Sarah Walks the Green Mile

By Pat Roush

Thursday, June 19, 2003 1:00 a.m.

Another desperate American mother e-mailed me, “Can you please help? My daughter has been in Saudi Arabia for the past 18 years and wants to come home. Is there anything you can do?”

That was six months ago, and I knew what she was up against. Her daughter, Sarah Saga, was the same age as my daughter, Alia, and was kidnapped and taken to Saudi Arabia at almost the same time my girls were taken to that country. This heartbroken mother, Debra Dornier, had never been able to see or hear from Sarah for all those stolen years, but, unlike my situation, her daughter was able to find her American family through the Internet White Pages. Somehow, Sarah remembered her American mother’s surname and, alas, found her maternal grandmother. She bought a phone card and made the call, “Hello, this is Sarah. Is it too late to call you grandma?”

That began the long, intimate reunion between a little girl that longed for a mother’s love and an American mother’s hope that she and her daughter would once again be able to hug and kiss and cry and laugh and get to know each other again. Debbie and Sarah had hope again for a life together that they could share in America.

But how could this dream come true? They were separated by the rules of Saudi Arabia that state a woman may not have freedom of travel. Although Sarah was born in Hayward, Calf., the Saudi government did not recognize her American citizenship. And as a Saudi woman, she had no civil rights and was totally controlled first by her Saudi father and then by the man that he chose for her to marry. Sarah was now a mother herself and had two little children. How could she get out of Saudi Arabia and what would happen to her children?

When a Saudi man decides to divorce his wife – which he can readily do by merely saying to her, “I divorce you” three times – no lawyers are required. He can take the children and the mother will probably rarely see them again. The ownership of women and children is for the taking by the Saudi man. No debate. As Sarah has told me, “Under Saudi law, the woman gets to keep the children until she gets married again. We don’t go by the law here. He could just take my children and I would have to bring a case against him, but that case could go on for years and I would not be able to see my children again.”

If Sarah wished to divorce her husband, he would take her children and her abusive father would then regain “ownership” of Sarah once more. I asked Sarah, “So you are saying that your husband can take your children, and your father can take you?”

She replied, “Yes. My father can kill me without blinking his eye. I don’t want to live like this anymore. I just want to go to mom and live in peace with my life. That’s what I want. What I really want is – I want to go to America. I want to live with mom. I want to see mom. I want to be with her there. I just want to get to America as soon as we can. This is my hope, my dream. This is what I really want.”

Sarah decided that she would try for the only plan that I could suggest – a run for the American consulate in Jeddah. There were many problems with this. First, Sarah didn’t have any identification papers. Saudi women carry no I.D. cards whatsoever and we needed to get something to her that would show she was an American citizen. Her birth certificate would work but she had no access to a fax machine and there was no way to mail it to her. The watchful eye of her husband’s family when he was at work, left Sarah with built-in guards monitoring her every move.

Finally, her mother was able to send her a copy of the birth certificate via the Internet and she was able to download and print it. Now she was scared that she would get caught with the document. I told her to fold it up in small pieces and sew it into the lining of her skirt. The next hurdle was getting Sarah to Jeddah from her residence in Mecca. This is the site of the two holiest shrines in Islam where non-Muslims were not allowed and which was patrolled heavily by the religious police. Although the consulate was but a 30-minute taxi ride away, Sarah could not risk being stopped by the mutawa, who represented the Society for the Prevention of Vice and Protection of Virtue. They would surely take her to jail for being alone in a taxi with the male driver.

Sarah asked her husband to take her to Egypt for a “second honeymoon,” although she never had a first. Her paternal grandmother was Egyptian and Sarah had relatives that she and her husband might have visited. She asked him if she could at least visit her American mother in Egypt. He led her on for awhile and then flatly told her, “No.”

All her avenues out of Saudi Arabia seemed to be closed except for seeking sanctuary inside the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah. And after months of planning, Sarah finally made the break on Sunday, June 15.

When she arrived inside the consulate, her mom called me. The reception by the U.S. consulate officials was less than cordial. In fact, the consular officer, Lauren Mealey, wanted Sarah to leave immediately and told her that it was not an emergency, she was not in danger. She should go back to her Saudi husband. Debbie called me in tears, “Pat, they want Sarah to leave. Her father will kill her if she leaves.”

I advised her to call the U.S. Ambassador’s office and remind him of his pledge last summer that no American woman would be thrown out of the American embassy /consulates in Saudi Arabia. They had tossed another American woman, Monica Stowers, out of the embassy in Riyahd in 1991 with a Marine guard escort. The present ambassador, a Bush family friend, Dallas attorney Robert Jordan, said, “It ain’t gonna happen on my watch.” Mr. Jordan was in the states that day, but Debbie left a message for the next in command, Deputy Chief of the Mission Margaret Scobey.

After a tenuous “touch and go” with the consulate officials, Sarah was finally taken to a crowded room where another American woman and her three children who sought sanctuary were staying. This woman’s family had also come to me for help. Due to immense pressure from the Saudi government and no help at all from the U.S. State Department, this woman Debbie Magrabi, was forced to make a choice this week. The Saudis coerced her into signing a document stating that she would be cooperative. She was told that she would be taken to jail and then deported – her children would be given to her husband. Debbie had no choice but to return to her abusive Saudi husband. The State Department released a statement saying that she voluntarily left the U.S. Consulate and dismissed the entire matter as a “maritial dispute.” Would Sarah be sacrificed in the same way?

State Department spokesman Reeker refused to answer questions from reporters yesterday during the daily briefing regarding Sarah Saga, citing no Privacy Act release. In fact, Sarah did sign a release for “all media.” They know it is easy for a story to get lost quickly if no names are mentioned and no information is disseminated.

Sarah is still in the consulate, but they have plans to take her and her children out in a day or two to directly confront the hierarchy of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the powerful Saudi Arabia Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. This brave 24-year-old woman who had to pole-vault herself into the U.S. Consulate is now being taken into the power corridors of the Saudi government alone without any representation and no one from the U.S. government except two underlings from consular affairs to flank her side.

Ambassador Jordan and President Bush should be on the telephone to Crown Prince Abdullah making all the arrangements for this American heroine to be safely placed aboard an American military plane with her children back to the country that she loves and the family who are waiting for her. She shouldn’t be forced to walk that long mile alone.

The new Saudi PR television campaign portrays the Saudis as “a normal people” in a “normal country.” Someone should tell the Saudis that they don’t have to waste millions of dollars on PR flaks to try to make them look good in the eyes of Americans. If they want to be accepted as normal people from a normal country let them just try doing the right thing by beginning the exodus of America’s daughters and children and letting Sarah come back to a very “normal” life.