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School bus ride takes 2 to jail

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published May 20, 2006


TAMPA - Two Saudi Arabian men climbed aboard a school bus Friday morning bound for Wharton High and landed in jail.

Although the case caught the attention of state and federal authorities, officials suspect it might have been a case of cultural confusion.

When Mana Saleh Almanajam, 23, and Shaker Mohnsen Alsidran, 20, caught the yellow bus at 7 a.m. at Fletcher Avenue and 42nd Street, students alerted their substitute bus driver.

Driver Roberta McCray radioed the school district. By the time the bus arrived at campus at 7:30 a.m., a sheriff's deputy was on scene to charge the two with trespassing.

Though their actions only resulted in misdemeanor charges, Almanajam and Alsidran were quickly under the microscope of the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Regional Domestic Security Task Force, the Sheriff's Homeland Security Division, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway described the two as cagey and evasive as they answered questions. They said they were from Morocco, Callaway said, and then Saudi Arabia. The men told authorities they said they were from Morocco because they worried Americans fear Saudi Arabian men.

Sgt. Mike Klingebiel, spokesman for the University of South Florida Police Department, confirmed the two have been enrolled at the English Language Institute at USF since January. They came to the United States six months ago on student visas, he said, and are taking the language classes to help them qualify to enroll as full-time college students.

When asked why they boarded the bus, Callaway said Almanajam and Alsidran gave different answers. They wanted to enroll in an easier English language program than the one they have attended at USF; they wanted to see a high school; and they thought it would be fun.

"It was a very odd occurrence this morning," Callaway said.

Despite all the hubbub, Callaway said authorities became convinced they were here legally.

Ahmed Bedier, director of the Central Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations, said it sounded like a cultural mixup.

"Obviously, if they had recently arrived here and they are from Saudi Arabia, they may not be familiar with American rules and laws," Bedier said. "They might have thought it was some kind of public transportation."

Bedier said the incident highlights the need for programs like the English Language Institute to provide some kind of civics education for their students to help them avoid such situations.

As for Alsidran and Almanajam, they remained in Orient Road Jail late Friday, each on $250 bond.

John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or 813 226-3383.

[Last modified May 20, 2006, 07:12:49]


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