In my last column about Ahmed Hassan, a teenager born in New Jersey who was held in an Egyptian jail for a crime he did not commit, I primarily discussed the problems surrounding reentry after a prolonged jail sentence. Ahmed’s alleged “crime” was being an American citizen.
In it were an important few sentences: “Maybe one day I’ll be able to give him healing hugs. Maybe not.” This is not a typical American reentry story.
Much has happened since then. After waiting, praying, hoping for a face-to-face meeting with Ahmed, those healing hugs were given in abundance on a warm, sunny day in August. As I sat with a huge knot in my stomach and great trepidation on a hotel porch in Wildwood, N.J., where Ahmed worked for the summer in a restaurant, a young man came up the steps.
Instinctively, we each knew who the other was. I stood up as I saw him coming and, with big smiles and tears running down both our faces, Ahmed melted into my waiting arms. I was literally trembling with so many emotions. He saw this as he suggested we sit. Already, in that brief moment, he became as protective of me as I had been of him through the long process of getting him released. It was quite a few minutes, ones I will never forget. We talked for an hour, which passed like a blink of an eye. My husband came downstairs and the three of us drove to Cape May, N.J., for lunch and more conversation.
Ahmed took us to the restaurant where he was working for lunch. The staff there made my husband and me feel like royalty and treated Ahmed with respect and affection. The conversation again flowed easily as we talked about politics, people and future plans. My fantasy had always been to walk on a beach with Ahmed with the ocean waters nipping at our feet as I would ever so gently grill him.
All that became moot as our talk over lunch was practically on the sand, looking at the ocean, and there was no need to grill as he was so open with us. As we looked into each others’ eyes, I knew instantly all my concerns about open conversations and the ability to communicate honestly had no bearing anymore. The three of us walked and talked for hours and I instinctively felt the warmth of the soul I helped save more than a year ago. The mere thought of it was daunting, and again I became emotional but within myself. Ahmed must have understood my emotions as he quietly put his hand on my shoulder and we hugged some more. In my heart I felt the turnaround as he clearly understood my emotional state of mind. Haunting.
The time for my husband and I to leave grew near although I knew none of us wanted to let go. During my time alone with Ahmed in the morning, he told me that when he received the 18 letters I wrote him while he was in jail, he went into a room, closed the door and read each in the loudest voice he could. That was the only time he used his voice except when his parents visited him in the 385 days he was incarcerated for a “crime” he didn’t commit.
If I was his nuclear family, I would sue the U.S. government for child abuse and neglect because they caused great harm to this teenager. The president knows nothing about the rule of law nor about his obligation under law to free every innocent American citizen who is held against their will in a foreign country. While Ahmed was incarcerated, he believed America forgot about him. It was not Americans but rather the government. A close lifelong friend made Ahmed a scrapbook with messages of hope and encouragement from people around the globe, including American citizens who sent them to me on social media.
We took Ahmed to where he was living for the summer. Healing hugs were given on all sides. We promised not to lose touch ever again. He told me not to worry, “mom,” the highest word of respect in the Arabic language. He told me he would send me his phone number when he got back to Egypt, where he would begin a new life chapter as a young college man, and he did. We talk on the phone and on social media regularly.
He is a marked person by his government because of what he is; an American. I’ve been told that he will be watched. I have been tagged as the enemy in Egypt because of my human rights work, never to be allowed into that country without disappearing into oblivion. I do not care as I have no desire to go under the current military coup regime.
My greatest fear is for Ahmed, and I have taken the risk of telling him this. He knows. He understands my fear for him and I live with that fear every day and every night. He needs therapy to overcome trauma but it will not happen there. He asked that I write him more of the same letters I did when he was incarcerated and I will. I pray he makes the choice to come back to America where he belongs, to attend college and begin his life anew here. Ahmed will not be in a strange land alone as he has family here now who love him deeply. He knows this too.
Postscript: On Sept. 19, Ahmed appeared in an Egyptian court where the charges against him were dismissed.
Jackie Ross is a lifelong social worker with urban teens who has advocated for thousands in family, drug and, adult courts. In 2016 she coordinated the international advocacy case freeing Ahmed Hassan.