Beirut, Lebanon – It was a Friday when Marc Tice received the call he dreaded.
“Are you sitting down,” the voice on the other end asked.
Marc was anxious to hear from Austin, but when the phone finally rang, it was an official from the United States‘ State Department on the line.
The official informed Marc that Austin was missing. He had been picked up from a checkpoint near the Syrian capital, Damascus, on August 14, 2012, the day he intended to leave the country.
Since that call, made “six years, three weeks and a few days ago,” says Austin’s mother Debra, she and her husband have not rested.
They are currently on their eighth visit to Beirut, where they are knocking on doors and searching for clues which might lead them to their son. The Lebanese capital is about a two-hour drive from Damascus, and the closest city the Tices can reach while they search for Austin.
Debra hopes to obtain a visa from the Syrian authorities to allow her to move the search closer to the location where he was last seen.
On this trip, they feel more optimistic. The visit comes soon after a top official for hostage recovery in the Trump administration said the “US government believes Austin is alive”.
The parents have flown in to put pressure on their government and, hopefully, to be heard by those in Syria they believe are holding Austin captive. No one has come forward to claim responsibility for his abduction.
The Tice family doesn’t know who exactly was responsible – and doesn’t care to know either. They are cautious, carefully weighing their words so as not to offend any side of the conflict. To them, it is not who has abducted Austin, but who returns him, that matters.
Given a chance, every parent can expound on the achievements of their child. Marc and Debra Tice are no different. At a restaurant in Beirut, they talk about Austin’s skills, taking quick turns so that nothing is missed.
“He was first published when he was nine,” says Debra.
“He has always known what was important in life,” adds Marc.
“He is such a good swing dancer, he makes any woman dancing with him look beautiful,” Debra jumps in, gushing with pride.
During the first year of Austin’s absence, until late 2013, the family was in a state of disbelief. Every morning, they thought there would be a knock on the door and Austin would simply walk in.
Then, Marc and Debra decided that Austin was coming back. They just needed to play their part and ensure the Syrian and American governments were listening to them.
On their journey, they have established connections with hundreds of people in Lebanon, in Deraya – the Syrian suburb from which Austin had taken a taxi to cross into Lebanon when he went missing – and the US administration.
They started keeping “piles and piles of notebooks”, Debra says, to retrace his steps and understand what might have happened to their son. They connected with the families of other hostages and received sympathetic messages from other Americans freed in the past, including some who languished in the American embassy in Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis.
“We had joined the horrible club, which no one must be a part of,” says Debra.
Being a parent of the missing brings its own changes to social life and routine. The couple’s friendships went awry because their friends didn’t know what to say to them, how to say it or how to help. They didn’t know what to offer, while Marc and Debra did not know what to expect.
“I go to the market and see these faces. I want to say – ‘look, I am here just for the tomatoes’,” Debra says.
It has been hard, they admit, but nothing compared with what their son must be enduring.
Austin’s proof of life came from a 40-second video posted online, a fortnight after he went missing. Marc and Debra Tice call it a missed opportunity.
“Every pixel of that video was seen and analysed. Who are the people? Is it fake or authentic? I know that was my son. I want to thank those who posted it because they were telling us Austin was alive. But why did no one say, contact them and begin a dialogue?” Debra says.
The Tice family, from Houston, Texas, has now pinned their expectations on US President Donald Trump. For them, he is a president who walks the talk, and cares about the end result over protocol.
He has built a reputation for rescuing kidnapped Americans, they say, among them, Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student detained in North Korea.
In that extraordinary case, the Trump administration succeeded in bringing him home, though he was comatose and fatally sick from a never-explained brain trauma, and died shortly afterwards.
Following his death, Trump tweeted: “Otto’s fate deepens my Administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency.”
Marc and Debra are buying into the president’s words. They are convinced that Trump can and will strike some sort of a deal or understanding which facilitates Austin’s return.
They are also, through every press conference and interview, reaching out to the Syrian government. They hope, perhaps naively, that the two governments can forget their disagreements for the sake of an innocent life.
Debra visited Syria in 2014 and 2015. She walked through the souks of the capital city with a photograph of Austin, asking if anyone had seen him. She tried her best to seek help from senior figures in the Syrian government at a time when the US was backing the Syrian opposition forces.
On the record at least, President Bashar al-Assad‘s government has assured the Tice family that they are doing everything they can to find Austin. Does Debra believe the assurances? “I can’t not believe,” she says.
Marc, Debra and Austin are caught up between complicated geopolitical calculations. Yet the parents are firm that they will not be defeated.
Deep in their minds, they say, their religious faith, as well as their love for their son and each other, sustain them.
At the end of the day, when Marc feels down, Debra carries on with a smile. They take turns.
“Austin is definitely coming home,” Marc says. “He meets us in our dreams.”
Debra describes one such meeting. “I am standing at the door, as I do, and there he is, Austin. He says, ‘Mom, now don’t make a big deal. I am back, shall we go inside?'”