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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Ex-Guantanamo detainee now selling sweets in Uruguay capital

Other five former prisoners in Uruguay still unemployed

Syrian Ahmed Ahjam hands out samples at the opening of his Middle Eastern pastry shop at the Mercado Agricola in Montevideo. AP
Syrian Ahmed Ahjam hands out samples at the opening of his Middle Eastern pastry shop at the Mercado Agricola in Montevideo. AP

A bit of sweetness has entered the life of at least one of the men formerly held at the US Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

Ahmed Ahjam opened a small stall selling Arabic pastries Monday at a public market in the Uruguayan capital, passing out free samples of cellophane-wrapped ma'amul to supporters, local officials and potential customers.

Mr Ahjam is one of six former detainees accepted by Uruguay in 2014 after US authorities decided they posed no threat but couldn't be sent to their homelands. All had been detained as suspected militants with ties to Al Qaeda but were never charged.

Mr Ahjam spent a dozen years imprisoned at Guantanamo, and like the other five detainees here, he has struggled to adapt to the South American country. But the former jeweler from Syria learned to make sweets such as baklava with recipes from his sisters and has been earning money selling them at fairs and private events. He used that money to buy his cash register and other tools needed for his first business.

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A city development agency helped him open the stall at the Mercado Agricola, a historic covered market with nearly 100 shops.

"Many thanks to all the Uruguayans who are helping me. I'm going to work hard to fulfill this dream," he said smiling as he cut the ribbon on the stand during the opening attended by Montevideo Mayor Daniel Martinez and officials who have aided the former detainees.

Edison Mourino, a musician who met Mr Ahjam when they were neighbours, said he was touched by the crowd that gathered to support Mr Ahjam.

"I'm very impressed that someone who is so humble has achieved this," Mr Mourino said. "And I'm impressed by the openness of Uruguay in allowing this."

Mr Ahjam is the only one of the six — four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian — who has managed to find a regular job in the country of 3.2 million people.

The government has been giving the men a stipend of about $420 a month and covering their rent, as well as offering job and language training. But the aid is due to run out at the end of this year.

The most discontented detainee, Abu Wa'el Dhiab, left Uruguay in late June and went to Turkey, said Christian Mirza, the government's liaison with the ex-detainees. He said he wasn't sure where Mr Dhiab is now.