FLORENCE, Ariz. (AP) - Mounis Hammouda and Hisham Shaban were stranded in Honduras, penniless after being ripped off by a smuggler who was supposed to get them to Mexico so that they could arrive at their final destination, the United States.
The Palestinian men had traveled across the world to escape bloodshed and torture in their homeland, and desperately phoned a friend in Canada to wire them money so they could finish their trek.
When they showed up at the U.S.-Mexico border in November 2014, Hammouda remembers seeing the American flag, and feeling relieved.
“I know that America is a country of freedom. It’s a country of opportunity. It’s a country of democracy. Everybody knows that America is a country that helps the world,” he said.
They presented themselves at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, Arizona, claiming asylum. The FBI cleared the men and said they didn’t pose a threat, and they were turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
After spending over a year in a detention center, Hammouda posted bail with the help of a fundraiser and Shaban remains.
“Thank God things are good. I finished with the detention and I have freedom,” Hammouda said. Hammouda remains in Tucson and is learning English. He is in the process of obtaining a work permit.
The migrants are part of a global refugee crisis emanating from the Middle East that has touched off a political uproar in Europe and the U.S., highlighted by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants.
The immigrants being apprehended on the U.S.-Mexico border often take much longer journeys than the typical path of refugees who settle in camps and endure long waits to gain official refugee status and a home in the U.S.
Some simply grow frustrated and make the trek across the globe on their own to come to America.
Some migrants cross into the U.S. illegally; others, like Hammouda and Shaban, turn themselves claiming asylum. They were among nearly 42,000 people to seek asylum in 2014 in the U.S., a more than 20 percent increase from 2010.
Immigrants claim asylum because they believe they will face persecution or torture in their homeland.
They can stay in the U.S. if an asylum officer and immigration judge determine that such a fear exists. Many are detained during this process, but some are granted bail while their request moves through the immigration court system, which can take years.
The process is different for refugees, who must first be accepted by the U.S. before they come here. Many of them lose patience and find alternative ways to get to a safer place, said Muzaffar Chishti, of the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute.
Chishti, who heads the institute’s office at the NYU School of Law, said the migration of Middle Eastern and Asian residents to the United States is growing.
“There has to be some informed smuggling network and the existence of those networks in those countries is a factor,” he said. “I think the bigger concern about this population is the security issue, which is where the Trump and Ted Cruz of the world are saying, ‘Hey this is a vulnerability now.’”
Hammouda, 30, said he fled Gaza in 2011 after members of Hamas, the Islamic political party, tortured his father because he worked for Fatah, a rival organization. He said his family was targeted.
He said he had to drop out of college and quit his pursuit of a law degree. He was blacklisted and couldn’t find work.
Relatives helped him find money and a visa to leave Gaza in 2011. He traveled alone to Cairo, Istanbul, and both parts of Cyprus before settling in a refugee camp in the Greek-controlled part.
Thousands of miles away in Gaza, Hammouda’s family feels the pain of his ordeal.
His father Jameel Hammouda said he misses his son but knows he can’t return. The elder Hammouda spends his days on a bed at the guest room and only leaves the house to see a doctor or have medical exams.
“I don’t want Mounis to come back here. I want to leave and be with him away from here,” he said.
Shaban, 32 also grew up in Gaza. He said his family lived next door to a Hamas operative who was the target of a bombing that left Shaban’s family home destroyed. None of his relatives was injured, but he said he felt unsafe.
After two years of studying social work, Shaban saved up money and left in 2010. He lived in a government-funded apartment before losing funding and moving to the camp in Kofinou, in the Greek-controlled part of Cyprus, he said.
He met Hammouda there, where the men bonded over being unable to work as the economy tanked and their government aid shrunk. There was no work for the men and nothing for them to do, they said.
The men heard one day that they didn’t need a visa to enter Venezuela, so they spoke with Greek immigration officials who agreed to let them go there, even funding portions of their flights, they said.
They arrived in Caracas in March 2014, and eventually made it to Nicaragua, where they lived for a short time, at one point in the streets. They found a man who agreed to help them get from Nicaragua to Mexico for $1,000 each.
But the smuggler only got them as far as Honduras, and the men were left without any money or a place to stay, they said.
Using money wired by a friend in Canada, they made it to Mexico, were detained by authorities for a time and released, and then turned themselves in at the border in Arizona in 2014.
While Hammouda has been released, Shaban has been denied asylum and has been ordered removed from the country, but the government hasn’t found a place to send him because Palestine is not an officially recognized state.
ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said the agency is still working with Saudi Arabia, where Shaban was born, to obtain travel documents. But Shaban said that the country won’t accept him because he is not a citizen.
“I just came here to come and live in America, not to make problems,” Shaban said.
Associated Press Writer Fares Akram contributed from Gaza.
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