In the 12 years since Sarah El Gohary's father kidnapped her from the United States and brought her to Egypt, she has never once seen her mother.
Mother has court date to see her daughter
CAIRO // In the 12 years since Sarah El Gohary's father kidnapped her from the United States and brought her to Egypt, she has never once seen her mother. But a court decision that is expected to be announced tomorrow may allow Sarah and her mother to finally reunite - if only once - after more than a decade of distance. "I want to look in her eyes. I want to see her before I die," said Sarah's mother, Janet Greer, who has spent years fighting in Egyptian courts - first for custody and now merely for visitation rights.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm going to die because of the stress and the grief. She's my only child," she said in a telephone interview from North Carolina. "Mainly I just want to see her. I just want to see my daughter." But if past events are any indication, Ms Greer may have little reason for optimism. Officials at the US Embassy in Cairo said Ms Greer's is their longest-running case of parental child abduction. But it is hardly unique. For those who work in the field, disputes such as Ms Greer's are as common as they are tragic, particularly in the Middle East, where civil systems for family law are rare.
What complicates cases such as Ms Greer's is that Egypt, along with most countries outside of Europe and North America, is not a signatory to The Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, which established a direct facility through which signatory nations are obligated to return children to the custodial parents in their countries of origin. It is also a phenomenon on the rise, according to experts in Egyptian family law. While no statistics are available in Egypt, lawyers say anecdotal evidence indicates that as divorce rates increase in Middle Eastern countries, so too are incidents of parental child abduction.
Ms Greer met and started dating Magdy el Gohary, Sarah's father, in 1991 in Hawaii, where he was working as a taxi driver. After Sarah was born in 1994, the relationship began to turn violent, Ms Greer said. In 1997, during an unsupervised court-scheduled visit with Sarah, Mr el Gohary boarded a flight to Egypt with her and never returned. While the legal options available to Ms Greer are few, she was able to win custody of her daughter in a 2005 decision by the Egypt's Supreme Prosecution Office for Family Affairs.
What followed that decision, said Ms Greer and her lawyer, Karim Assem, were years of obstruction by Mr el Gohary, who used his extensive family connections in his village of Mit Ghamr, in Egypt's northern Delta region, to keep law enforcement officials from executing their order. He changed Sarah's name to Aiya, dyed her hair black and was mysteriously absent each time authorities arrived in his village to execute the court order to seize Sarah and return her to her mother's custody.
Meanwhile, Mr el Gohary appealed the case, until he finally won custody of Sarah in a court decision last year that cited, among other arguments, that Mr el Gohary intended to raise Sarah as a Muslim. According to Sharia law, which forms the basis of family law for Muslims in Egypt, a child's religious status is determined by the father's faith. While Egyptian family law courts favour the mother in custody disputes, they consider religion when evaluating a parent's fitness for custody - a condition that worked against Ms Greer, who is Christian.
For their part, the El Gohary family said they have co-operated with the courts. Neither Magdy el Gohary nor his daughter, Sarah, were available for comment, but Gohary "GoGo" el Gohary, Magdy's brother, said his family has always been willing to allow Ms Greer to visit her daughter - but only on the condition that she end her legal campaign against Magdy and drop the international warrants for his arrest that have prevented him from leaving Egypt since he kidnapped Sarah in 1997.
That, said Ms Greer and Mr Assem, is a lie. In the past, Ms Greer has offered to drop her custody pleas for the chance to see her daughter, but the El Goharys have, in the end, always refused. The intractable legal situation, said Maureen Dabaugh, an expert witness and consultant on international parental child abduction who says she has dealt with more than 500 cases, many of which are based in the Middle East, is a direct result of Ms Greer's identity.
"She's not a Muslim and she's a woman. How dare a woman bring charges against a man. You better bring a bunch of witnesses and they better be Arab men - Egyptian Arab men," Ms Dabaugh said. "Even if she did, she's still an American woman, living in America and she's still a non-Muslim." In such a situation, said Ms Dabaugh, Ms Greer's best option is to mediate with the El Gohary family - a strategy that Ms Greer said she has not taken because she fears direct confrontation with the family. In the past, said Ms Greer, she has received death threats and menacing phone calls from members of the El Gohary clan.
Despite all of her efforts, Ms Greer knows that even if her legal challenges succeed, she may not recognise the three-year-old daughter she remembers in the 15-year-old Egyptian woman Sarah el Gohary has become. "I can speak Arabic. Not well, but as they say, shwayya shwayya. Enough where I could get by and communicate with her," said Ms Greer, who said she has saved all the birthday presents she bought for Sarah over the years. "The first thing I would tell her is anna bahabik. I would say to her bita hushni. I would say om shoof binti: Mom is looking for her daughter. And I always will. I will look for her until the day I die."