For the first time, Brisbane mother Sally Faulkner has revealed in detail, the story behind a desperate attempt to get her children back from Beirut, which landed her in jail along with a 60 Minutes crew and a child recovery team. Until today, Ms Faulker has been living with ‘What ifs’, asking herself if things would be different has she reacted differently. For example, what if she had said “no” when her estranged husband Ali Elamine asked to take their children to Lebanon for a holiday? And what if she refused to let them go instead of driving them to the airport and giving them a hug goodbye?
“What if I’d just said, ‘no, I’m having second thoughts. This isn’t a good idea, what am I doing?’ I’m naive, I’m stupid, I’m too trusting, just no, don’t let them go,” Ms Faulkner said to ABC News.
Falling in love
Everything changed when Faulkner saw an online advertisement for a job as cabin crew with Emirates Airlines, a few years ago. Before she knew it, she was flying around the world and living the high life in Dubai. One fateful night, Ms Faulkner’s friend and fellow flight attendant, Sacha Jordan, convinced Sally to go to a party. It was there she met Ali Elamine, not knowing that hardship was on its way. They ended up seeing each other, however, when Faulkner’s three-year contract was up with Emirates, they planned to go their separate ways. But that was until Faulkner discovered she was pregnant.
According to Faulkner, she was excited about her pregnancy, but Elamine did not feel the same way. So Faulkner moved back to Australia and planned for life as a single mother. But six months into her pregnancy, Ali surprised her at the house with a trail of rose petals before proposing. She said “yes”. Lahela was born in Brisbane in 2010. Ten days later the couple married. “When Lahela was born … he became a dad, and a good one,” Jordan said.
When Lahela was three months old, the family moved to Lebanon into an apartment within a Hezbollah stronghold. But assimilation was harder than she thought and after a cultural misunderstanding, their marriage was in trouble. Elamine allegedly told her to get on a plane, and would not allow her to take Lahela with her. Sally said that she felt isolated and vulnerable and that she had no option but to leave.
Back in Australia, Faulkner begged Elamine to bring Lahela back to her but Elamine wanted a divorce. But three months later, Faulkner said Elamine apologised and she was reunited with her daughter. By then Faulkner had got a Family Court order to put Lahela on an immigration watchlist so she could not be taken out of Australia without Faulkner’s permission. Elamine, contrite and hoping to make things work between them, signed the order.
Saving the marriage
Faulkner returned to Lebanon to try to save the marriage, much to the disapproval of her mother, Karen Buckley. “Somehow she had this idea that she was not going to let the marriage fail. So she went back, but I refused to take her to the airport that day,” Karen said.
Faulkner and Elamine came back to Australia for the birth of baby Noah before returning to Lebanon again. Elamine worked long days at his surf school business. Faulkner felt isolated and unable to fit into a culture so different from the one she was used to.
One afternoon Ms Faulkner was putting baby Noah down for an afternoon sleep while Ali took Lahela to the movies. She felt the thud through her chest wall and knew immediately that it was a bomb.The incident killed 20 people and wounded another 120. Faulkner broke down with the fear that her daughter and husband were among the victims. “After what seemed like forever I got a knock at the door and there they were standing there. The relief that went through my body felt like warm water running through my veins,” she said.
The last straw
Faulkner begged Elamine to be allowed to return to Australia with the children. He agreed. “If I was going to fit in I would have by now. I would have learnt Arabic. I would be drinking those Arabic coffees. I was Sally from Brisbane and that was ingrained in me. It was who I was. I wasn’t going to be Sally from Lebanon.”
The following year Faulkner’s life felt normal, she began an early childhood TAFE course and juggled kids, work and study. Elamine came and went freely from Lebanon and Faulkner made sure to Skype him with the kids almost daily when he was away. The couple eventually agreed to separate. When he visited Australia they sat down and wrote a handwritten co-parenting agreement stating what they both expected from the other. Ali accepted Ms Faulkner as primary caregiver in Australia but requested to take the children back to Lebanon each year for a holiday.
That agreement was put to the test when, in May 2015, Ali asked to take the children back to Lebanon for a short holiday to see his parents.”I thought, ‘well we’ve set that agreement’, I did want to stay out of the Family Courts, I need to abide by that to keep the trust,” Faulkner said.
Faulkner drove them to the airport, gave her children a cuddle and looked Elamine in the eye.
“I said to him ‘promise me, look me in the eye and promise me that you will bring them back.’ He said ‘we’ll see you in two weeks’.
‘Plans have changed’
A couple of days later, Faulkner Skyped to speak to the children.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘plans have changed’ and that’s when you know every part of me just wanted to fall apart.
“I said ‘what do you mean?’ I didn’t quite believe it and he said, ‘plans have changed, the kids aren’t coming home.”
In that instant, Faulkner’s world fell apart.
According to ABC, Ali Elamine was approached to participate in the Australian Story two-part special but declined to comment.