The path took Mounis Hammouda through seven countries, across the U.S.-Mexico border, and inside an Arizona immigration detention facility to wait, in limbo, for an agonizing 480 days.
War and suffering in Gaza led the 31-year-old Palestinian and another refugee, Hisham Shaban Ghalia, on a perilous journey through Central America and Mexico to the Nogales port of entry to the U.S. They both spent months on end languishing in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Florence as judges considered their case as “stateless” asylum-seekers from Gaza City.
In a diplomatic twist, Hammouda and Ghalia were considered stateless not because they've been denied citizenship; instead, the U.S. doesn't recognize Palestine. Immigration authorities had nowhere to deport them to, leaving them caught in a labyrinthine asylum case.
Zayed Al-Sayyed, an immigration attorney, and Liban Yousuf, civil rights director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Arizona, represented Hammouda during the immigration proceedings.
Finally, Wednesday, their bid for asylum was granted by Judge Thomas M. O'Leary in Tucson.
When the judge announced the decision, Hammouda seemed to be stunned: At first, he slumped down in his courtroom chair, but quickly became ecstatic and began to cry with a group of supporters and friends.
Al-Sayyed told Phoenix New Times, "Emotions were all over."
"I know for him, this is a long time coming," Yousuf said. "I know he started becoming a little bit cynical about the entire process ... that it all came to this positive end, I think it was just really overwhelming for him."
Hammouda fled the violence in Gaza to a refugee camp in Cyprus in 2011, where he met Ghalia. But after three years in the camp, the two men left, fearing they had no future in Cyprus. With money borrowed from family and friends, they flew to Venezuela and then trekked north from Nicaragua through Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, where they were detained for two weeks before Mexican officials released them.
Finally, on November 14, 2014, they presented themselves, passports in hand, to U.S. immigration officers at the Nogales port of entry and requested asylum as Palestinian refugees.
"It was like The Odyssey, the Greek epic poem," Yousuf said. "Especially in Mounis’s case, he didn’t see anything other than Gaza. He saw all the horrors that come with that – the multiple wars, seeing family members being killed, either through bombings or Hamas kidnappings – and going through that to the refugee camp in Europe."
U.S. immigration officials who interviewed the two men found they had a "credible fear" of returning to Gaza, important for a prospective asylum-seeker. Hammouda cited water and electricity blackouts, an Israeli economic blockade, and, horrifyingly, a 2008 bombardment that hit his house. His father, a member of the rival political faction Fatah, was arrested and tortured by Hamas.
People who have been deprived of citizenship or nationality are considered stateless, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and a life in the shadows. By United Nations estimates, there are as many as 10 million stateless refugees around the world (other estimates put the number closer to 15 million). It’s unclear how many stateless people reside in the U.S.
Recent instances of Palestinians gaining asylum in this manner in Arizona seem to be exceedingly rare: "You probably can count them on one hand," Al-Sayyed said.
Hammouda was released on bail on March 9, 2016, thanks to the University of Arizona chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which raised $9,000 on his behalf. On the day of his release, Hammouda had spent a total of 480 days in the detention center.
During their months in detention, visitors said Hammouda and Ghalia looked exhausted and distressed. Hammouda told a reporter that he slept only three hours a night in the detention center bunk room, his mind racing. He was diagnosed with anxiety and depression; the only available reading material was an English-Arabic dictionary.
Two months after Hammouda's release, Ghalia was released after his lawyers filed a writ of habeus corpus. Initially, Ghalia's asylum claim had been denied, and without legal representation, he signed a form that waived his right to an appeal.
Immigration authorities attempted to secure long-shot deportations instead of deporting Ghalia to Gaza: first Saudi Arabia, and then Israel. Both countries wouldn't accept him. Although he was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents, Ghalia has no lawful status in the country and left for Gaza at a young age.
As for the prospect of deporting him to Israel, Al-Sayyed wrote in the habeus corpus petition that Ghalia "is [a] citizen of Gaza, Palestine – a government that Israel maintains a hostile relationship with and does not recognize." The petition was granted, and Ghalia remains free on supervised release.
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Although Hammouda's legal team allowed themselves to celebrate, Al-Sayyed emphasized that the government has a right to appeal the asylum decision within 30 days.
Nevertheless, for now Hammouda can take a breath in Tucson – no longer in a claustrophobic detention center, no imminent threat of deportation looming over him. He's attending classes at Pima Community College, and hopes to one day become an attorney. In some ways, it would complete a past chapter of his life: In Gaza, Hammouda was attending law school before the conflict forced him to drop out.
"It’s going to be a long road, but he’s fully invested and that’s his ultimate plan," Yousuf said.