x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Reunited after 12 long years apart

American woman meets the daughter she has not seen since she was kidnapped and taken to Egypt 12 years ago.

Janet Greer with her daughter, Sarah El Gohary.
Janet Greer with her daughter, Sarah El Gohary.

CAIRO // After 12 years of court battles, failed negotiations and deferred hopes, Janet Greer has finally met her daughter, Sarah al Gohary, for the first time since her father kidnapped her and brought her to Egypt in 1997. In the intervening years, the three-year-old American girl Ms Greer remembered has blossomed into a 15-year-old Egyptian teenager. But while Ms al Gohary now shares little more than blood with Ms Greer, a flash of recognition was enough to fill the gaps left by differences in language and culture and years of separation. "She looked at me and my hair ? it's long and blonde," said Ms Greer, who has since returned to her home in North Carolina, in the United States. "The reason I keep my hair that way is so that she will remember me. She looked at me and she said, 'yes mum, this is how I remember you'. What can I say, that's what I needed to hear." Only days before, such a visit had seemed impossible. On June 1, an administrative court in Cairo had decided against allowing visitation rights for Ms Greer - a decision that marked the culmination of more than a decade of battles in Egyptian courts for custody and eventually, merely for visitation rights. In the end, said Ms Greer, it was not a court decision but an extensive publicity campaign and some high-level political intervention that finally allowed mother and daughter to reunite in two visits this month in the village of Mit Ghamr, where Magdy al Gohary, Sarah's father and abductor, lives with his family. Ms Greer credits ABC News, an American television news station, for its work in publicising her case and for bringing it to the attention of Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state. One week after the network ran a story about Ms Greer and her daughter last month, an ABC News reporter asked Mrs Clinton and Ahmed Ali Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, about the case during a press conference. Mr Gheit had been visiting Washington to discuss how the new presidential administration of Barack Obama would approach US-Egyptian relations. Both Mr Gheit and Mrs Clinton said they were familiar with Ms Greer's long-running legal battle. "As a mother, the idea that I would not be able to see my daughter for 12 years is extremely painful to me just to think about," Mrs Clinton told reporters. "So we are very hopeful that this will be resolved and, as the foreign minister said, we're confident that the Egyptian government will react appropriately once it is." For his part, Mr Gheit told reporters that his government was still waiting for a court decision to determine whether Ms Greer would be given visitation rights. But on June 1, when the court cited legal technicalities and decided in favour of Mr al Gohary, Ms Greer was despondent. However a few days later, the al Goharys announced they would allow Ms Greer to see Sarah. After more than a decade of what seemed like fruitless legal cases, it was political influence, said Ms Greer, that abruptly changed the family's attitude. "I was told from other people that this family is a very powerful family. That's why they thought they could still get away with it until I reached Hillary Clinton and Abu Gheit," Ms Greer said. "Once they heard it and once my case went on President [Hosni] Mubarak's desk, once he saw it, I got my visitation. Not in court - it was under pressure." Ms Greer met Mr al Gohary in Hawaii in 1991. After dating for several years, Ms Greer gave birth to Sarah in 1994. The relationship began to turn violent shortly after, and the couple separated. During a court-scheduled visit with Sarah in 1997, Mr al Gohary kidnapped his daughter and took her to Egypt, where she has lived with his family ever since. Thus began Ms Greer's long fight for custody - a right she won in a 2005 decision by Egypt's Supreme Prosecution Office for Family Affairs. Mr al Gohary appealed, and a court in Mit Ghamr awarded him full custody last year on the grounds that his daughter, who had already spent her childhood in the Muslim faith, should not be raised as an adolescent in a Christian household. That decision was consistent with Egyptian family law, which relies almost exclusively on Sharia. The al Gohary family did not respond to requests for an interview. Now that she has seen her daughter, Ms Greer said her days of fighting in court are over - except for the final decision on visitation rights. Ms Greer's lawyer, Karim Assem, has appealed against the June 1 decision that deprived Ms Greer of the right to see her daughter. If the previous decision is overturned in the coming weeks, Ms Greer will have court-mandated visitation rights until Sarah al Gohary turns 21, the age of majority for Egyptian women. It is a final legal step that Ms Greer had hoped would not be necessary. But given the al Gohary family's dogged reluctance to let Sarah meet her mother in the past, Ms Greer said she would feel safer with a favourable legal decision in her corner. After the appeal, said Ms Greer, she will not pursue criminal charges against Mr al Gohary. It is time, she said, to put her conflict with the al Gohary family behind her and focus on the daughter she has never fully known. "It gave me hope that now they really do know that my heart was broken and that they felt sad for me that I had to give up my daughter. I think I won them over. That's just my nature. We just got along, and I felt like they were family." mbradley@thenational.ae