When I was pregnant with my second child, I had 3 women “on call” for my delivery in the event it occurred while my husband was out of town. 3 women who before moving to Qatar, I did not know. All three had become close friends. This was a stark contrast to when I delivered our first child in Chicago where we were newly transplanted. Not a single person came to visit in the hospital and only 2 sets of friends visited afterwards. This was despite being very social people.
As expats we are all dislocated, out of our realm. An acquaintance becomes a fast friend: the kind you had growing up. You know the kind of childhood friends I am talking about? The kind you told about your first crush, the kind who sat with you as you cried over your first heartache and the kind who cheered as you graduated university. Our expat friends have been witness to the birth of our daughter, have attended her christening, and have been there to support us when she was hospitalized not once but twice.
I am very fortunate to have some amazing women in my life. In fact I am overwhelmed by the cumulative number of said women. When reflecting where these women reside: 2 dozen are in the USA, a handful scattered around the world and over 3 dozen are right here in Qatar. This past year when I have held gatherings for the girls (I love to cook), I have held them divided in 2 groups so I can accommodate everyone.
Recently, I was thinking that for all the hassles, headaches and heartache, I was going to miss Qatar once we finally left. It has become what we have known for 6 of the last 7 years. Our routines have been built. Thursday is movie night, just our family. Friday is “family day” and entails lounging and frolicking by the pool as we have our lunch. But Monday mornings are reserved for my daughter. I have her all to myself. In the cooler weather we spend the day either at Aspire Park or at the zoo.
In the spring as the temperature climbed forcing us indoors we could almost always be found at Villagio’s indoor play place: Gondolania. For a total of 30 QR my daughter could jump on the trampoline and climb to her heart’s content. And as my 5’4”ish frame allowed, I was almost always climbing with her. Gondolania is very convenient as it is a several minute drive from our home.
This past Monday, I decided not to take our daughter “jumping” as she so fondly referred to it. My knee had taken a hit and would not survive the twists and turns of the tunnels coupled with having a friend in town and having a rare chance to meet her for lunch. Our regular trip to Gondolania was cancelled.
My story is the same as many others told to me this past week. The could have been’s: the nursery almost chosen, the sick child who didn’t attend nursery at Gympanzee (within Villagio) that day and the mum who didn’t go to the mall this past Monday because of her daughter’s dance rehearsal.
Leaving for lunch in the opposite direction of the mall, there were police officers at every corner. A fire engine screamed by and then later an ambulance or two. Arriving to lunch, my friend said “There is a fire at Villagio.” My initial thoughts were: “They will contain it and everyone will be all right.” By the end of day, we would learn 13 children, 4 teachers and 2 firefighters lost their lives in the Villagio fire. An utter unimaginable tragedy.
The feelings amongst us all have been similar: shock, disbelief, and heartbreaking grief, as it could have been any of our children. The saddest news however was loss of 3 children in 2 different families: a set of New Zealand triplets and 3 Spanish siblings. This is not to minimize the loss of any one of the 19 lives lost.
The day after the fire, my phone rang before 7 am, it was a friend. She couldn’t sleep. Her night was filled with terrible dreams: trapped in Villagio trying to escape with her children. Another friend, a soon to be mom, texted wondering, “How does one ever stop worrying about their child?” She too was plagued with a sleepless night. Entering another mall for the first time after the fire, I was taken at how anxious I felt being up on the 2nd floor in a back room for a birthday party. I couldn’t help but note the fire exits as we entered.
Within 24 hours a tribute to the families of victims was organized. This was one of several over the next few days. 1500 people of varied nationalities attended. It was a time for us to grieve, bond and really show our sense of community. A sense we assumed was there but was put to the test. The result was powerful albeit bittersweet. The country is in a state of mourning. No one will forget the numbers: 13, 4 & 2 or where they were when the fire broke out.
There are many things that stink about being an expat but this sense of community really stinks when it breaks your heart.
May the families of the victims be wrapped in a blanket of our comfort as we hold them in our thoughts and prayers to carry them through this difficult time. Your loved ones will not be forgotten may they rest in peace.