The Algiers Connection

Sofaine Laimeche's long friendship with a 9/11 suspect has put his future in America in doubt

"He says, 'You woke me up to tell me that?' " Laimeche recalls.

With the ship workers' help, Laimeche and Yusef sneaked aboard while the rest of the crew ate dinner. When they got to Lobo's cabin, where they would be staying, they discovered two Turkish guys already had been "stored" there for two days.

Laimeche, Yusef and the Turks agreed to pay Lobo and his helper $1,000 each — after they reached America and got jobs.

Martha Strachan
Martha Strachan

The most stressful time was at the beginning because the ship didn't leave the dock for four days. Nobody wanted to get busted while still in Italy now that their hopes were high. If the crew found them at sea, it was more likely they would be released to authorities in America, where perhaps they could find a way to stay. Each day, Lobo would say, "We're going to leave today." And the ship would sit there.

Finally, tugboats pulled the ship out to sea.

About his feelings at the time, Laimeche says, "So happy, but mixed with a little sadness, because you're going — you don't know where you're going."

The men made a solemn pact: If one of them died during the passage, his body would be quietly thrown overboard so the rest would still have a chance of making it.

The cabin was small, furnished with just a sink and a bed. Between the bed and a window in the bulkhead was a wooden box for sitting. With a screwdriver, Lobo could open the box to reveal a cramped storage space — their secret hiding place.

Normally, the men would sit in the cabin with the door closed. But Lobo couldn't leave his cabin like that all the time. To defuse any suspicions from the crew, Lobo occasionally had to leave the door open for an hour or more. And there was the occasional inspection, which Lobo always seemed to know about beforehand.

The men hated getting inside the tight hiding space.

"When he starts pushing you in, you never know what you're going to get, which position," Laimeche says. "He'd throw pillows on us. We'd use the pillows to put in our mouths. You can't scream, you can't do anything, and you'd get cramps."

Outside, they would hear Lobo put on music and invite other crewmembers to come inside and sit down. It took hours to recover from a trip to the box.

Because the men couldn't use the community bathrooms, they took turns defecating in a black plastic bag, which was tossed out the window. Their running joke was that they had just killed a shark.

Every week or so, each man would be led at night to a shower. Because the cook was in on the scheme, the stowaways usually ate better than the crew.

Then came the day they docked in New Haven, Connecticut, for an inspection by U.S. Customs officials.

Lobo put the men in the box.

"He said, 'Guys, be careful. This is the last one between you and the States,' " Laimeche says. "We were quiet. We wished we don't get caught. We heard them in the room. They had a dog with them."

They could hear the animal's claws on top of the box. But the dog didn't bark.

When it was over, "we had some ice cream to cheer about it, because we had suffered," Laimeche says.

The ship later moved to a port in Philadelphia, where there was no inspection. They left their extra clothes behind and walked off the ship, back on solid ground again for the first time in 27 days.

It was about 6 in the morning, dark, with fog. They took a cab through a poor neighborhood. Laimeche was amazed by all the homeless people. As dawn came, he saw Philly's skyscrapers, and the reality hit home.

"You feel it," Laimeche says. "Now I'm here. This is the land of opportunity. It's up to you. My chance came."

Right away, Laimeche decided his days as a thief were finished. People he met in the States told him not to worry, he could get a job. He called his friend in Phoenix.

"Why don't you come here?" Raissi asked. "You're from Algeria, so for you, Philadelphia or Arizona, it doesn't matter."

Laimeche said goodbye to Yusef and the others. He met Raissi at the downtown Phoenix Greyhound station two and a half days later. (Yusef made his way to Canada. He sought asylum but was deported to Algeria. Laimeche says Yusef was given amnesty by the Algerian government for any alleged crimes as part of a national healing policy after the civil war.)

Laimeche moved into Raissi's unit at Wickertree Apartments near Loop 101 and 23rd Avenue, where Raissi lived with another Algerian, Redoune Dahmani.

But America turned out not to be the utopia Laimeche had imagined. Sure, there was work if you didn't have papers — for $5 an hour. Laimeche went unemployed for six months while Raissi supported him with family money as he continued with flight school at West Wind. Already an experienced pilot, Raissi sometimes taught students at the school as a freelance instructor.

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