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An American Citizen Everywhere in the World BUT the State of Israel

January 27, 2013
Mona Tareh Sahouri

I have been an American citizen since 1996. My husband, also an American citizen, and I have been married and living in Michigan for over 16 years. My son and daughter, ages 14 & 13, respectively, were both born in Michigan. Though I was born in Palestine and do cherish my heritage, my family and I have been nothing less than loyal and devoted Americans. Home for my family and me is indeed here, in the heart of the USA. These feelings of love and loyalty to my new country did not come overnight. They took many days, many years, and lots of hard work and community service to take hold. Today, when I recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I fully and wholeheartedly mean it and it brings me great pride. This is why what happened to me and to my children during our recent travel to Israel is not only horrifying, but extremely hurtful as well.

As a Palestinian-born American, I have returned to visit my family many times. However, my recent trip was very different. It was a nightmare! I arrived with my children at Ben -Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, at 12:30 am after an 8-hour layover in Paris. Already exhausted from my long travel, I approached the Israeli passport control. I knew what to expect. I had been through this routine many times. I have always been subjected to search, delay, investigation, detention and interrogation. However, this time the harassment and terror went beyond anything that I ever could have imagined. I was immediately escorted with my children into a detention room in which we were to wait until my name was to be called for questioning by the soldier on duty. My children became tense and anxious. While my son was putting on a brave face, my daughter was ready to burst into tears. I tried my best to calm them down, telling them that this was normal and they had nothing to fear. Living in the US all their lives, they were taught to respect different people and not to discriminate against anyone. I had a hard time explaining to them why they had to go through this humiliation to visit our relatives.

Finally, I was called in for questioning. The officer on duty asked question after question about where I was born, who my parents where, when did I did I leave the country, why I am coming back, and where are my Palestinian identity card and passport? My answers were the exactly the same as they had been in previous years; it's not like I could change where I was born and the names of my parents in their computer system! The only difference was that this year I was returning to attend my only brother's wedding.

I sensed that things were turning bad when the officer asked me in a sarcastic way, "Don't you know that you are Palestinian? " I was shocked by the tone of his question and terrified about where it was leading. "You cannot enter Israel through this airport," he continued. "As a Palestinian-born American, you are considered to be Palestinian in the State of Israel regardless of your American citizenship and therefore you cannot use this airport. You have to go back to the United States."

I could not believe what I was hearing! I tried to reason with him. "I have done nothing different from the last few years that I have came to visit," I explained. "I was always given a three month visa after the security and passport control checks. You mean to tell me that they did not know I was Palestinian-born before? "

Sarcastically again he said to me, "You just got lucky in the past and your luck just ran out". I was going to be DEPORTED back to the US as if I was some sort of a criminal! After all the reasoning failed, and I was not going anywhere with my negotiations with the officer, I asked him about my under age children. He said, that they would be allowed to go through on their own but without me! My kids were still outside the detective room at that point. They heard what was taking place and became terrified. My son, feeling that he needed to stand by his mother and sister at a time of crises, stormed into the room with anger and tears in his eyes. I looked at him and asked him to go back outside to the waiting room. He strongly said to me, "Mom, no…I have to say this…You have to let me say it." I saw that he was choking on his own tears and did not know what to say but allowed him let vent his anger and frustration. He said to the officer, "I do not understand this! You Jews have been prosecuted all your lives. What happened to you is ugly and unfair. But please tell me, how is what happened to you different from what you are doing to my mother and to us right now? Please answer me that, Sir," he pleaded.

Unfortunately, my son's brave attempt to help failed. By this time my daughter was crying hysterically. I was baffled, helpless, and weak. I did not know what to do or what to say. I started crying as well. I begged and pleaded. The officer insisted that I would not be allowed to use the airport. But because I had my kids with me, he was going to check into my being allowed to buy a ticket to go to Amman, Jordan. He could not promise me that I would be able to do so as he didn't know whether there would be a place for me on the plane. He asked me if I had the cash to buy the ticket. I said that I did. He further explained that the Royal Jordanian plane was scheduled to take off at 8:00 am and the Air France plane was leaving at 6:00 am. If the Royal Jordanian staff did not come in early enough to inquire about a space for me on that flight, then I would have to be deported back to the US on the Air France. Meanwhile, my kids could leave the airport to go with our family. I was to be escorted by the airport police to a room in which I could rest till morning. I asked to wait at the airport terminal and was denied.

We were escorted to the back alleys of the airport where all of our personal belongings were searched piece by piece. I was instructed to go into a small private room with a female soldier in order to be body searched. The soldier felt my body with her hands from head to toe. She then went over it with her magic wand. But the surprise was when she told me to take off my clothes! "You have got to be kidding me?" I stammered. Apparently, I would have to eventually do this the easy way or the hard way. I was not sure which way harder -- to voluntarily let her exploit my body or to forcefully let her do so! With my children right outside of the room, I chose the first. I was humiliated and felt as if every inch of me was being violated.

After a quick and extremely emotional goodbye that was filled with instructions on what to do when my children got out of the airport, I was ready to be escorted to the police car in which I was to be driven to a nice room to get some rest awaiting my fate. Walking towards the car while surrounded by my three bodyguards, one on each side and one in the front, I could not help but feel extreme anger, frustration, and yes, hate! I normally extol a peaceful philosophy of life. I never thought that hate and resentment could so easily be acquired when suddenly robbed of my dignity and respect. Driving out of the airport, it dawned on me that I was only few minutes away from my mother's arms if only I weren't blocked by these gendarmes. Thinking of her, I burst into tears. I could not stop crying, I did not want to stop crying.

Finally, we arrived at our destination. The building did not look welcoming at all. It was surrounded by a tall wall with metal wires on top and there were soldiers who were guarding the place as well. I thought to myself, "No…it can't be? This could not be what I think it is?" I fearfully asked the soldiers with terror in my voice, "Where are we?" I was told that this was the prison! As I took my first steps inside, I kept pleading to go back to the airport. But sure enough, there was no other option. The soldiers checked me in, confiscated my personal belongings and escorted me to my jail cell. When a soldier opened that steal door, I just collapsed. "This cannot be happening to me? This is just a nightmare…Please take me back to the airport…Please I want my mother and father…Please, I want to see my children…I want my husband," I cried. With a paralyzing feeling in my legs, I fell onto the floor of the jail cell that was filled with trash overflowing from the garbage basket. "I want to go home…I just want to go home," I pleaded. The steel door was slammed shut.

Refusing to lay down on the filthy bunk bed, I sat on a chair thinking of my children. My mind was in a state of confusion. Ideas and possibilities of what could have happened to them, what could happen to me, kept running through my head in split seconds. Without my realizing it, the dawn broke. Sometime around 6 am, the cell door opened. "There is a seat for you on the Royal Jordanian flight; do you have cash to buy it?" the soldier inquired.

"Yes, I do, thank God" I cried. Again with three solders escorting me on the sides as if I were the biggest terrorist in the world, we walked through the back alleys of the airport where I was taken to purchase my ticket. I was surprised a bit. I thought I would be buying it from the Royal Jordanian agents. A lady told me that my ticket would be $ 270 and said that I would have to pay in cash. I did not care; I just wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. The boarding pass was not handed to me; instead, it was handed to the soldiers. I glanced at my receipt only to notice that it was written for $20 dollars! I looked at the soldiers and said, "This receipt is for $20 dollars and not for $270 which you saw that I paid."

He asked me if I would like to go back and inquire about the situation. By that time, it was close to 7:30 am. The flight was leaving at 8:00 am. I was not going to take a chance. If I missed it, I got deported back to the US. I replied, "No…it is ok, I do not want to check into it." With that, I thought I would be heading towards the gate where I was to board. Apparently, in this trip, nothing worked the way I thought it would. I was escorted to the police car parked by the airplane stair. I was then accompanied up the plane where the soldier gave my boarding pass to the flight attendant and told me to "have a good flight!"

I arrived at Amman, Jordan, at 10:00 am. I paid for my entry visa and made my way successfully through passport control and customs. I took a deep breath of relief along with my first steps outside as a free woman! It did not take me very long to find a taxi to take me to "El Jiser," the land border at Elenby Bridge between Jordan and Israel. After all, there would be a hefty fee for the trip and I surely looked tired and willing.

It was extremely hot that day and the air conditioner was not working in the car. What else can go wrong in this trip? I thought to myself. Still, however, I was counting my blessings, thinking that at least I was a few hours away from my children and family and not oceans and days away. "We are here," the driver said. And just when I thought this day could not get any worse, it did. There were hundreds of people waiting under the hot sun. Kids and babies were crying. People were shouting and screaming. Trash looked like it was part of the landscaping of the border. My jaw dropped! I did not know what to say or where to begin. There was nothing but tons of people with no signs or directions telling them what to do. Looking disoriented and dazed, a gentleman approached me and advised, "You know you can buy a VIP pass."

The VIP pass cost about $100 dollars and with it, I could wait in an extremely crowded room equipped with fans and some chairs till my name was called to get on the bus to cross over to the other side. I could also bypass some of the other crowds waiting in line that could not afford to pay the hefty fee. Astonished by the amount of people there, hearing their stories and how long they had been waiting, I felt helpless and yet empowered with anger and frustration. My heart ached for the kids who were thirsty and tired. I actually realized that I was "lucky" my kids did not have to go through all of this. After a 4 hour wait, my name was called. I anxiously hopped in the van thinking that I was yet one step closer to seeing my family. Driving to the Israeli side of the boarder, the VIP van passed 27 long busses filled with people crossing to the other side. They must have been waiting for hours to pass through, as only one bus at a time could enter the check point. I only had to wait in the van for about 45 minutes. Finally, around 4:00 pm, I got to the Israeli border.

Going through Israeli security can be time extensive. Only the best and most sophisticated equipment is used for potential terrorists like me. Armed with peace, I calmly went through all the security checks. Anxiety was fast kicking in, however, after I saw the line waiting for the passport control entry. Looking around and seeing all the people traveling with children, I knew I was relatively lucky and waited calmly for my turn. One of the security agents noticed my American passport with my VIP sticker on it. She then told me I could wait in a room and took my passport to get it cleared with security. Not surprisingly though, she came back with her officer asking me for my Palestinian travel documents. I explained that I did not have any, and that I had traveled through Ben -Gurion airport the past years. I also told her that I had left the country before the Palestinian Authority was in place and since then had traveled through all the proper Israeli channels. I asked why things were different for me this time when I was told at the airport that I could only pass through this border. The security agent looked at me then and said calmly, "No, you cannot enter through here."

Astonished, I had to ask him to say it again. I couldn't believe his words. "But your people at the airport told me I could enter through here," I begged. He further explained that I could only enter through the border if I had Palestinian documents. All I had to do was to contact my family in Bethlehem, ask them to make me those documents and send them to me in Amman, and then and only then could I enter. He also mentioned that these documents could take a few weeks to establish!

I lost all feelings in my legs and collapsed. On the floor, crying hysterically, I asked for a paramedic. I knew I was soon going to pass out. At first, I wasn't taken seriously. Maybe they thought I was faking it. Ten minutes passed by without help. Finally a female police officer came up to me and asked me if I was ok. I told her that I was not ok and that I felt like I would throw up and pass out soon. She left and came back with yet another captain and a paramedic. The paramedic checked my blood pressure and asked me if I had anything to eat and drink that day. I explained to her that I had not had anything to eat or drink for close to 3 days as that was how long I had been traveling. She wanted me to drink some orange juice but I refused. I knew I was going to vomit as soon as anything touched my stomach. She then warned me and told me that she could hardly detect my pulse and that I would pass out soon if I did not get something in my stomach. The captain took notice and started to ask me questions about my story. He looked at my passport and looked again. He asked me to please stop crying and to come with him to his office.

After checking my status extensively on his computer, he said to me, "Mona, I am going to be very honest with you. I send people back all the time from this border. But honestly, I do not know and cannot find a reason why this was done to you." I felt so relieved that all my problems were going to be solved. This was the first person that talked to me like I was a human being and seemed to truly care. He spoke Arabic very well and with no accent. I was surprised and asked him how he was able to speak the language. It turned out that he was an "Arabic/Israeli Durzie" enlisted in the Israeli army. He then called my family and told them that I was in his office, a little tired, and that he was going to let me in on humanitarian reasons. He asked them to come and pick me up as soon as possible.

I was escorted out, gratefully avoiding all the other security stops. I was placed in a taxi that would take me to Palestinian grounds where my family was to meet me. As soon as I took my first glance at my mother, my two sisters, and brother, I smiled for the first time in three days. After all, my mother was doing all the crying now for me…

Driving to my hometown, my sister and mother, who are also American citizens, filled me in on all the details from their side. They told me that my children made it out ok and that they were enjoying their time with their cousins at that moment. They also explained how they had been inquiring about my whereabouts via our American Consulate. What I came to realize on my way back "home" was by far the most disappointing news I had received in the past three days throughout this whole ordeal.

My sister Abby who has lived in the United States for over 22 years, arrived to Bethlehem two weeks ahead of me. A strong and sharp minded Arab American, she got right on the ball as soon as she realized I was in trouble. She had started making phone calls to both the US and to our American Consulate in Jerusalem.

She first contacted my husband and updated him on the situation. Worried sick about me, my husband started calling our Local US Congressman office, US State Department in Washington D.C, and US embassy in Tel Aviv. The answers were all the same! It was the same answer my sister received from our US Consulate in Jerusalem as well.

My Family was told that there was NOTHING that could be done on my behalf. The American Embassy could not intervene in Israeli policies. Though, I was an American citizen, in the State of Israel, I was NOT considered to be one and therefore, my country, cannot intervene on my behalf. The only thing that they could do for me was to make sure that I was given something to eat and drink!

Apparently, in the State of Israel "the ONLY democracy in the Middle East", I was NOT considered to be an American Citizen. I was Palestinian born and therefore, will be entitled to all the "wonderful" privileges that come along with it. You see, a "true" American Citizen, would be initiated to travel freely without restrictions in the State of Israel. An American Citizens would NOT be subjected to being harassed, stopped, investigated, and humiliated by the State of Israel. BUT, I was Palestinian born; people like me could not possibly be permitted to enjoy all of these extravagant privileges that are given to "true" Americans!

As I was listing to my mother and sister filling me in on all these details on our way home, I could not help but feel very sad and hurt. Hurt by the lack of response and help from my own beloved county! I was extremely disappointed when my sister continued on to tell me that the Embassy actually told her that if it were my children (who are American born) that were in my situation, then, they would have been able to intervene on their behalf! Suddenly, I felt speechless and betrayed!

I am back "home" now. Living and enjoying all the comforts and rights given to me by my country. However, I can't help but think sometimes, am I living in a lie? Do I truly enjoy the same rights? And can I truly overcome my disappointments?

As it took me time to build my allegiance and love for my country, I imagine that it will take me even more time overcome the feeling of inferiority that was reinforced by my beloved country during my time of hardship.

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