UNTIL recently, Fuad Hassan Ismail lived an ordinary life. His days were simple: He awoke early, ate a quick breakfast, and drove to the Seattle Yacht Club, where he performed janitorial and security work and helped with the landscaping. Born in Yemen to parents of Somali origin, Ismail was not an American citizen but had lived in the United States nearly half his life and had permission to work here. By all accounts, he was a model employee at the yacht club. He was well-liked and had never missed a shift since landing his job there in 1999. "I was working, paying taxes, saving money for a house," says Ismail, 41. "I was just like everybody else."
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Like everybody else except that owing to a former drug habit, he had been classified by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) as a criminal alien and was therefore subject to deportation whenever the authorities saw fit.
And early last month, on a cool and cloudy Friday morning, Ismail was putting in a regular shift at the yacht club when three INS agents approached.
"I was in the parking lot, and they came up to me with a warrant and arrested me," Ismail says. "The club's general manager came outside to try and help me. But they took me away and put me in a detention facility. They wouldn't tell me why. The next day, they said they were deporting me to Mogadishu. Mogadishu? I couldn't believe it. I'd never even been to Mogadishu."
He had heard of it, however. Made notorious by the film Black Hawk Down, Somalia's capital is among the world's most dangerous cities. It is a lawless, war-torn place, rife with violence and kidnappings. Mercenary warlords command most of the territory, and their troops clash frequently with members of the country's unstable "transitional" government. In truth, there is no government, just anarchy.
Two days after his arrest in Seattle, Ismail and several other men of Somali origin were loaded onto a U.S. government jet, one in a fleet of aircraft used to transport people in federal custody. Ismail had in his possession $40, the clothes on his back, and little else.
From Seattle, the transport jet flew to several other U.S. cities, where more Somalis were boarded. The airplane then flew to Buffalo, N.Y., where the group—20 men and one woman—was transported to a large facility used to detain people in INS custody.
The following day, the prisoners were moved to a U.S. air base in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and boarded onto a Boeing 757 private charter bound for Amsterdam. Their feet were shackled and each prisoner had one arm tied to their seat. Six Somali citizens removed that day from various detention facilities in Canada joined them.
The Boeing 757 left Niagara Falls at 3 in the afternoon on Feb. 11. Fifteen private security officers and one medical doctor were also on board.
There were no U.S. or Canadian immigration officials on the flight, which is unusual in such deportation cases. "We didn't send our officers to Somalia because of the situation there," says Rejean Cantlen, a spokesperson with Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
He refused to elaborate, but he did not have to: Somalia is one of the most dangerous places on earth. The country is suspected of harboring Muslim terrorists, including members of the Al Qaeda network. Neither the United States nor Canada maintain a diplomatic presence in Somalia, and both governments warn its citizens against traveling there.
In a travel warning released on Feb. 21, 2001, long before Sept. 11, the U.S Department of State warned Americans against "all travel to Somalia. Interclan and interfactional fighting can flare up with little warning, and kidnapping, murder, and other threats to U.S. citizens and other foreigners can occur unpredictably in many regions."
After a brief stop in Amsterdam, the Mogadishu-bound prisoners were flown to the small African republic of Djibouti, on the Gulf of Aden. They spent one night there, crammed into a single jail cell with no toilet. The next morning, they were loaded into yet another aircraft, this one of Russian origin and piloted by a Russian crew.
Their last stop was a small airport just outside Mogadishu. The group was herded by Somali soldiers onto a bus and driven into the heart of the city. Trailing them were soldiers driving trucks with 50-caliber machine guns mounted on their roofs.
In downtown Mogadishu, the prisoners were pulled from the bus, released from their shackles, and abandoned, left to fend for themselves. Those with relatives in the area quickly scurried to safety. But Ismail had nowhere to go. His parents, of course, were Somali, and he is Muslim; but after leaving Yemen, he had lived in Somalia for only a few years before entering the United States on a student visa in 1984. He knew almost nothing about the country, except that it was extremely dangerous.
Mohammed Yusuf, 22, found himself in a similar predicament. Born in Somalia, he had moved to the United States with his family in 1982. Three years ago he was convicted of theft, and he'd been languishing in a Louisiana jail when he was deported with Ismail to Mogadishu, a city he does not know.
"He's in the middle of a war zone," says his father, Yusuf Farah, from his home in San Diego. "He is from a minority tribe. The [ruling clan in Mogadishu] will kill him. Does the American government care? No. They kidnapped my son. I didn't even know he'd been deported. I was told nothing."
About a month has passed since Ismail and Yusuf were dropped in Mogadishu. For the first three weeks, they shared a shabby hotel room with five other deportees. The rent: 10 cents a night. Most of the men have now scattered. One of them, Jama Jama Jaffar, crossed the Somalia border and is presumably safe in Kenya. "We think he's safe," says Jaffar's brother, Awalah, from his home in Seattle. "It hurts that he was just sent away like that."
Ismail has found accommodations in a private home and is planning to escape Somalia soon [see "From Wedding Bells to Jail Cells," p. 20]. In the meantime, his situation remains dire. "I'm in hell," Ismail said last week from a telephone in downtown Mogadishu. "There is gunfire all around me. There is fighting in the streets. I really don't want to be here."
Meanwhile, he is struggling to blend into the crowd. "I arrived here dressed like an American, talking like an American," he explains. "I feel like a target. I'm a stranger here. I don't belong. I don't know why I'm here. It's mind-boggling. This isn't my home. It never has been."
FUAD ISMAIL spent the first 18 years of his life in Yemen. During the early 1980s he moved to rural Somalia with his parents, but he left in 1984 and entered the United States on a student visa. After a few months in Galveston, Texas, he moved to Washington, where he attended Skagit Valley College. He was an average student; according to his transcript, he had a modest 2.94 grade point average but earned top marks in such courses as developmental English, international relations, and introduction to ethics.
After graduating in 1986, he bounced around the state, taking odd jobs and living hand-to-mouth. He also began using drugs and alcohol. "I was a drug addict," he says.
In 1994, he was convicted of "possession of drug paraphernalia" and jailed. In September that year, an immigration judge in Seattle ordered him to be deported to Somalia, a country he barely knew and where he had no family. Ismail appealed the judge's order; the appeal was dismissed in January 1996.
In November 1998, Ismail was released from jail under an "order of supervision," which meant he was free to move about the country but was still considered a criminal and eligible for immediate deportation. People in such circumstances are often allowed to remain in the United States for years, as long as they do not break the law and they follow INS instructions. But the ax can fall at any time.
Ismail was required to check in with the INS in Seattle every month. He also entered a six-month rehabilitation program at the Salvation Army. "He was determined to get better, and he did," says Samuel Southard, a local Salvation Army major who befriended Ismail in 1998. "He is one of the most gentle, religious people I've ever met."
Within months, Ismail was made manager of the Salvation Army's "clean and sober house," a transition residence for recovered addicts. He landed his job at the yacht club and in less than three years had socked away $30,000 in a bank account. "I was doing great," Ismail says.
Then the INS came calling.
Russ Bergeron is the INS's chief press officer. Reached at his office in Washington, D.C., he sounded utterly unfamiliar with last month's large-scale deportation mission to Somalia. The story has received almost no attention in the Western media, which has been preoccupied with the revelation that two of the terrorists who died destroying the World Trade Center were issued extensions of their student visas. In the wake of that screwup, four senior officials of the INS have been reassigned, but not fired.
But what happened to Ismail did not surprise Bergeron. "Deportation movements take place all the time," he said. "They're often planned weeks, if not months, in advance. Charter flights are certainly not unprecedented. Somalia does not have routine commercial air service. Sometimes we'll wait until there are a significant number of people to be deported to one country, and then they will be removed together. This sounds like a rather routine removal process."
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act, passed in 1996, allows the INS to immediately deport non-U.S. citizens guilty of felonies or crimes of "moral turpitude," including drunk driving and domestic abuse. Bergeron could not, however, recall a similar event in which 21 Somalis were deported from the U.S. in shackles and dumped en masse in the middle of Mogadishu.
Last year, 31 Somalis were deported from the United States. Although 21 Somalis have been deported in the first six weeks of this year, Bergeron bristled at the suggestion that the growing number of removals has anything to do with the heightened terrorist concerns after Sept. 11. "I have no information whatsoever that that has any sense of credibility," he said. "It's ludicrous."
According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the joint removal at Niagara Falls was the fourth such operation organized by Canadian and U.S. officials—all since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Three previous operations involved removing even larger groups of immigration violators to the West African nation of Nigeria.
"In my opinion," says the Salvation Army's Southard, "Fuad was deported because of Sept. 11." Southard has wired his friend enough cash to purchase a temporary visa to the United Arab Emirates. "If he can get to the Emirates, he can access his bank account in Seattle," Southard says.
Even so, he doubts he will ever see Ismail again, because he is no longer welcome in the United States. "It wasn't illegal to send him to Mogadishu, even if the INS people wouldn't even venture there themselves," Southard says. "Fuad had run out of appeals. But I'm positive that what the INS did was immoral and unjust."
Brian Hutchinson is a staff writer for the National Post in Toronto, Canada, where a version of this story originally appeared.