Personal thoughts on the Villaggio Mall fire in Qatar

Al Khalifa Stadium, near the site of the Villaggio Mall, on a happier day in 2006. Asian Games photo by Deepujoseph via Wikimedia Commons.

When hearing the news last week about the death of 13 children, four adults, and two firefighters in a shopping mall fire in Doha, Qatar, I thought of the older shopping centers, such as the Royal Plaza Mall across the street from my former employer in that Emirate. Watching Sky News’ report about it, however, showed instead that this disaster hit a little closer to what would have been home for me, had I still been living and working there. The disaster in fact took place at the Villaggio, anchored by the Carrefour hypermarket that I and others assigned to the Doha office shopped at for groceries. This was the same shopping mall that had the Starbucks outside where women in burkas would, with what appeared to be humorous caution in Western eyes, lift their veils to drink coconut mocha frappes, isolated at a table far from the rest of us heathen expats and visitors to the 2006 Asian Games, for which the commercial center was built.

The segment showed pictures of smoke rising above the all-too-familiar parking lot, where cars sat below Bedouin-like tents erected to shade them from the excesses of the Arabian Peninsula sun. Instantly recognizable was the newer wing of the shopping center with black smoke billowing out, which when I was there was still unfinished, but clearly designed as a copy of Las Vegas’ Venice Casino, complete with gondola canals and painted faux-sky ceiling. With so many children dying without their parents, I could only guess that this was the location of a day care center. (This was in fact the case – the Gympanzee nursery school was apparently where the fire started, according to BBC news.)

The day that the news was broadcast (Monday, May 28) was the day I was taking a train to the north side of Lake Balaton in Hungary on an errand. During the ride out, thoughts haunted me about the obvious grief that all those parents must have been facing. All the “could have beens” also drifted into these unhappy ponderings, most prominently being that my own daughter could have been at that day care had I elected to stay on with my employer in that otherwise normally dull area of the Middle East.

The death of someone very close changes a person. With each person that plays a key role in your life reaching that inevitable passage out of this world, your life becomes at least slightly different – maybe you become more  pensive, maybe more lively out of fear that life is passing you by, maybe more hard-working for that very same reason. But I can think of fewer, more destructive deaths than the untimely passage of a little one from life. If you are doing it right, parenting builds an edifice of love within the existence of your child, a love you want to protect and keep eternal, or at least more long-lived than yourself so that it is passed down to generations beyond your own. If you are parenting right, you succeed in creating a small part of the universe that is perhaps a little more happy than the one you grew into, no matter how happy your own childhood might have been.

Indeed, it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to say that the raising of children given to us by God are the gifts we give back to God. To have such a beautiful tribute to life and the world destroyed, whatever the reason, I can think of no more destructive a loss. If my little one had been in that fire, the loss would have truly destroyed me; and I’d hate to think of what it would have done to my beautiful wife, who has put more work into raising her than I have. I would like to think we’d support each other as best we could, but we’d probably never fully recover as human beings. Those that can are perhaps much stronger than I give myself credit for being.

Interior of the Villaggio Mall, what was the newer wing of the shopping center, where the fire was said to have started. Photo by KangxiEmperor6868 via Wikimedia Commons

I think that’s one of the things I never fully understood about parents who neglected their own children, be it for the vices of youth, personal profit in a career, or a misinterpreted concept of domination. If our little ones had never been, we’d never be who we are, no matter the number of opportunities we might have enjoyed without their needs from us. Losing them would diminish who we are.

If ever there was a proper explanation of why I’d risk so much insecurity and discomfort by giving up hunting for work in a relatively comfortable spot in South America to be back here in Europe, a less certain place, but one where it is still possible for me to rejoin my own wife and child who are as yet still in Belarus, it would be embodied in the horrible grief that the parents of those 13 children in Doha are feeling. I hope they find peace as soon as possible following this terrible tragedy, as well as the strength to recover their memories not only of the love of their lost children, but how to love again. As a parent, I hope I never have to figure out how to do that myself.

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