Sometimes There’s a Hollywood Ending

Today I attended a unique book launch party, which was particularly meaningful for me because from start to finish, it involved people I knew. The American Sephardi Federation hosted Mohammed Al Samawi’s “The Fox Hunt”, a story of his rescue from Yemen 3 years ago by 4 strangers of 3 different faiths. By this point in time, Mohammed has 1. Gone all over the country, along with one of his rescuers, Daniel Pincus, telling his epic story 2. Had optioned the manuscript for a major motion picture and 3. appeared on several major networks prior to his book launch, as well as at a very special Broadway seder, which featured his story as a theme.

The events that unfolded under dramatic circumstances, in brief, were as follows:

Mohammed grew up as a moderate Shi’a in Sana’a in a well to do family. For most of his life, he was indoctrinated with anti-Semitic teachings in his schools, but at one point, started communicating with people online and met a Christian, who agreed to read the Qu’ran in exchange for Mohammed reading the Bible. To his surprise, upon discovering that the Bible has very positive messages and has much in common with his own religion, Mohammed became increasingly open to interactions with people of other faiths, and eventually started seeking out American Jews, and even Israelis.

Eventually, he found courage to travel out of Yemen to Bosnia for a conference which brought together young Muslim and Jewish peace activists, where he had an opportunity to meet in person many of the people he was interacting online. Mohammed joined the Yallah movement of young Middle Easterners working in peacebuilding, while professionally working with Oxfam. He continued online conversations with Israelis and others. Eventually, however, the word got out and soon enough he was receiving threats from extremists, such as Al Qaeda, which by that point had become very active in the region.  Mohammed eventually fled from Sana’a to Aden, but when the war broke out, he found himself stranded with no supplies, separated from his family and friends, and struggling to survive while surrounded by warring factions and terrorists. At one point, while stuck by himself in a basement, while awaiting potential identification and murder by extremists, he decided to reach out to his friends in a leap of faith. And that’s when the story really begins.

Everyone who participated in the utterly insane rescue operation that follows had an opportunity to finally meet in person on stage today for the first time since the crazed phone calls several years ago, relating how they found each other and through a complicated network of connections and personal references, eventually got senators to call Indian authorities and get them to agree to take out Mohammed (and as it turned out, another larger group of fleeing Yemeni civilians) on the last boat of Yemen to Djibouti, where, thanks to the efforts of the Jewish community, particularly the American Jewish Committee, he was able to get a visa to attend various speaking engagements in the US, and thanks to the generosity of his friends and their networks, caught a flight to the United States and to safety.

Looking back on how it all happened, it truly is a miraculous story. The four main rescuers in this group efforts (including Daniel PIncus, and Justin Hefter, who, at that point, I knew at least somewhat, but mostly virtually), spent an inordinate amount of time during those two weeks on the phone and Skype coordinating, reaching out to people, and breaking through all the obstacles.  To me, the whole thing was surreal because… at the time all of this happening, I myself was working through a website called Movements.org belonging to now largely defunct organization called Advancing Human Rights, to assist other persecuted individuals, mostly in the MENA region, to leave their situations for safety. By the time Mohammed’s case came up, I was working on at least five life-and-death cases simultaneously – prepared for the job only by virtue of having previously read a ton of books on exfiltration operations, which is, I suppose, better than nothing, but as it turned out, never a substitute for professional experience.

When I connected with Mohammed, and he told me his story, I was duly horrified – but my understanding of the situation in Yemen was perfunctory at best, and what’s worse, with every day, news came in of yet another embassy closing. WIth each day, he was running out of options; his own own workplace had already evacuated all other employees, and could not help him. And trying to get to the still-functioning port on his own and just beg for help from anyone who was still around seemed like a suicide mission.  At this point, I was contacting other activists, I knew, in Africa, but having just started out in human rights work, the people I knew were few in number, nor did they have any options for transporting Mohammed out of the country. It wasn’t like someone was available to fly in a private jet and rescue him.

I am not sure what I would have done if I continued on my own, but just as I thought that I had run out of people to ask, I got an email from Dan requesting help from Mohammed. It was only then that I connected the dots and realized that Mohammed was the same person who was mentioned by various people I knew from Jewish circles with respect to their interfaith activities. At that point, I responded to the email, explaining my own involvement, and we decided to join forces. I wish I could, at this point, entertain my readers with my heroic feats and some fantastic and unbelievable story of playing a major part in the miraculous rescue mission which transpired, but much as I wish as I could have done more at the time, my own role in those events was minimal, and could be best described as a sympathetic observer who also volunteered to help out in various small ways. Bear in mind, that at that point, I barely knew anybody anywhere – whether in the political, human rights, or philanthropist world. So when I volunteered to lend some assistance with outreach to the powers that be, the whole thing seemed more than a little quixotic to me, and I just hoped that no one was relying on me too much. Thankfully, various high level people came through after a lot of pushing, and I was relieved beyond all words. That still left me with a bunch of other cases to juggle, but at least one person was being taken care of.

Despite being largely a footnote to that unbelievable development that brought Mohammed to the States and finally brought everyone face to face, there are several lessons that I took away from that experience, which, I hope, would keep any activist dedicated to helping others going under seemingly dire circumstances and against seemingly impossible odds:

  1. You know more people than you think you know. Seriously, not only these four people had a network of just about anybody of importance, but various people they have reached out to had networks of their own. You never know who may turn out to be helpful or useful in a difficult situation, so what really worked was going to literally anyone who could possibly think of anybody who could either help directly or was in a position to recommend someone else. I am not sure whether everyone is still in touch with all the amazing people they have met through that experience, but that is something really worth remembering for the future. Collect your contacts, cherish, and cultivate them, and not just for that one in a blue moon crazy time when you seriously need a deus ex machina.
  2. Just as when you think it’s all over, that’s when it’s most important to continue against all odds. There was one terrible moment in that whole story when Mohammed’s phone battery had run out, and when we really had no idea what was going on. There was no information coming out of Yemen nor really anyway of contacting anybody. All we could do is wait for Mohammed to find some way of getting back in touch. The waiting was worse than all his descriptions of danger and horrors. That, by the way, is my experience with all the other individual human rights situations I’ve ever encountering. No matter how bad the circumstances are, not knowing what’s going on is much worse.  There was another moment, when Mohammed felt he was surrounded, food was running out, there were explosions or shots outside, and everything seemed hopeless and doomed. Mohammed was contemplating sure doom, and everyone on the other side of Skype was nearly paralyzed in horror, though continuing the push in the advocacy/outreach efforts. Nevertheless, as you will learn from reading the book, there was a breakthrough, and everything worked out in the end.
  3. Cliche as it may sound, every human life matters. If you hear a cry for help, no matter how little are the chances, you will regret not having gotten involved a lot more than whatever time you spent trying to accomplish the impossible.
  4. Skype works better in Yemen than T-mobile in New York.
  5. Politics often makes the strangest of bedfellows, but when it comes to life-saving operations you never know who will become an ally, so don’t discount the unlikeliest possibilities, and also don’t be surprised if your closest friends will be at best skeptical and unencouraging, and at worst will turn away at  you when you need them the most. At the same time, totally random people you’ve never even heard of may turn into your new best friends overnight.
  6. Delegate. When you have a group of more than 2 people (and frankly, it’s helpful even with just 2), and the task is unwieldy with no beginning and no end, it helps to assign specific tasks to people, and to make checklists of what needs to be done, and which leads need to be followed up with. We figured that out after the multiple email chains and skype messages started to drive everyone crazy and became too much to keep up with even for people with more time on their hands – which very few of us actually had (if anyone). But you will save yourself a headache, a lot of time, and potentially missing out on something important by starting with figuring out the who knows whom/what, and how to apply people’s skills and connections in the best possible way.
  7. Never exclude the most far-fetched solutions, though they should not be your first call.
  8. Sometimes there is no backup plan. Sometimes you have to improvise as you go along, simply because the situation is too fluid and unpredictable, and all you can do is watch out for the opportunities. Let’s just say, that along the way there were various potential ideas and possibilities (some crazier than others, i.e. renting private planes for ridiculous amount of money). Those plans all failed, but in the end the last attempt succeeded, quite possibly perhaps it really WAS the last possible option, and that’s what moved the people who agreed to help to do so. So if something goes terribly awry, and the plan falls apart along the way, just move in and keep the final goal in sight. It’s not how you get there that matters, it’s to get there at all.
  9.  Someone has to make that final call. There will be situation where consensus is impossible, or the dilemma requires such responsibility that you can’t just “vote” on it or hope for the best. Someone has to call the shots and take the lead on whatever it is that you are trying to decide. And it’s agonizing, but there’s just no getting around that.
  10. The end makes it all worth it, especially if that end means bringing together truly dedicated, passionate, and caring people from all imaginable backgrounds to lend support to just one human being in need. If one person can have such an inspiring, uniting, motivating, and positive effect on people with so many differences, imagine how communities can transform by taking on more and harder cases of people in need, rather than shying away from the challenge?

Today it all came together on stage, as Mohammed, and then the 4 strangers and he were interviewed by Jonathan Alper on both the history of the conflict and the current situation, as well as Mohammed’s personal story and the perspectives of his rescuers. Afterwards, we celebrated with delicious Yemeni food and the book signing. And while Mohammed now embarks on a book tour and various events, the rest of us have the movie to look forward to, and opportunities to expand our friendships, work together more often to create and do incredible, meaningful things, build bonds and organizations, and be reinspired again and again as we reflect on what the human spirit can accomplish when hardworking and dedicated people commit to doing the right thing.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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