The call came at 7:15 a.m. Friday morning, just as Peter and Carol-Ann Dennis were preparing for a long weekend of social engagements and nordic pole walking.
For nine years, they had tried to ignore thoughts of the dangers their son faced working as an aid-workers overseas in regions such as Somalia, Sri Lanka and South Sudan. A day spent worrying about their son’s life was a day of their own wasted, they rationalized.
But they couldn’t ignore what the person on the phone was telling them. Their son, 37-year-old Steve Dennis, had been abducted in Kenya and likely taken to Somalia. A driver had been shot. Other details were fuzzy.
“The first day it hit us hard,” she said. “But the Norwegian Refugee Council was excellent at keeping in touch. They agreed to call every two hours during the day, whether there was news or not.”
The liaison also said they’d call any time day or night if there was important news.
Mr. Dennis had been working a year for the NRC, mainly as a program support manager at the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya after eight years with Medecins Sans Frontieres.
He’d committed himself to the work, giving up a high-paying job with an engineering firm.
“It was his calling,” said his dad from the couple’s Richmond Hill, Ont. home. “What sustained us through all these years was the knowledge that this is what he really wanted to be doing. It gave us great satisfaction knowing he was pursuing his life purpose.”
The liaison from NRC asked them to keep details of the abduction quiet. If the story went public, there was no telling how the captors would react.
Somewhat stunned, they decided to keep up some social engagements so as not to raise concern among their social circle.
“We faked our way through a dinner party with friends,” Ms. Dennis said. “And we must have done a good job because our friends didn’t know a thing about it until the news emerged this morning.”
Keeping up appearances served to divert their own minds as well.
“This could have gone on for months and years and if you sit by the phone every day worrying, you’re going to kill yourself,” said Mr. Dennis. “It was important to engage our minds in something else for a while.”
As the weekend wore on, the updates contained less and less fresh information. They didn’t sleep. They thought of how calm and resourceful their son was. At one refugee camp, he had planted a herb garden outside his hut. In South Sudan, he drew on home economics lesson his mother had given him at age eight to make elaborate pizzas breads for as many hungry mouths as possible.
They would later learn that he was making ample use of another lesson learned from his parents. As the captors marched their hostages towards Somalia, Steve Dennis picked up two sticks to assist his walking, a modified form of the exercise his parents teach in the Greater Toronto Area, nordic pole walking.
At 1:30 Monday morning the phone rang again, one of the promised “important news” calls. They took it with some trepidation, which soon dissolved into euphoria. Their son had been rescued.
“We were elated, overjoyed.”
By 4 a.m. on Monday morning, Steve himself was on the phone. “He was in such an upbeat mood. We had some laughs about a few things. He’s allergic to peanuts and, wouldn’t you know it, the food his captors fed had nuts in it. He sustained himself on chocolate that one person had. The only time he choked up was when he told us how sorry he was to put us through all that.”
The family is particularly grateful to the NRC and all the behind-the-scenes government actors who helped get their son to safety.
With the worst of the ordeal over, the two can’t say what their son will do next or when he’ll return home to Richmond Hill, Ont. For now, he’s focusing on more immediate goals.
“He said the two things he wanted most were clean water and a steak,” said Ms. Dennis.
“And a cold beer, too,” her husband added.