500 Days in Limbo: The story of two men from Gaza stuck in US immigration detention

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We have seen the destruction and carnage waged upon the people of Gaza for over a decade now.  Names like “Cast Lead,” “Pillar of Defense,” and “Protective Edge” evoke images of indiscriminate bombing campaigns that killed over 4,000 people – destroying vital infrastructure, and putting Gaza on track to possibly be uninhabitable by the year 2020.

Now, add the fact that this tiny strip of land is surrounded by a naval blockade – and its fisherman are routinely fired upon by the Israeli navy.  Now, add the fact that the sole lifeline for the people of Gaza – along the Egyptian border, has been cut off by the deplorable Sisi regime.  It’s clear that life for those who are living in what has been termed an “open-air prison” has become untenable.  With very little economic opportunity, and the constant threat of violence looming overhead, it is no wonder that some are fleeing for their own safety.

Asylum Seekers – In Arizona?

A colleague of mine was visiting Arizona at an immigration conference, and told me about the story of Mounis Hammouda and Hisham Shaban Ghalia.  A Palestinian-American, she was heartbroken when she learned about the harrowing journey that these two men have endured – and asked if my organization could lend any help. Realizing that this was all happening in our backyard, I knew we had to do something.  But first, I needed to know the details – and what I learned, was striking.

Poster for campaign to release Hisham and Mounis. (Image: notonemoredeportation.com)
Poster for campaign to release Hisham and Mounis. (Image: notonemoredeportation.com)

These men left Gaza separately:  Hisham in June of 2010 and Mounis in March 2011.  They both went to Turkey on student visas.  Eventually, they met in a refugee camp in Cyprus, where they decided to leave for Venezuela.  Their travels would take them through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico – all the way to the Nogales Port of Entry at the Arizona/Mexico Border.  

Imagine enduring a four-year-long journey, across 7,000+ miles, in horrific conditions – with a glimmer of hope that you may finally find a home in the land of opportunity.  After this endless journey, which almost none of us could endure – let alone fathom, imagine being rejected at your final destination.  You see, both Mounis and Hisham were not welcomed as asylum seekers when they surrendered to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the border.  Rather, they were locked up in an Arizona immigration detention center, eventually denied asylum – and have now been held indefinitely, going on 500 days.

The primary issue that has left these two men in limbo is:  They’re essentially stateless.  The United States government does not recognize Palestine as a country, therefore rendering them pawns in an endless diplomatic nightmare.  As this nightmare continually unfolds, they sit in the ICE detention facility in Florence, Arizona.

Life in Florence SPC is difficult, as you can imagine.  Being on the other side of the world from your family, unable to speak English, and utter uncertainty as to what your futures hold is just the tip of the iceberg.  You then are faced with the reality of life inside a facility, the likes of which have been the subject of horror stories, as documented by organizations such as the ACLU.

With so many undocumented immigrants coming in, being processed and staying in the facility – the two men explain that it can be difficult to get quick access to medical attention.  When it comes to the Islamic Friday congregational prayers, the men are not allowed to pray together – only on their own.  They have committed no crime, yet are being treated as though they are hardened criminals.

Not only are the conditions traumatic for these men – and those who are detained alongside them, but we must also not underestimate the memories that haunt them each and every day.  Hisham, during his asylum interview recalls the death of two of his neighbors in Gaza.  One was killed by sniper fire, while another was killed from shrapnel from being hit by an Israeli airstrike.

He talks about the lack of safety over there, the disastrous economic conditions that exist and how it would be impossible for him to make a life over there.

Both men have seen and experienced horrors that they will carry with them throughout their lives.  Yet, under the guise of “national security” and due to the fact that they are diplomatically considered a “non-existent” people – they are forced to go through a continuous loop of just waiting.  It is also impossible to ignore the political backdrop of anti-Muslim rhetoric that is informing the policy-making, when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees from Middle Eastern countries.  

Stepping in to Help

After learning about this case, the CAIR-AZ team linked up with a group of great activists who had been assisting Mounis and Hisham throughout the process.  We offered whatever support we could give, and are now working to help free these men.  A local attorney from Phoenix, who works in private practice, also reached out to us – and told us as a Palestinian-American, he would love to assist on this case pro-bono.  The legal team has now met with the pair many times, and the cases are proceeding forward nicely.

And while the narrative up to this point has the men inextricably linked – it is important to note that the circumstances surrounding their cases are very different. Mounis is eligible to be released on a $9,000 bail, which would allow him to at least be out on supervised release, while his case is fully adjudicated.  In Hisham’s case, we just filed a petition with U.S. Federal Court for Writ of Habeas Corpus.  The hope is that, in the next few weeks – we can see both of these men freed.

How Can You Help?

As the cases for these two brave men continue to steer their course, many are asking about ways they can help.  Many organizations are putting together efforts in the realm of advocacy, and assistance for Hisham and Mounis.  The Students for Justice in Palestine, University of Arizona Chapter has started a crowdfunding campaign to assist with bond money and funds to assist Hisham and Mounis resettlement upon their release.

Continue raising awareness about their plight:

Palestinian refugees in limbo after 7,000 mile journey to U.S. border

From suffering to detention:  Why does the U.S. put asylum seekers behind bars?

Hisham and Mounis: From besieged Gaza to U.S. immigration jail

The tireless work of groups such as #Not1More, The Florence Project, SJP at U of A, as well as many student activists groups, journalists and others who have brought light to this real-life human tragedy has helped this story garner worldwide attention.  The hope is that both Mounis and Hisham will soon be free, and can resume their lives in an environment free from oppression or restriction.  As human-beings, we are all entitled to these basic rights.

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There is another important way to help. Donating to their bond campaign
details at: https://www.gofundme.com/freehisham-mounis

This sounds like Holot. The US has pulled the welcome mat out from under the very people it was meant to help. France should take the statue of liberty back.

I followed some of the links and read comments attached to other articles about this case. Some people are amazingly heartless towards these two men whose only crime was being born stateless.

I found nothing about this story in my local newspaper, which is part of the Hearst chain. Evidently it isn’t important. I did find a long article there, taken from NYT, about Renee Rabinowitz, who is suing El Al airlines for asking her to switch seats because a man in… Read more »