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Al-Najjar, family reunited overseas

After 5-1/2 months apart, the homeless Palestinian is joined by his wife and daughters in an unnamed U.S.-friendly Arab land.

By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2003


TAMPA -- The family of former University of South Florida instructor Mazen Al-Najjar has reunited with him in an undisclosed Arab country.

Al-Najjar met his wife and three daughters for the first time in 51/2 months at the airport in a "U.S. friendly Arab country," Al-Najjar's brother in-law, Sami Al-Arian, said Wednesday.

The family is afraid that revealing the country could jeopardize their bid to secure permanent visas. Al-Arian said the reunion was emotional and a relief.

"It was exhilarating," he said. "They were very happy, very thankful."

After months of negotiation, the undisclosed country admitted Al-Najjar two weeks ago. Al-Najjar was deported from the United States in August and wound up in Lebanon, which deported him a few weeks later to yet another country that the family kept secret.

After Al-Najjar landed in his current country, his wife, Fedaa, also secured a temporary visa. The three daughters, all U.S. citizens, did not need visas.

His wife and daughters left Tuesday night and arrived in the new country on Wednesday. It was the first time the daughters, ages 7, 12 and 14, had left the United States.

They were sad to leave, Al-Arian said, but happy to see their father. The daughters are not fluent in Arabic, but know enough to make a successful transition, Al-Arian said.

The job prospects for Al-Najjar are good, though he is not working right now, Al-Arian said. He has also recently begun taking insulin injections for his diabetes, Al-Arian said.

"We hope now that they are getting settled that his health will improve," Al-Arian said.

A stateless Palestinian, Al-Najjar came to the United States in 1981 but overstayed a student visa. He was jailed in 1997 on classified evidence that allegedly linked him to the Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad. He was never charged.

Al-Najjar was released 31/2 years later in December 2000, after a federal judge ruled that his constitutional rights were violated by the government's refusal to divulge the evidence against him.

But in November 2001, a federal appeals court upheld a deportation order for overstaying the visa and ordered him back into custody.

The family finally secured a two-week visa to Bahrain. Al-Najjar left a Sumter County prison in August 2002 escorted by Immigration and Naturalization Service agents. But en route to Ireland, they learned that Bahrain was refusing to accept Al-Najjar.

After negotiations, Al-Najjar and his escorts flew to Italy, and 25 hours later went on to Lebanon, which granted him a six-month visitor's visa. Al-Najjar had tentative plans to move on to South Africa, where a Muslim school had offered him a teaching job. The school later rescinded the offer.

Several Lebanese officials balked at what they called the United States' "illegal dumping" of Al-Najjar in their country. In September, Lebanon deported Al-Najjar to an undisclosed country, where he remained until last month.

"We are 95 percent sure that this will be the last stop for the family," Al-Arian said. "You never know, but we are confident."

-- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com .

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