How we met: ‘We were being fired at by a sniper’

Ben Walsby was working as a human rights officer for the UN when he travelled to Damascus, Syria, for a peacekeeping mission in May 2012. A friend gave him the number of Laura Rudel, a refugee worker from Rome. “I didn’t know anyone, so I arranged to meet her for a drink,” says Ben. “When he arrived, he was on the phone discussing a serious crisis. The first thing I noticed about him was how much he cared,” says Laura.

After a few drinks, he relaxed and they talked about their shared love of Italy. At the end of the week, Laura invited him to meet her for dinner with some colleagues. “It took me for ever to decide what to wear,” says Ben, “so I knew I must like her.” Towards the end of the evening, Ben noticed Laura flirting with a co-worker. “I arrogantly told her she should choose me instead,” he laughs. She responded by throwing a drink in his face. “It was a shock reaction,” she says.

Ben was redeployed to Aleppo, but returned to Damascus a few weeks later. “We went out to see a football match and got on really well,” he says. “Afterwards, she texted me and I thought I might have a shot.” They began to date and over the next two months they got the chance to travel to Beirut and London together. Back in Syria, the crisis was escalating. Following an explosion in central Damascus in July, Laura was relocated to Amman in Jordan. Before she left Damascus, the couple visited Mount Qasioun, overlooking the city. “We spoke about the future with shelling in the air, taking other people’s futures away,” says Ben.

He went back to Aleppo, but told Laura to expect a visit. Tanks were blocking the road to the airport, but a group of military observers agreed to help Ben find an alternative route so he could fly to Amman. As they were travelling through the back streets, bullets smashed against the windows of their vehicle. “We were being shot by a sniper. We were in a bulletproof car, but they only take a certain number of bullets.” The group had no choice but to return to the hotel. “They’d cut the phone lines, so I had no way to tell Laura. Eventually, I found a satellite phone to explain.” Laura was disappointed he would not make it, but grateful he was not hurt.

The peacekeeping mission was closed down in August 2012 over fears that unarmed UN staff would be killed. Although he was worried about leaving Syria in crisis, the change in plans meant Ben was able to drive to Beirut, where Laura could visit. He was then redeployed to Kabul for three months. “We met every other weekend in Dubai,” he says.

At the end of the year, the couple moved to Europe; Laura stayed in Rome and Ben worked in Geneva. “I then took a job in Beirut in the summer of 2013,” says Laura. “Ben took a job in Iraq, where there was a direct flight, so we could see each other a lot.” They got married in Rome in 2015 and a few months later Ben was able to secure a full-time position with Amnesty International in Beirut. “Our daughter was born at the end of 2016 and we stayed in Beirut together for another three years,” says Ben. “We called her Amal, which means ‘hope’ in Arabic.”

In 2019, the couple moved to Panama for Ben’s job, but Laura went back to Italy during lockdown. “They had an extremely severe lockdown and, with Ben working so hard, it became too difficult,” she says. “I’m temporarily home in Rome with our daughter, because we’re able to go outdoors here and see family.” The couple hope to reunite soon.

“Our line of work can be frustrating,” says Laura. “But we really bonded over our love for Syria. He has so much passion and commitment. He has fought so hard for our relationship.” Ben describes Laura as an “incredibly good” person. “It comes so naturally and she only ever wants to help others. She’s the most pure-hearted person I’ve ever met.”