Nashwa: Abducted to Egypt
Each year, about 1,000 American children are victims of international family abduction. Nashwa el-Sayed was abducted by her father when she was 2 years old.
BY ALIZA CHASAN
After her father abducted her when she was 2 years old, it took 15 years, nearly 6,000 miles of travel and two government agencies to bring Nashwa el-Sayed home to Queens.
El-Sayed’s story is the story of thousands of missing children: a parent without legal custody illegally takes his or her child out of the country. Each year, about 1,000 American children are victims of international family abduction, according to the U.S. Department of State. It can be a long, costly legal battle to bring these kids home. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes they never come home.
El-Sayed’s parents divorced in 1993. Her mother was granted custody and her father had visitation rights. During one visit later that year, he took his daughter and flew with her to Alexandria, Egypt.
“He packed a few diapers, a couple of shorts and dresses for me and he took off,” el-Sayed, now 24, said in an interview. “There was no one there to stop him. No one to ask him questions.”
When el-Sayed was abducted, U.S. passport laws were much less stringent. Since 2001, children under 14 cannot be issued passports without the consent of both parents. This can be a deterrent, but isn’t a catchall to prevent abduction today – non-American parents can often get foreign passports for their children.
Parents may run off with their kids for a number of reasons, but custody disputes are the most common reason, according to many missing person websites.
When 2-year-old Nashwa el-Sayed landed in Egypt, her father’s family all congratulated him on rescuing her from America; now she could be raised as Muslim in a Muslim country.
The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction requires countries to follow the custody decisions of an abducted child’s home country.
Life Before Egypt
But Egypt is not one of the 93 countries that have signed the treaty.
Niles Cole, press officer for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the remedies are limited when returning abducted children home from non-Hague countries.
“We work with our embassies and foreign counterparts to locate the abducted child, confirm the child’s welfare and encourage voluntary return to the child’s habitual residence,” said John Taylor, press officer for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Arrival in Egypt
“He packed a few diapers, a couple of shorts and dresses for me and he took off. There was no one there to stop him. No one to ask him questions.”
– Nashwa el-Sayed
Things aren’t always smooth sailing with Hague Convention countries, either, said Timothy Weinstein, the father of two children who were abducted to Brazil, a Hague signatory, in 2006.
Weinstein’s Brazilian wife, unhappy in their marriage, took their son and daughter to Salvador, Brazil for a summer vacation, but didn’t return. Weinstein filed for full custody in Allegheny County Court in Pennsylvania, but his wife was granted provisional custody in the U.S. pending a second hearing.
Hague petitions can be filed as long as the filing parent had custodial rights at the time of the abduction. Weinstein did. He filed a petition, had his children registered as missing with local police and Interpol, and then worked through the Brazilian court system for seven years.
“I kept thinking that the courts would do their job,” Weinstein said.
In 2013, his wife, out of work and suffering from a spinal injury, decided she couldn’t take care of the kids any more. She offered to send his children back home to him.
“I’m never going to say no to my children,” Weinstein told her. “This is what I’ve been fighting for for years.”
Cindy Rudomentkin, a manager at the Polly Klaas Foundation, an organization devoted to the return of missing children, said missing-person posters can play a large part in locating abducted children, especially in the States. It’s more difficult, she noted, to get posters out internationally.
“Families are separated by an ocean and it’s difficult location-wise to search for the child,” Rudomentkin said.
Nashwa el-Sayed’s mother suspected her ex-husband had taken Nashwa to Egypt. But she didn’t know where specifically until years later, after she ran into an Egyptian friend of Mohamed’s in Queens. Nashwa was about 10 years old then.
Her mother couldn’t legally bring Nashwa home. Egypt is not a signatory of the Hague Convention and Egyptian courts recognized Mohamed’s custody rights as Nashwa’s father.
In 2008, a few months before el-Sayed’s 18th birthday, her father set up an arranged marriage for her. el-Sayed secretly made her way to the U.S. Embassy and begged a State Department employee to help her flee the country. She left the embassy and waited for the State Department to come up with an exit strategy.
El-Sayed was depressed over the prospect of a forced arranged marriage, so about two weeks after her trip to the embassy, her father took her on a trip to Cairo. He stayed with her for two days and then she went to stay with a friend in the Helwan neighborhood of Cairo.
On her fourth day there, Aug. 12, 2008, a U.S. government agent called her and told her the State Department could get a seat for her on a regularly scheduled commercial flight out of Cairo.
Her friend went to sleep that night and el-Sayed waited until 5 a.m. to slip out and meet the government agent for an arranged pickup. The agents pulled up in a van and she climbed into the back.
“It was this moment of a mountain being lifted off of your chest,” el-Sayed said.
El-Sayed had her hijab, a T-shirt, shoes and jeans with 20 Egyptian pounds in the pocket – that’s about $2.50. The agents drove el-Sayed to the U.S. Embassy to pick up her visa and then took her to the airport.
She flew out that night and, after two stopovers in Austria and France, landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens on Aug. 16.
Her mom was waiting for her with a bouquet of flowers. A 10-minute drive later, they walked back into her childhood home.
Back in America
Five years later, in 2013, el-Sayed earned a bachelor’s degree from Queens College. Now she works out of the Queens office of the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project in the Middle East, an organization that teaches college students to facilitate peaceful conversation over controversial issues.
“I choose to turn it around from being a victim of a kidnapping to being a survivor,” el-Sayed said.