For so many years I advocated for teenagers who were in trouble with the law. I fought for them, not wanting them to wind up in juvenile facilities somewhere in the U.S. because in many, they were not treated correctly.
This is no secret. Those of us who have done this work know that juvenile facilities are not country clubs. No one can expect that they would be, but at the very least they should be humane, treat kids fairly, educate them while inside, give them recreation, good meals and the opportunity to have family contact. Juveniles who are incarcerated are kids, not adults, and have vastly different needs.
I sat on many committees, chairing some of them, many years ago on our local county Youth Services Commission in New Jersey; fighting the good fight to ensure that standards were put into place and followed, to ensure juveniles were treated properly when they were detained.
Since the squeaky wheel gets oiled, the state of New Jersey came to understand and enforce the rules and regulations set forth for teens in lock-up facilities. Our work was not in vain because as the years went by, the state Juvenile Justice Commission took notice and agreed that juvenile facilities must be elevated to a higher standard because the teens who were in their care were minors.
On April 16, I was stunned by an article in the newspaper. I knew immediately I wanted to intercede because it was about a teenager who was getting a raw deal — on an international scale.
Ahmed Hassan was an all-American teenager from New Jersey, raised by his Egyptian-American parents. He graduated from high school last June, had never been in trouble with the law and worked last summer while studying for college entrance exams.
Although he lived with extended family, he missed his parents, who had moved back to Egypt. So he flew there to visit with them before choosing a college. One night he stayed at his uncle’s house.
At midnight the doorbell rang, and several very scruffy-looking men asked for Ahmed’s uncle. In true American teenager style, he asked what they wanted. One told him they were looking for his uncle because they thought he had allegedly built a property on land that was not his.
Ahmed told them they were wrong. Incorrect thing to say; they grabbed him, beat him, blindfolded him and threw him into a truck, carting him off to jail. At 17, he has been detained in an adult jail since Dec. 1, having been given a one-year sentence for talking back to those men.
His human rights are being denied on several levels. He lives in dirty conditions, is fed haphazardly, traumatized and was not told his rights upon entrance to the jail — because no one who is detained in a jail in Egypt has any.
No American child, or anyone else for that matter, should be in his situation — especially when he is innocent of any crime. When I was advocating for the rights of detained teens in my county in New Jersey, I was a frequent visitor to our local detention center. I also visited several juvenile lock-up facilities to ensure they were following state guidelines for humane and just standards outlined for them.
In Egypt there are no such rules and standards, nor humane treatment. Teenagers are in adult prisons in cramped quarters. Ahmed is being ridiculed and made fun of because he is American.
His story is very different from American teens who have gotten into trouble, and yet in some ways the same. I’ve had teenage clients who were brutalized by the police; one was hospitalized for a solid week because of the injuries he sustained after being thrown several times by a police officer onto a metal, barbed fence. The countries are different, but brutality is the same, no matter where it is.
Many of the teenage American clients I’ve advocated for came from poor families who could not afford a private attorney. Instead they are given public defenders who are generally swamped with files. Often they meet their young clients on the day of court.
Ahmed’s case is being handled by Praveen Madhiraju, a pro bono lawyer who is with the organization Pretrial Rights International. It is difficult defending a client internationally, as is advocating for them.
We live in uncertain times under the current administration. President Donald Trump does not appear to have the best interest of our citizens in his heart, let alone an American 17-year-old who is being tortured in an Egyptian jail.
However, there is a little-known law that every president must adhere to: 22 USC 1732 — “As the President you are obligated by law to take all measures short of declaring war to free Americans unjustly detained abroad.” Ahmed Hassan meets this criterion.
Throughout my career, I have believed that by advocating on behalf of a teenager, I am giving him/her the voice he/she didn’t have. As I debated with myself about whether I should advocate for a young Muslim I’ve never met detained in a faraway land under a dangerous regime, I remembered what my field instructor in college said about me. Her exact words were, “Jackie goes where angels fear to tread.”
I did then, I am now. But now I am doing it differently, from a very long distance. I’ve opened a group page for Ahmed on my Facebook page, and his story is being shared. I am organizing people globally via social networking to take up his cause.
I have also reopened The Foundation of Hope, the not-for-profit I opened originally in 1999. It will have a new beginning, starting a new chapter both for Ahmed and The Foundation of Hope. I named it that way because I believed then as I do now that the teens I worked with had little foundation to grow from and clearly no hope for their future.
Nothing has changed, but I have. I’m raring to go back to doing what I do best and what I love very much – advocating for young people who have no voice. My giving back to an uncertain world is by giving Ahmed a voice via The Foundation of Hope; giving him the Hope he needs every minute of every day till he is a free American again.
I have started a Change.org page called Free Ahmed Hassan. The goal is for 1 million signatures. With your signature we will have more leverage with legislators and with the president.
Jackie Ross is an experienced social worker with urban, disenfranchised youth, lifelong child advocate and community activist. She is the founder and director of The Foundation of Hope, a 501©3 in New Jersey, that is being reorganized to concentrate on advocacy for those in need.