I met Yeva for the first time one afternoon at her home while waiting for Ohan to arrive. She lived upstairs in one of the traditional Lebanese homes of stone with beautiful high arches and windows that showed off the decorative wrought iron work of early 20th century architecture. A long flight of marbled stairs worn out from years of use ran up the side of the building leading to a balcony entrance. Sweet smelling rayhan (basil) potted in large painted cans lined the foot of the iron handrails at the side of the staircase and perimeter of the balcony.
Yeva opened the door. She was a small woman, but not in any way frail. She was well built, with a dark complexion and prominent features. She had thick black eyebrows that formed a semicircle around her deep-set eyes that peered through heavy lashes. Her hair, thick waves of black hugged the nape of her neck and fell forward to circle around her V-shaped chin. Her thin lips formed a welcoming smile as she invited me in. The main room had a dining table set for three, and there were two sofas facing each other separated by a coffee table. Clean ashtrays lay on colorful embroidered tablemats. The aroma of a home cooked meal wafted from the kitchen into the room. She said she had food cooking on the stove and wanted to make sure it was ready before her daughter came home from school and would I care to join her in the kitchen until Ohan arrived?
Yeva was born in a refugee camp to parents who made use of salvaging whatever they could from the city’s trash dump. She was the youngest and only girl of three siblings. They lost their mother to tuberculosis when she was 13 years old and by the time she was 14, she dropped out of school to clean houses while her father found a construction job outside of the city and moved away with her two older brothers. Yeva had a dream. She dreamed of going to college and one day finding true love with someone who would stand by her and value her, and she would him. She secretly “borrowed” books from the homes she cleaned to remain a student applying herself obsessively to gain knowledge. The best part of her day was rushing to her tin and cardboard home, to catch the last rays of sunlight before turning to the gas lamp to light the pages of a book she devoured with her eyes and mind. Then one day, at the age of 16 she fell in love with an older man who showered her with intellectual sophistication and words of false adoration. She gave him her heart and body. He made a promise to marry her until the day she informed him she was pregnant. He took her by the hands, pressed an envelope of money into her palm and in less than two minutes, he was gone, out of her life. She grieved. She grieved for wasted love, for loss of her heart and for a life without marriage. But she was strong. She had lived life in survival mode and now more than ever she needed to fend for herself. She had Ohan, her son to raise. She would give him all the opportunities of an education that she never had. She put aside all dreams, vowing to never again surrender to love. She no longer believed in true love. She used the power of her beauty, which brought her many well-dressed and well-groomed men to pay for sex services rendered. She had her regulars and she chose her hours. Ten years after Ohan was born she had her daughter. Throughout her profession as a sex worker she never let her work interfere with her children’s schedule. Her parental diligence was among her top priority. Earning a living to provide for her children and determined to give them a life she did not have, Yeva kept a clean house, provided neatly washed and ironed clothes on their back and a hot nutritious meal every day for her children.
There was something sad and mysterious in Yeva’s story written in the worry lines on her face. And then Ohan walked in with his sister. The lines around Yeva’s mouth, the deep crevices that formed around her cheeks and eyes as a broad smile appeared at the sight of them were witness to a love greater than what she imagined true love to be. In spite of everything, Love had found her and she had surrendered to it.
Yeva, above all else, was a mother.
Line art drawing by Agnes Cecile. Painting of Girl in Red Chair by Shota.