Mohammed Al Samawi knows what it’s like to put his life on the line for peace.
A native of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and a practicing Muslim, Al Samawi, 32, fled his homeland three years ago because of his interfaith activism there, as well as that nation’s bloody civil war. Since moving to the United States, he has worked with several non-governmental organizations that promote religious tolerance and peace activism.
Al Samawi’s life and miraculous escape are detailed in his new book, “The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America” (William Morrow). The New York Times called “The Fox Hunt” a “gripping account of terror and escape,” and Fox 2000 Pictures announced a major motion picture based on the book is now in production.
Al Samawi will speak at Pikesville’s Beth Tfiloh Congregation Oct. 10 at 7:30 at the annual Stanley Z. Penn Lecture. Joining him in the discussion will be Daniel Pincus, one of four Westerners who helped engineer Al Samawi’s escape. Pincus is an American Jewish Committee leader who lives in New Jersey.
Jmore recently spoke with Al Samawi about his book and life.
Jmore: Growing up in Yemen, what were you told about Jews?
Al Samawi: In school, I learned that Jews believe in the Torah but rabbis had been adding hate messages so the Torah was not holy anymore. The hate messages said they want to kill us — kill anyone who was not Jewish. Muslims and everyone else.
In Sana’a, how did you get a copy of the Hebrew Bible?
My professor, a Christian, gave me a copy of the Bible, including the Old and the New Testament. I wanted to find the a-ha! — the hate statements. I had to read the Bible in secret because I would have gotten in trouble if anyone found out I was reading it. You cannot read the Bible in Yemen. What I found out was there were many similarities between the Bible and the Koran.
Why risk your life getting involved with non-Muslims?
I was able to find some Christians from India who lived in Sana’a, but I could not find any Jews. So my first contact with Jews was via Facebook. Facebook was new to me. I had to learn how to use it, and when I did, I asked Jews, “Why do you hate us?” They said they didn’t. “We are not hating you,” they answered. In the beginning, I didn’t believe them, maybe they are just faking it.
I had to find out. That’s why I traveled to a peace conference in Bosnia. I met Jews there for the first time, including Jews that I knew from Facebook. I began to believe what they were saying.
What happened next?
I returned home and kept using Facebook. I talked with Americans, with Christians and Jews, including Israelis. I knew that that put me in danger, [and] it also put my family in danger. If people found out what I was doing, they would kill me. They would also kill my family. So I had to leave. I went to Aden [a port city in Yemen]. I was talking with Westerners via social media when the country’s civil war exploded all around me. I hid in my apartment. If the soldiers found me, they would torture me and then kill me. I was thinking I should kill myself.
How did Jews and Christians help you escape?
I used Facebook to reach out for help. I sent messages to everyone I could think of — “Help me, please.” I didn’t think for one moment that they would be able to help me. Then, people began responding to my messages. They helped me escape from Yemen, and they also helped me get to the United States.
Your situation now?
I’ve been in the States since July 2015. I am now in the process of getting a green card, but immigration is very hard for people from Yemen. I just need to wait until my turn comes. My lawyer says that I shouldn’t try to make my case urgent. It would not work. I must be patient.
What’s the situation in Yemen right now?
The situation is worse and worse. There is no airport. People cannot leave the country. I was very lucky to get out. Unfortunately, the United States is one of the many countries involved in Yemen. So I’m trying to reach senators and congressmen to ask them not to support the war in Yemen. The response from senators [Bernie] Sanders [I-Vt.] and [Kirsten] Gillibrand (D- N.Y.] has been positive.
The war in Yemen is the biggest crisis in the world. People are starving, eating leaves from trees. It is crazy. I hope there will be a moment when everyone will be in one tent and we can end this crazy war.
How can people here help?
Contact your senators and congressmen. Many foreign countries are involved in Yemen’s war. Tell them to stop the airstrikes on hospitals and schools. We look to the U.S. to stop the war in Yemen.
The Stanley Z. Penn Lecture will take place at Beth Tfiloh, 3300 Old Court Rd., in the High School’s Rosen Arts Center/Mintzes Theatre. The event is free and open to the public. A book signing will follow the discussion. For information, call 410-413-2321 or email email@example.com.
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.