The future PhDs were born on different continents, some 5,000 miles apart. Economics professors Zaier Aouani, of Tunisia, and Grace O, from South Korea, were even farther from home when they met at the University of Kansas.
Now, in a country neither called home, they are united in grief over the death of their 2 1/2-year-old daughter Zeinah, killed in a shopping mall fire in Qatar.
Speaking of the couple's courtship, Joe Sicilian, chairman of the Kansas economics department, said, "They were a couple before anyone knew about it. It wasn't a surprise because this is such a small program. But in some ways, they were very different. She's Christian, he's Muslim. He's from Tunisia, she's Korean."
They were rarely apart while they dated, but that would change upon their marriage in 2009. O, 33, accepted a job at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Aouani, 38, relocated to Qatar University, leaving behind his wife and daughter.
Three weeks ago, after GSU's spring semester concluded, Grace and Zeinah flew to Doha, Qatar for what was to be a month-long visit.
"Grace was so excited to be reunited with her husband," said friend Kitti Murray, who lives in the same Old Fourth Ward apartment complex.
With one week left to spend together, the young couple visited the Gulf state's largest mall, dropping Zeinah off at the Gympanzee daycare center in the heart of the tony Villagio.
They would never see her alive again.
Zeinah was one of 13 children trapped and killed Monday in the mall's nursery, surrounded by flames that went untouched by the facility's malfunctioning sprinkler system.
The young victims, including New Zealand triplets and 9 other foreign-born children, were found huddled around two firefighters who had crawled through a makeshift hole in the roof of the complex in an attempt to reach the toddlers and their caretakers.
Altogether, 19 people died. Officials say they perished from smoke inhalation.
"She was such a sweet, sweet little girl," said Murray, 55, as she recalled Zeinah. She remembers receiving a hug from the outgoing toddler the morning she and her mother left for Qatar. "She wasn't at all shy."
Zeinah and her mother were familiar sights around the Post Renaissance complex. Grace could often be seen pushing her daughter's stroller on daily walks through the sprawling grounds.
"I feel like they had a deeper bond because it was just the two of them," Murray said.
Grace coped with the separation from her husband as well as could be expected, her friend said. They talked daily via Skype, with Zeinah often joining in the conversations with her father.
Family members from South Korea would visit yearly, Murray said. In their absence, O looked to her neighbors and the parents and staff she had met at her daughter's preschool as surrogates.
"She said that Primrose was the only family that she had here and that after a ceremony in Qatar, they would be back here for us to be able to share her daughter’s passing," Sharon Wilensky, executive director of the Primrose School in Midtown, wrote in an email to parents sent Tuesday.
"As she went on, she clearly meant everyone in our Primrose family, not just the staff. She singled out other children that Zeinah talked about, she singled out parents that she admired, she singled out the chef, past teachers and present teachers. We all are her family."
Meanwhile, in Qatar, authorities have ordered the arrest of the mall owner and four other senior mall officials, according to reports. Increasingly, it appears negligence is to blame for the horrific tragedy.
Abdel Khaleq al-Huwari, one of dozens of firefighters who responded to the blaze, told Agence France-Presse that rescue teams were not informed of the nursery's existence "until half an hour after" they arrived on the scene. He said a mall employee finally told them about the daycare center, but it was too late.
Huwari told the French news service that the fire had died down by the time he arrived at the nursery. There, he found his Moroccan colleague, Husam Shahboun, lying dead on the floor "holding two children in his arms."
Back in Lawrence, Kansas, Sicilian fought back tears as he thought about his former students.
"It was very hard for Zaier to be away from his family," said Sicilian, who last saw the couple at an economics conference in Atlanta, soon after their daughter's birth. "He was trying to get back, to be with them."
-- The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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