Advocating for a U.S. Teen in Egyptian Prison Changed Us Both

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I’m writing this for the benefit of families who may have a family member trapped in a foreign prison, for other advocates and for my own closure. What I have learned could fill volumes.

All the advocacy cases I have had in my career were domestic. Ahmed Hassan’s case was on an internationallevel and it has changed my life forever in myriad ways. His name is indelibly carved into my brain.

If you read my previous column, you will recall that I came into his case accidentally. Then again, I am not a believer in accidental meetings. I think everything happens for a reason. The “reason” I became so deeply immersed in his case is because he was a teenager from my state who was caught in a political web.

It has shown me what one can achieve, but only with the hardest work imaginable; almost to the point of obsession. But that is what it takes to achieve the result. Advocacy in a foreign land is not for the weak of heart. It is a grind-it-out process that takes sheer guts, imagination and very hard work.

Ahmed’s case grabbed at my heart because, he, like I, is a native of New Jersey. More importantly though, he was only 17 when he was arrested in the most horrible of ways and my client base was always my work with teenagers.

If you have a family member who is arrested in a foreign land, the very first thing you must do is find a “shark,” an attorney who is committed to the release of your loved one. Ahmed’s attorney worked his case pro bono. He was willing to have me involved as Ahmed’s American advocate because my labor took some pressure off him.

Although a family may think they are fortunate to have an attorney at no cost, you also run the risk of not getting the kind of service you need for your loved one. Three-quarters of the way into Ahmed’s case, I believed the work I had done on his behalf should have been done by his attorney, but by then I was thoroughly immersed and kept plugging on.

As a professional working an advocacy case or as a family who has a loved one in a foreign jail, you become that person’s voice and the case takes on a life of its own. Initially I started Ahmed’s case via social media. I dedicated my Facebook page to him, thinking that would be the best way to get the public involved. It wasn’t.

Arabs in America are the perfect scapegoat as all too many Americans believe that ISIS and Muslims are synonymous. (I found that out the hard way through social media.) They are not. There are millions of Arabs in the United States who eat, sleep, work, feel the same as millions who are not Arabs/Muslims. They hate ISIS and terrorists the same as everyone else.

The fact that Ahmed was a teenager did not pull others’ heartstrings as it did mine. It took months of daily posts, sometimes three on any given day. Slowly, too slowly for me, I began to get followers but, still, no real gut-wrenching responses that what had happened was unacceptable.

As the days turned into weeks, I knew we were fighting against time as each day Ahmed was locked up he became fodder for the adults housed with him. The thought of this terrorized me. I worked even harder. Teenagers need to hear from an adult who believes he/she is innocent and, to try to give them hope. From late May to the end of August, I wrote Ahmed letters.

I was trying to give him hope, fill him with courage and give him the resolve to hold on. We had a kind of underground railroad going as I would email the letters to the attorney who would email them to Ahmed’s father who would go into town to have them printed so he could take them to Ahmed on his weekly visits.

If you have a loved one locked away in a foreign land I suggest you too write them letters as they give a connection to reality. It is good for him/her. Be careful what you write though.

My letters were filled with counseling from 5,700-plus miles away. They took on a life of their own. By the time the last ones were written, I felt as though I had an adopted Muslim “grandson.”

If you think the American government is going to come running to the defense of your loved one, think again, especially not under the current administration. Single-handedly, I wrote a plea to every Democratic senator and member of Congress. I contacted the State Department often. I continued with social media begging for support and, knowing full well the implications of opening my Facebook page to the public, did it anyway.

I tried to convince myself that the word about Ahmed would spread and there would be a flicker of interest and outrage. It began to work and new Facebook “friends” appeared as I publicly shared every post I wrote about him.

I suggest you do it this way too. I learned to use Twitter and did so daily. Soon thereafter, interest started pouring in from as far away as Australia, India, Israel. I was a bit relieved.

I was fortunate in that I have a very good Muslim friend, a former colleague, who is from Egypt. She came to the United States 20 years ago, became a citizen, raised her children here and is a very active participant in the movement to release people from Egyptian jails and make others aware of what is taking place there. She became my mentor in Ahmed’s advocacy case.

I suggest you find someone like her to guide you if you have a loved one locked away outside the United States. She introduced me to a man, also an Egyptian-American, who is very powerful and well known in their community. They took me under their wing, brought me to mosques and introduced me to many people to get Ahmed’s case out to the public. I will eternally be grateful to them for accepting me into their community as I am a Jewish woman.

A very wise man once told me that if you throw a pebble into the ocean, you’ll never know where it lands. I worked from that premise with Ahmed’s case, throwing pebbles out everywhere. Neither Amnesty International USA nor Human Rights Watch would pick up Ahmed’s case. I begged and pleaded but it didn’t matter.

I called the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. There a young woman who claimed to be American (but I could tell from the ever-so-slight accent that she wasn’t) offered to meet me off a New Jersey highway to talk about Ahmed’s case as the Embassy was fully aware of it. When I told my mentor about the conversation, she told me in no uncertain terms she wouldn’t allow me to go but, if I insisted, I should only go with an off-duty, firearm-carrying member of law enforcement. By this time, I was fully aware of the dangers involved and didn’t go.

My advice to family members is don’t take any risks where harm could come to you.

Meanwhile, I also reached out to Ahmed’s family. He had been locked up since Dec. 1, 2016. By this time, it was late June. His mother answered the phone, telling me she knew about me and how grateful she was. Through weekly calls we became friends, learning about each other’s family and way of life. It became an expensive way of communicating but my instincts told me that that connection was necessary.

During one conversation she told me her husband and oldest daughter were in New Jersey for the summer and gave me his cellphone number. I called Ahmed’s father and he asked if I would like to meet him and their daughter. We sat in a coffee shop in Atlantic City for two hours getting to know each other.

It was then I realized the Egyptian culture was male dominated. This man, although nice and charming, saw me for what I am — not just a woman, but a Jewish one. However, he was still gracious and grateful. His 19-year-old daughter sat next to me with iPhone in hand, not speaking but listening. She and I hugged goodbye. She walked back to her boardwalk job and he went to a mosque for prayer time.

In early August my husband and I drove to Atlantic City to say goodbye as they were going home in two days. The two men got along very well. The phone conversations and almost around-the-clock work continued for me. I had become mentally and emotionally exhausted but by now had a group of very supportive Facebook friends who kept me going, along with my husband, family and my mentor, who had become my sister.

If you are a family member with an incarcerated loved one in a foreign land, I strongly suggest trying to cultivate a friendship with someone from that country. If you are a professional advocate, do the same.

On Oct. 25, Ahmed walked out of jail. He thought America had forgotten him. The U.S. government did forget, but Americans and people the world over did not. Except for my marriage date, my daughter’s and grandchildren’s births, that day was my happiest.

Because of my advocacy work, an American teenager was freed from an Egyptian jail. I was both elated and fearful for him. My greatest fears have materialized. On Oct. 30 I received a video call from Ahmed. He appeared to be dazed, traumatized, sad and angry. Rightfully so. Our brief conversation was stilted at best. Over and over again he said, “I was innocent.”

Ahmed told me he booked his ticket to come home Dec. 1 and that he would open a Facebook page so we could communicate. He did open a page. I’ve sent messages (he has not responded) and have called as promised. On that first call, his father answered. He told me Ahmed was not coming home in December, but rather would finish his last year of high school in Egypt and would come back to the United States next summer.

I was saddened by this news but, of course, had no say in the choices made. On each call I made after that, his father always answered, giving me one excuse or another as to why Ahmed could not come to the phone. I had worn out my usefulness. My “job” was done.

The one time Ahmed’s mother answered, her words rang in my head: “He’s trying to be the sweet boy he was before.” That was all I needed to hear to confirm my greatest fears for him.

I’ve worked with dozens of teens reentering society after being incarcerated for a lengthy time. They’re traumatized. Many have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and feel worthless, useless and depressed. Many had been abused emotionally, physically and sexually.

They need to decompress in a supportive, warm, kind and loving environment that is stress free. They need counseling and sometimes spiritual guidance. The road to recovery is long and tough and, depending upon the circumstances, may never end.

I pray with my whole heart that that isn’t what will happen for Ahmed. I will continue to be supportive of him but from a distance. Even though there has been no response, I somehow know that he reads what I put on his Facebook page. When he matures and is able psychologically to do so, then and only then, will he respond to me.

In the meantime, we both need to recover. Ahmed for obvious reasons, and I because his case, more than any other, has drained me emotionally. I inherited and love another Muslim “grandson.” They each come to me with their own set of deep-rooted issues.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to give Ahmed lots of healing hugs. Maybe not. That is something I need to internalize and come to terms with. But in my heart I know that because of my advocacy, a guilt-free American teenager is free again. I pray that soon enough he will be psychologically free from his demons too.

Jackie Ross is a lifelong social worker who has advocated in the family court system for hundreds of disenfranchised urban teenagers. She was the founder and director of The Foundation of Hope in New Jersey, now closed. She is writing a  book, volunteers for the Egyptian American International Organization and takes on limited pro bono advocacy cases in the Middle East fighting for human rights releases.

3 thoughts on “Advocating for a U.S. Teen in Egyptian Prison Changed Us Both

  1. Serving a short sentence in an American jail for DUI is isolating and costly for family members and can leave the unfortunate inmate in a deteriorated mental state. Jail, prison is horrible and should not be as brutal as they are.

  2. Jackie, you accepted this challenge and proved with hard work, faith and passion even insurmountable odds can be beaten. Perhaps with time your efforts will be recognized and closure can come for all. A very well written synopsis of a remarkable journey.

  3. A warrior you are and a warrior does not stop. Your effort WILL come back to you.. time is the four letter word.