Facebook unites Brandon mom with girls missing 20 years
It’s been 20 years since Lilly Martin saw her daughters -- since the day her husband took them away from her home in Miami to raise them with his family in the Middle East.
It’s going to be a little longer still because of network problems that grounded many American Airlines flights, including the one scheduled to deliver oldest daughter Dala to Tampa International Airport on Tuesday night.
But a reunion is close enough now that Martin got emotional Tuesday afternoon when she considered what she’d say when they finally meet again.
“Right now, she is Muslim and I am Catholic; I want to bless her but I don’t know what I will achieve in those first moments,” said Martin, a native of Colombia, as she recounted all she went through to get her daughters back – the law enforcement and diplomatic channels, the trips to Washington and the United Nations.
Then she wept.
“I want to hold her for one hour. I want to touch her, I want to feel her, I want to smell her. … I want her to know I am so proud of her.”
And she wants Dala to see her new family – Jose Martin, Lilly’s husband of 19 years; the couple’s 16-year-old daughter Kelly Martin; and Lilly’s son from an earlier marriage, Juan Sebastian Gomez, whom the girls knew before. They now live in Brandon.
A social media message reconnected Martin and her daughters where the mother’s long campaign had failed.
Last year, in another bid to reconnect, Martin decided to tweak her Facebook page, changing her last name back to the one she and her daughters got from her ex-husband, Mohamed Waked. Daughters, Dala, now 25, and Lamia, 22, soon found the page. They reached out to Martin there.
Her son saw the Facebook note first and told Jose Martin, 50, who works delivering health equipment and supplies in St. Petersburg.
The men remember breaking the news to Lilly when she returned home to Brandon one day from her job as a hair stylist.
Still, Dala and Lamia were forced to communicate with Lilly in secret via Skype, and only on Fridays, while their Muslim grandfather was away at prayers. It was taboo even to mention her name while the girls were growing up in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Now married women in their 20s, with husbands sympathetic to their hopes of seeing their mother again, they are reconnecting with her.
Dala flew from Cairo to New York on Tuesday and Jose Martin was trying to learn how American Airlines would get her to Tampa. She travels alone because her husband could not get a visa and Lamia is in the midst of sensitive pregnancy, Jose Martin said.
The little-girl faces of Dala and Lamia still appear on the missing children website of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, with their father, now 55, listed as the suspect in their disappearance.
During their early days in Damascus, Syria, Waked allowed his wife to talk with the girls by phone, Jose Martin said. One was 4, one 21 months old at the time of the abduction.
But soon, as his wife filed for divorce, Waked cut off the calls. Their mother’s campaign and the girls’ story were widely reported in the U.S. and Colombia.
Waked made off with the children, Jose Martin said, while she was away at cosmetology class. He left young Juan to tell her that Waked had taken them for ice cream.
Why did he do it?
“You can ask the girls that,” Lilly Martin said. “I know I had been planning to take them with me for a visit to Colombia.”
The girls have now told Lilly that they knew when they were growing up there was something different about their family. They told her they discovered pictures of her that their father had hidden.
Jose and Lilly Martin had grown to fear that the sisters might still be in Syria, a nation now in the midst of a bloody civil war.
Instead, they are married, living in Egypt with their husbands.
“We couldn’t find them,” Jose Martin said, “but the girls found her.”