The young man was trapped.
In a small apartment in a country that was coming apart.
It was late March, 2015. A week before, he’d fled his home in the capital of Yemen as that nation’s civil war intensified. Now he was on the coast, in Aden, where it turned out the fighting was worse: gunfire in the street, Saudi air strikes raining missiles, and nowhere to go.
Yet the Western world was tantalizingly close. At his fingertips, on his laptop: Facebook. Twitter. It was a fragile thread, but it was all he had, so he pulled it.
There is something heartbreaking in the faux casual way the young man started his email to Daniel Pincus, a man he had met in Jordan at an interfaith conference.
“Daniel, I hope everything is great in your side! I hope you still remember me … I thought it will be a good idea if I ask you if you can help me out … If you watch the news lately, you may have heard about what’s happening in Yemen.”
He had already reached out to another friend, Megan Hallahan, who emailed everyone she “had ever met in [her] whole entire life” on behalf of this acquaintance whose life “is really in danger.”
“Any idea or contact will help,” she wrote.
One of her emails reached Justin Hefter, a native of Highland Park, who was himself actively trying to foster Middle East peace, particularly between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Hefter not only wanted to help, but had his own contact in Yemen. He dug out a business card of somebody he met at a conference in Jordan.
“Hey Megan,” he wrote. “Mohammed Al Samawi lives in Yemen and was at the GATHER conference. He may have some ideas…”
“Hi Justin. It’s Mohammed that I’m talking about.”
The story of Al Samawi’s escape from Yemen is in one sense the story of any refugee anywhere in any era: growing up in an insular place — in his case, a child of privilege, his parents both doctors. Taught the insular local beliefs: to fear the West, hate Jews and Christians. Yet also glimpsing the world beyond the confines of home and its doctrine — in the case of Samawi, reading the Bible, becoming an activist for religious harmony.
Then being forced to flee from that home, his only hope to find safe haven in the United States.
What makes his case different, as told in his newly published, highly readable book, “The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America” is that Al Samawi’s flight to America was arranged by a quartet of near-strangers on social media. A reminder that there’s more to Facebook than Cambridge Analytica swiping data.
“Without Facebook I wouldn’t be here today,” said Al Samawi.
“We started connecting with people in different governments,” said Hefter. Their efforts bore fruit: the Indian government was evacuating its citizens, and they would tuck Samawi aboard, provided they had an official request, such as a letter from a senator.
As it turns out, Hefter knew (now former) Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
“Kirk’s letter was so crucial,” said Hefter.
I don’t want to give the ending away, though you can guess that if Al Samawi was yanked out of a car and shot on some dusty checkpoint in Yemen, he wouldn’t have been able to write the book. At a time when our nation, out of our own fear and ignorance, is turning away those who would be among our finest citizens, if only we let them, it’s important to remember the world still desperately looks to us for freedom.
“We need to remember our humanity above politics,” said Hefter. “The hope for the world, that regardless of politics, we can still hear individuals’ stories and come to their aid. It’s about the individuals you reach out to. It’s about personal relationships, and people like Mohammed who inspired all of these people to go outside the norms of their regular behavior. It was Mohammed’s peace activism that inspired people to help him.”
Justin Hefter and Mohammed Al Samawi, author of “The Fox Hunt,” will speak at a Sun-Times special event at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at Chicago Sinai Congregation, 15 W. Delaware Place. For ticket and luncheon information, go to suntimes.com/events/the-fox-hunt-one-extraordinary-escape-to-freedom.