Sarah Al-Najjar silenced the chants of nearly 100 protesters gathered along a busy highway outside the Coleman Correctional Facility in Sumter County when she began speaking through a bullhorn.
The 11-year-old girl kept her sparkling eyes glued to the piece of yellow legal paper in her hands. She spoke in a soft voice, sometimes inaudible when semi-trucks raced by, and said she misses her father.
“Most of my life, I have felt like an orphan,” Sarah said. “I love my dad and want him back.”
Sarah, one of Mazen Al-Najjar’s three children, spoke at a rally Friday calling for the immediate release of Al-Najjar. Al-Najjar is the former USF adjunct professor who was arrested in 1997 based on secret government evidence that supposedly linked him with terrorist organizations. He remained in prison for three years but was released in December 2000. Al-Najjar is also the brother-in-law of Sami Al-Arian, the tenured USF professor who, following his appearance on The O’Reilly Factor in late September, was notified by USF of its intent to dismiss him.
In November 2001, as Immigration and Naturalization Service officials responded to the Sept. 11 attacks by cracking down on foreigners living illegally in the United States, Al-Najjar was arrested again. The INS held him for deportation, but no country has agreed to accept Al-Najjar.
Protesters cited the six-month rule, which says any immigrant the INS detains for deportation must be removed from the United States within six months or released.
Many of the protesters, including USF students, members of the Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace and members of the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, wore T-shirts printed with a picture of Al-Najjar and repeatedly demanded justice.
Fedaa Al-Najjar said her husband is being held in solitary confinement, a condition she said is taking its toll on him both mentally and emotionally.
“It has made him more depressed. It’s not easy to be only allowed outside for one hour everyday,” she said. “I don’t know why [prison officials] did that. Maybe it was to humiliate Mazen. I don’t know.”
Mrs. Al-Najjar added that no one from the prison has explained to her why her husband is being held in solitary confinement. It was only three weeks ago that Al-Najjar was permitted to have contact visits with his family, Mrs. Al-Najjar said. Previously, a glass partition divided the family members. These contact visits, she said, are only allowed on Monday, Friday and every other weekend and are just not enough.
“It’s very hard. We have lost our financial support and our academic support,” Mrs. Al-Najjar said. “Mazen was always the driving force for the children in school, and now he is not there.”
Al-Najjar’s next legal action comes on June 12 when the INS will conduct a hearing to review his imprisonment. Martin Schwartz, one of Al-Najjar’s attorneys, said the hearing could mean a release without having to appear in court. Mrs. Al-Najjar, however, said the legal team working for her husband has told her not to raise her hopes.
“They think that a decision will not come from the INS,” she said. “It will come from a judge.”
Although it is unlikely that Al-Najjar could see the protest, he was aware that it was happening.
“He is happy that people still support him,” Mrs. Al-Najjar said. Sarah said she told her father she was preparing a speech for him and that he was very proud of her.
Mrs. Al-Najjar said she and her husband first came to the United States on his student visa. Their plan was for him to complete his master’s and doctoral degrees and then to leave the country. Al-Najjar is Palestinian by birth, but Israeli occupation of the country would not allow him to return. The family stayed in the United States because, Mrs. Al-Najjar said, they had no choice.
After Al-Najjar’s imprisonment, the family contacted The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Guyana, South Africa and Lebanon. But, Mrs. Al-Najjar said, no country has been willing to accept a man suspected of terrorist ties and held in an American prison.
“The U.S. put us in a situation that is not acceptable,” Mrs. Al-Najjar said. “They put a stop on us getting out. If they do not want us here they could at least help us to leave.”
Isam Sweilem, a graduate student who attended the rally, equated the cases of Al-Najjar and Al-Arian to war.
“Islam is under attack,” he said. “But we are Americans, and we know we have rights too. [The cases against Al-Najjar and Al-Arian] have brought the Islamic community together. That’s what happens to all communities when they are attacked.”
Hatim Abu-Khdair, a sophomore, said Al-Najjar was his teacher at the Islamic Academy of Florida several years ago. He described Al-Najjar as an outgoing person with a good sense of humor. He said he had just one message for his former teacher
“God is with you,” Abu-Khdair said.