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An arduous journey covering 11 countries, weeks spent in various jails and a terrifying trek in the Colombian jungle was not enough to stop two Palestinians fleeing a war zone from reaching San Diego.
Mahmoud Issa and Mohammad Mohammad said they fled the war in Syria, the country where they were born and have lived all their lives. Issa, 25, was an anesthesiologist at a Syrian hospital and Mohammad, 23, was in his final year of working on his medical degree at the same facility when they escaped in May 2015.
The men believed that once they made it to the U.S. and applied for asylum, they would be allowed to go free while their applications were processed. Instead, they have been jailed for the past seven months.
In declarations filed with Immigration Court, Issa and Mohammad say they escaped because they were being pressured to join the Syrian army. Terrorist groups, including ISIS, also wanted them to join their ranks. Each side wanted to make use of their medical skills, they said.
On top of all the difficulties you might expect of fleeing the Syrian civil war, Issa and Mohammad had another factor complicating their escape: They’re Palestinian.
Both men were born in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, as were their parents (Issa’s mother was born in a camp in Lebanon) but are not Syrian citizens. The United Nations administers schools in the camps, which is how they both learned English. They attended medical school in Damascus and met at a local teaching hospital, where Mohammad was completing training to become an anesthesiologist.
Mohammad Mohammad (left) and Mahmoud Issa, photo by Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft
“Palestinians have been fighting for 70 years. We are tired of war. The camp where my family lived was destroyed in the fighting [between the Syrian army and opposition groups]. We had to avoid sniper fire. That is no way for any human to live,” said Mohammad. “Palestinians are stateless. I am a man without a country. From the time I was a little boy I dreamed about having a nationality, an identity. I don’t want to spend my life as a second-class citizen and as a refugee.”
Palestinians do not have passports; instead they have travel documents identifying them as Palestinian but residing in Syria. The passport issue has complicated things for Palestinians living in refugee camps and who want to travel abroad.
Indeed, Issa said they both tried desperately to get a visa from any nation to get out of Syria. Several embassies turned them down because of their lack of passports. To their surprise, Brazil agreed to give them tourist visas just as they were running out of hope.
“I was very lucky to get a visa from Brazil. I don’t know why they gave me a visa when everyone [else] said no. When he gave me my visa, he saved my life. I wanted a safe life; a life with no war,” said Issa, whose fiancée, also an anesthesiologist, was killed in the Syrian civil war.
The nod from Brazil, that spark of hope, kicked off a long, strange and often dangerous journey that led the two men to the Otay Mesa Detention Center. There, they sat down with Voice of San Diego to talk about what they’ve been through.
Issa and Mohammad began their odyssey in Beirut, where they took a flight to Morocco and then to Brazil. They initially hoped to settle in Brazil and continue their medical studies. The men rented a flat in Sao Paolo and sold beer, water and candy on the streets.
Their plans changed when an African immigrant encouraged them to attend school in the U.S. and they saved $10,000 for the trip. Mohammad said the man told them it would be a 20-day bus ride to the U.S. Their overland trek instead took six months and wound through 11 countries, enough time for them to learn Spanish along the way.
They had to pay smugglers to sneak them into every country they traversed. Their journey had an inauspicious beginning. After crossing illegally into Peru, the first country they entered, they were locked up for a week and then let go. It was the first of many stints in detention throughout Latin America on their way north.
“We learned that if we paid the police $100, they would let us go free. It was the same everywhere. The police were very bad but most of the people were very nice to us. We told them we were Cubans and they called us hermanos. We got much help from people,” said Mohammad.
The pair was often mistaken as Latino, so they pretended to be illegal Cuban immigrants, thinking it would make their story about coming to America more believable. Pretending to be Cuban, though, also made them vulnerable to unscrupulous ticket agents who sometimes charged as much as $50 for a $2 bus fare.
The most dangerous stretch of the journey was in Colombia, where they paid a smuggler $2,000 each to take them into Panama. They joined six others in a small motorboat that was supposed to land them on a Panamanian beach. When the boat began having engine trouble, the smuggler headed for the nearby shore and unloaded his human cargo. He pointed north and said they were an hour’s walk from Panama, said Mohammad. He and Issa got separated from the others and began walking into the forest.
There, they survived jaguars, snakes and five days without food or water before being rescued by locals.
“We did not have any food or water. Mahmoud and I spent five days in the jungle and we were getting desperate. We were lost and afraid that we would get killed by wild animals. We drank water from the streams and believed that we were going to die in the jungle. We did not know where we were. We were saved when we saw an Indian in a boat. We paid him $100 to save us,” said Mohammad.
The man helped them find the Panamanian border. After crossing into Panama, the pair was arrested and jailed for two months.
Issa and Mohammad identified themselves as being from Syria each time they were arrested, causing confusion among authorities who asked why they did not have Syrian passports if they were born in Syria, and why they called themselves Palestinians.
“We told them we were trying to get to America. Our situation was very confusing to them. We were born in Syria but weren’t citizens. We had Palestinian travel documents but not passports. They didn’t believe us that we had received a visa to go to Brazil. They said the visa was false,” said Mohammad.
Panamanian officials notified the U.S. Embassy and an embassy official was sent to interview them, said Mohammad.
“The American listened to our story; that we were trying to get to America to ask for asylum. He told us that our situation would be fixed very quickly and the next day we were free,” said Issa.
When they got to Nicaragua, they were jailed again – this time for a week.
After entering Mexico, they were locked up for a month. Mexican authorities summoned U.S. consular officials, who interviewed them. They were released the following day to continue the trek to Tijuana, said Mohammad.
Arriving in Tijuana on March 12, they crossed the border with other pedestrians and presented themselves to U.S. Customs officers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
“After standing in line for many hours before we got to the front, they told us we would have go to another line to talk to someone about asylum,” said Mohammad.
The men said they stood in the second line for more than 24 hours. Issa said he was allowed to return to Mexico to buy food and water without losing his place in line.
Customs officials declined to comment on details of the men’s stories, citing privacy laws. But in an email the agency said, “We have seen an increase in persons arriving at the San Ysidro Port of Entry that has led to increased processing times at the port of entry for those individuals without legal status to enter the U.S.”
Issa and Mohammad said their initial contact with Customs officers was met with confusion and skepticism.
U.S. authorities, like the other foreign officials they encountered, questioned why they were not Syrian citizens if they were born in Syria and lived there all their lives, Mohammad said. The fact that they identified themselves as Palestinians was also received with skepticism. When they explained they had Palestinian travel documents and not passports, the officers’ suspicion deepened, said Mohammad.
After their interviews, they were taken into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where they have been since March 13.
Because they do not know anyone in the U.S. and do not have a community sponsor, the government argued Issa and Mohammad could be a flight risk and should be kept in detention, their attorney said. (Several months ago, the men reached out to the House of Palestine in Balboa Park for help. They say the letter went unanswered.)
They have kept their incarceration a secret from their families. The men call their parents twice a month and ease their families’ concerns about being so far away by telling them stories about how they are getting settled in America. Issa said he wants to continue in medicine as a general practitioner, and Mohammad wants to finish studying to become an anesthesiologist.
“I tell my family all is wonderful in America and I am preparing to continue with my studies; not to worry,” said Issa.
Both men said they are making the best of their time behind bars while awaiting the government’s response to their asylum requests. Issa said they read as much as they can to better their English and volunteer as interpreters for other inmates who are also awaiting a decision on their immigration cases. Because of the large number of Spanish-speaking inmates, their Spanish language skills are also being kept sharp, Mohammad said.
“In here you can kill the time by volunteering for work assignments and keep busy by helping others. Or you can let time kill you. I continue to have hope that Mohammad and I will be given permission to live in America,” said Issa.
Earlier this month, Orange County attorney Akram Abusharar learned about their case while visiting another inmate and agreed to represent them pro bono.
“I was really struck by their story, that’s why I agreed to represent them pro bono. I went to visit a client at the [detention] center and he told me about Mohammad and Mahmoud, and I asked to meet with them. I contacted people in San Diego and Riverside who have agreed to sponsor them,” said Abusharar.
The attorney said he is preparing motions for their release while the asylum cases make their way through immigration court.
Their quest to find a stable home outside of Syria is set to drag on a bit longer.
Mohammad’s next hearing is scheduled for December and Issa’s in January.