Jazz Shaban tells a tale of two sisters reunited in Damascus

I was only eight months old when my sister Suzan, who is 10 years older than me, was taken back to the Middle East by our mother after our father died.

My father, Mohumed Shaban, worked for the Jordanian military attache’s office in London and until then, our future looked secure as a diplomat’s daughters.

Neither of us could have predicted that for 18 years neither of us knew where the other was, or even if we were still alive.

I had been left in a South London hospital because I had a rare bone disease which meant my bones fractured easily and I couldn’t walk.

When my mother did not return to England to collect me, I was transferred to Penhurst, a residential school for disabled children.

As I had no other family in England to look after me, I stayed at the school all the year round. It was a secure upbringing and I was well cared for.

Suzan was left by our mother to live with various family members in Jordan and then Syria.

As a widow, my mother needed to remarry and having a 12-year-old in tow would make that difficult.

Living as a refugee in her own family and unable to speak the Arabic language, Suzan had no one to protect her and she struggled as she set about adjusting to the Arab culture.

Our father’s passing had changed little for me. I would most likely have gone into residential care of some sort anyway because that was all there was in the 60s for disabled people. But for Suzan, the culture shock was huge.

Until the day that she started to talk into my tape machine, I had no idea about how she felt about being abandoned and the life she endured as she was growing up.

Our lives were so very different, it was hard to see who we could possibly connect.

That changed in 2000 when, having been reunited, I was visiting Suzan in Damascus in Syria, where she lived.

She was poorly and told me almost as soon as I got off the plane that she didn’t have long to live. Not true, of course, but how would I know? I hardly knew her.

She was, in fact, going to hospital to have her gall bladder removed the next day, no big deal if you are under the care of the NHS, but in a country where every bit of treatment and medication has to be paid for by the patient, it’s a whole different story.

Having survived the surgery, Suzan could do nothing during my two-week visit but to lie on her bed and chat, something she was good at.

When she said, “I want to tell you my story”, my ears pricked up. A strange response perhaps for sisters who should know everything about each other. But the truth is we didn’t know each other. We had lived in different countries all our lives and had only managed fleeting glimpses of each other until, after 20 years of separation, I started visiting Syria.

Despite her revelations, when I returned home to Bicester from her sick bed, I put the tapes in a battered brown case and forgot all about them. It wasn’t until 10 years later, as the Arab Spring approached, that Suzan asked me if I had finished the book and I remembered the tapes.

A few months later civil unrest began in Damascus. Living in leafy Oxfordshire it was hard to imagine what it must have been like for Suzan. Communications were difficult for a year and once again Suzan and I were separated.

I had no idea if Suzan had survived the bombings in Damascus but I wanted to keep my promise, so started writing in earnest.

Four years later, Syria is suffering in the wake of the Arab Spring and Suzan is living in the US, but we now have our book, Road to Damascus, now available in paperback.