you doing here?” Kacy asked, hugging them both. She could barely keep from squealing. “Are you running away?”
“We slept on the roof of your building,” Jenna said. “But now we need a new place to stay until we figure out what to do next. Can you get us into your neighbors’ apartment on the fourth floor?”
“Their place would be perfect,” Jami said. “But we have to hurry and get out of here.”
“Go ahead and go upstairs,” Kacy said. “I’ll get a key and meet you up there in a few minutes. There’s no way I’m going to the university today with all this excitement going on.”
Kacy’s neighbors’ apartment was decorated with upscale art work. Exquisite rugs warmed the polished marble floors. Every inch was pristine. The sun peeked in a window and Jami glimpsed her reflection in the marble as she crossed through the kitchen to the bedroom.
For a moment she thought of their kitchen, Dad’s kitchen. It was normal for her to spend hours after school cleaning and scrubbing the floor-to-ceiling marble until it gleamed. From an early age, deep cleaning their home was expected of her. It was more than an obligation; she wanted to keep it clean. To make Dad proud of their home—and of her.
“Daddy, you are home so late,” Jami would say. “I kept some mjadra warm for you. Here, sit down at the table and relax while you eat,” she would say anxiously.
“Is this all you cooked?” he would shout. “It’s not even a full meal. Where’s my salata? Did you make fries? We have a kitchen full of food, but you can’t cook enough for me?”
“I will make you a salata right now, Daddy. Did you notice I buffed the kitchen floors?”
“Did you clean under the stove?”
When she was 12 one day he told her he loved her. It was in passing, and she was so shocked that she almost missed it. And that was all—gone in a blink. She never heard it again.
They went into the Swedes’ bedroom and climbed into the king-sized bed, all three of them. The night had been so short for Jenna and Jami, but they were still running on adrenaline. Quickly they brought Kacy up to speed and, as they chatted, their giggles faded into a blissful, deep sleep.
Rap, rap, rap! Knuckles rattled against the apartment door, but still they slept. “Kacy, are you and the Slim girls in there?” Kacy’s Mom called from the hallway. “Kacy, open up. Let me help.”
They tossed in their slumbers and dreamily heard a distant voice. The hours slowly drifted by.
The growling of Jami’s stomach finally awakened her. Jenna and Kacy began to stir.
Suddenly—bang, bang, bang on the door. Frozen, they stared at each other. Bang, bang, bang...
“We know you are in there,” Jessica and their stepbrothers shouted in unison.
“Open the door! I know you are in there,” Dad yelled. “I’ll get the police to come break down this door.”
They huddled in the bed.
“Shh,” Jenna whispered. “Maybe they’ll give up if we are quiet.”
The banging went on for what seemed like forever. Then as quickly as it began, it stopped. They stared at each other until Jami broke the spell.
“I don’t know what will happen next, but soon we have to go home and pray for the best.”
“Please, let’s just stay here a while longer,” Jenna pleaded. “We are already in trouble, so why should we rush? If we really think hard, we can find a way out. Please, Jami.”
“Maybe I can talk to my Mom?” Kacy suggested. “I can ask her to meet us at your apartment. With her there it might keep your Dad from blowing up like he always does. It’s worth a try.”
Resolved to face the situation together, they left the apartment behind.
The sun had set when they entered the first floor of their building and retrieved the luggage they had left behind the stairs. White-knuckled from gripping their bags, they began their ascent. Halfway up the second floor, they recognized their Dad sitting on one of the steps, just in front of their doorway. A deep moan engulfed their ears. They were caught, not in a fury of rants, but in a cry of relief. They had been prepared to cower under his 6-foot-frame, like lambs at a slaughter. Instead, he simply ushered them into the apartment. Jessica stood in the hallway near their bedroom and her stepbrothers near the living room, all of them caught off guard.
“You came home,” Dad wailed. “I didn’t think you would ever come home. I thought you were gone forever.”
There wasn’t time for a reply. The phone saved them. Dad cleared his throat as he answered the call, and they took the opening to put their bags in their bedroom. They smiled at Jessica, and she nodded.
They caught only his side of the conversation, then he stopped talking and, covering the phone with his right hand, shoved it to Jami.
“I was so worried that I called the American Embassy looking for you,” he told her. “Now you have to fix it! Tell her that everything is fine and you are OK. Say that you were only skipping school for fun.” He droped the phone into her hand.
She answered in Arabic. “Hello? Yes, my name is Jami Slim.” A female voice was on the other end. “I am all right, thank you. We only skipped school for fun, and we are so sorry to worry our Dad.” She wondered why this nice lady seemed so concerned about her and Jenna.
“I don’t mean to interrupt, but where did you say you are calling from,” Jami asked. “I’ve never heard of the American Embassy. Are you in America? Beirut, really? I don’t know about your American Embassy. Yes, I’m sure we are OK, shukran. Of course you can talk to my sister.”
Jami passed the phone to Jenna.
“Hi, yes, my name is Jenna Slim,” Jenna answered, the usual smile in her voice. She turned her back from her Dad’s watchful eyes. “Can you repeat that again? I didn’t hear you very well.” She listened intently to memorize, as Jami later learned, the Embassy’s phone number the woman provided.
“Yes, we are fine. We didn’t mean to make any trouble,” Jenna said. “It was nice to talk to you, too. Shukran for calling.” Jenna turned to face her Dad.
“Now,” he said, “put your things away and clean up the kitchen if you want any dinner. You’re hungry, aren’t you? What have you eaten today?”
Without another word he turned for his room. There was a sickening feeling in their stomachs, and they knew this wasn’t the end.
But the time would come. A door had opened at last, a door their Dad had naively opened. The woman that called to check on them—her voice was so pleasant, reassuring. Maybe she could help them get to their Mom. What was this American Embassy? Why had their Dad called them when he thought they weren’t coming back? Now, it seemed, they had someone on their side.
From that night forward and each time Jenna fought with their dad, which was often, she would call the Embassy lady. She told how they had been kidnapped. On those occasions when she couldn’t call herself, Kacy called for her.
I’m a dreamer. I have visualized from a very young age how to leave. – Jenna
As the driver steers the bus toward Beirut, Jenna’s mind oscillates between their excitement, now that they are on their way, and a month ago when Dad kicked them out of the house, and finally to last night when everything fell into place.
Finally, Jenna had proof. She had remained calm enough to record their dad during their fight. It’s one thing for a girl to explain how bad her life is, but it’s completely different when she has evidence. It’s taken almost ten years, but she always believed they’d get out of here.
This past year, especially these last months, Jenna and Jami have been learning to cope with their situation by praying, the way their Mom taught them. During their Sunday phone calls, Mom talked about having something called faith.
Jenna could almost hear her mom’s voice: I know God is moving and going to bring you back to me. You start saying the same thing out loud to each other, and you believe it in your heart. Don’t doubt it, ever! Mom reminded her.
Faith is a part of their mother and it is becoming a part of them. Their Dad has never spoken of God. When Jenna was younger, a few years after Dad took them from St. Thomas and brought them to Lebanon, she would walk to the Mosque and watch people. Most went inside to pray, but she’d stayed outside. Sometimes she would kneel on the ground and bow her head on a rock, trying to mimic the ritual of prayer. At night she enjoyed sitting on the apartment balcony looking at the moon. Jenna believed the moon was God’s house, and He would sit down and dangle His feet over the edge to watch over them. She dreamed of finding a piece of wood large enough to float her across the ocean, back to her Mom.
The bus lurches to the left, jostling her attention back to Jami and Kacy.
“Jami,” she nudges her sister with her shoulder. “Are you thinking about last night, too?”
“Yeah, hard not to. Are you OK?” Jami asks.
“I’m better than OK. I’m great. I knew our plan would work. With this evidence, everyone will believe us. I really didn’t even feel his hand slapping my face. It was like being in a dream. You know, when everything is in slow motion and without feeling.” Jenna’s grin widens. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, you just seem far off.” Jami looks at her and starts to reach for Jenna’s cheek. “So you aren’t hurt?”
Jenna impulsively brushes her hand away. “I can’t stop thinking about last night. I believe with all my heart that it’s not an accident that our plan worked so smoothly! An even bigger miracle happened when Dad called me back to his room this morning to say he was sorry. He never apologizes. I’d been praying for a way to say goodbye, without him knowing I was leaving. When he did that, I knew that was my goodbye.”
“But weren’t you so scared Dad would catch you stealing the passports?” Jami asks. “I held my breath the whole time and prayed he wouldn’t hear you.”
The bus slows to a halt at the next stop and more passengers push onto the already crowded ride. More than half are standing. Arabic chatter rises another decibel. One final stop before they reach the church in Beirut, their appointed destination.
Yesterday, after Jenna realized Dad knew she had skipped school, she decided to risk everything. She desperately wanted the proof that would get her out of Lebanon. If she didn’t try, the chance to try again might not come for a long time. Be brave, she told herself.
She had dressed as if she planned to go to school; instead, she went to Kacy’s apartment to hang out, listen to music and hide. Jami took Jessica and their twin step-brothers to school, as usual. By late morning Jenna decided it was safe to go back to her own apartment until her brothers and sisters walked home from school. The unusually cold December temperatures made way for the occasional rain showers. As she relaxed in her pajamas, she heard footsteps clomping up the stairs toward the front door.
“Jenna,” Jami said breathlessly, “Dad picked us up from school and he’s parking the car.”
“You’re in trouble,” Jessica said as she hurried out of the kitchen to the bedroom.
“Yah, Dad is so mad,” the twins taunted.
“Good! I don’t care,” Jenna said as she raced to her room, Jami two steps behind her.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m getting the recorder. I put fresh batteries in it, and it’s fully charged.” Jenna steadied her hands as she tucked the hand-held device inside the top of her pajamas to hide it. She knew she didn’t have much time.
“Jenna, I don’t know if this is a good idea.”
“I do. This will be all the proof I need. You don’t want to be in here when he comes in. I’ll be OK, promise.”
“Please be careful.”
Determination filled her. This will work, Jenna told herself. This will be her ticket out.
Her index finger hit the record button. She busied herself filling the water bottles in the corner of the kitchen. She was ready. Dad exploded into the apartment.
The first slap came down solid on her left cheek.
Next, a backhanded slap across her right cheek.
By the time the third strike landed, she had willed herself not to feel it.
Each strike stung less than the one before. She was numb when it ended, leaving her in the center of the kitchen. Slowly, she made her way back to her bedroom.
“Jami, I got it all on tape,” she whispered. “I’m leaving tomorrow. I’m going to get Kacy’s attention from our balcony, and she can call the Embassy. I want to give them this tape. It should be enough to get me on a plane out of here.”
“I’m going with you,” Jami said, clutching her arm. “You aren’t leaving me here to take the blame when you’re gone.”
“I want you to come, but if you change your mind, I’m still leaving.”
“I know you will, but I’m sure—I’m coming, too.”
Jenna glanced out the bedroom door to listen for any movement before slipping into the hallway. The silence satisfied her. Returning to her room, she walked to the glass door leading to the balcony. She traced her hand over the cool metal handle to steady her willpower. She listened again and turned the handle. December’s mountain air and the singing crickets and frogs recharged her. This is what I will miss—Lebanon, she realized.
“Psst, psst, Kacy,” she whispered in the direction of Kacy’s balcony. She glanced back into her apartment. “Kacy,” she hissed again, leaning over the edge to throw her voice toward Kacy’s ears. “Kaaacccy,” she mustered once more. Finally, she spotted a profile. Please, God, let it be, Kacy, she exhaled.
“Jenna, what are you doing?” Kacy whispered.
“Yalla, I need your help. Can you call the Embassy, now? Tell them that I have a recording of my dad—Dad hitting me. I am running away tomorrow morning, and Jami said she is coming, too. Ask them what we will need to get on an airplane to America. I’ll wait here. Yalla.”
“OK, I’ll be back.”
Crouching on the balcony, the full moon seemed to expose her like an X-ray machine: Her scars. Her pain. “God, I don’t know if you are up there, but if you can hear me, I want to go home to be with my mom. If I do go, show me the way to say a silent goodbye to my dad. Give me a sign to know when it’s my goodbye. Fill me with peace so I know it’s settled inside of me.” Shukran, she mouthed to the heavens. She dabbed the corners of her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt. The mountaintops seemed to grow larger as the moon’s shadow played off their peaks.
“Jenna, are you still there?” Kacy whispered.
Jenna leaned forward. “What did they say?”
“You need your passports—and your birth certificates, if you can get them. They will meet you after the third bus stop in Beirut—the one across from the church. You know the place? But I want to ride with you tomorrow. Can I?”
“Fine with me. I will see you in the morning. Shukran, Kacy.” She waved goodnight.
Jenna asked Jami to stand guard while she made her way into Dad’s empty room. He was dozing on he couch. They agreed that if he started coming into the room, Jami would call out the twins’ names to warn her.
The room was dark and she had to navigate with her arms and hands stretched out in front of her until she reached the opening of his closet. She managed to glide her hands over the boxes on the top shelf. She had no idea which box contained the passports, and in her eagerness the weight of her hand dislodged one of the boxes, causing it to tumble into her outstretched arms. She crouched on the floor, waiting for the noise to reach her Dad.
“Yalla! Did you find them,” Jami hissed from the hallway.
She couldn’t speak. By now, her eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Peering into the box, she saw all of their passports stacked inside. She found hers and then Jami’s. For a moment she considered taking Dad’s, too, so he couldn’t follow them, then decided against it.
Quickly she grabbed the two passports, replaced the box on the shelf, and hurried out of the room.
“I got them,” Jenna said under her breath, sweeping past Jami on the way to the bedroom.
“I can hardly believe this is happening,” Jami whispered, following her.
Jenna kept smiling. “I’m full of freaky bubbles, but it feels good. Here, put this in your backpack,” she said as she handed over Jami’s passport.
“Shukran. Let’s be smart and plan this right. Only pack a few things that are special—things we don’t want to leave behind. It will look like we are packed for school.” Jami said.
“Sneaky, I like it.” The thought made her smile even more. But as she rested her head on her pillow, her smile weakened. She touched her cheek, quickly before Jami saw her. Why does he hit, she wondered.
She watched Jami slide a box not much larger than a shoebox from beneath the bed and removed the lid to reveal her treasures: a few necklaces, bracelets, some Lira, music cassette tapes, journals, a book of poems, a calendar, two bottles of cologne, stationary for writing. Gently, Jami transferred them into her backpack.
“Jenna, come here,” Dad called from his bedroom.
The girls stared at each other, Jenna’s heart racing.
“What if he sees the passports missing? What are we going to do,” Jami said.
“It doesn’t matter. Nothing is changing. I’ll be back. Don’t be scared.”
She walked slowly to his room. Be brave, she told herself. “Yes, sir, did you call me?”
“I am sorry for what happened last night,” he said as he hugged her. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Shukran. It’s OK,” she said as she tapped his back. She knew it would never happen again. And she knew this was her goodbye. A calm filled her.
I used to watch the airplanes from my balcony, and knew that one day I’d be on one. – Jenna
The bus slows to a halt next to the church where they are to meet Herro, the lady from the Embassy. The driver opens the doors and they gather their backpacks and make their way out. The three girls stand at the curb and watch the bus slowly pull away. Jenna turns back toward their meeting place, the church, and notices a midnight-blue SUV that wasn’t there before. Quickly, she glances at Jami, then at Kacy to see if they have noticed. Jami turns to face the church as a gentle December breeze lifts her hijab, ever so slightly, from her shoulders.
Softly she reaches for the ties, and her hands effortlessly free it from her head.