- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2018

As bombs exploded around his apartment in Aden, Yemen, in March 2015, Mohammed Al Samawi weighed two options: wait for al Qaeda to capture, torture and kill him — or kill himself.

He threw out a lifeline online, pleading for anyone to help him escape from his apartment, which had become a bunker in a war zone.

Four people — in New York, San Francisco and Tel Aviv — answered his call. Over a frantic two weeks, the strangers — 20- to 30-year-olds loosely connected by interfaith and peace-building work — used Facebook to exfiltrate a Yemeni out of his country’s civil war.

“When they said, ‘Yes, we want to help you out,’ this was the magical moment,” Mr. Al Samawi told The Washington Times. “From that moment until the end it’s all magical. It’s a miracle that I’m alive and that I’m here today.”

His escape is detailed in his memoir “The Fox Hunt,” which was published Tuesday. In it, Mr. Al Samawi tells of his sheltered childhood in Yemen, being raised on hatred of Jews and the West. A chance opportunity to read the Bible shifted his outlook and moved him to engage with Jews and Christians outside of Yemen, despite pleas from his family and death threats from his community.

His autobiography already has been picked up to become a movie by Fox 2000 Pictures, with big-name Hollywood players attached to the production such as “La La Land” producer Marc Platt and Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer.

Writing the book was bittersweet for Mr. Al Samawi. He had to relive some of the most traumatic moments of his life and meditate on a difficult and lonely life as a child and young man — first being ostracized for a disability he suffered as an infant, then for breaking Yemeni convention and seeking out people of different faiths and nationalities.

“The whole experience of writing the book it was both — it was hard in the same time but also it was enjoyable to tell it,” he said. “This book was a therapy for me. This book was the way that I can tell my emotions, I can just fix things with myself. I was keeping it inside me and in this book I had to relieve everything and it helped me. It helped me emotionally, it helped me with my health, I felt much better that I was able to get things out from my heart.”

Today, a three-year-long civil war in Yemen has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with three-quarters of the population — 22 million people — in need of aid, according to the United Nations.

Mr. Al Samawi’s family is still there suffering, he said, but doesn’t want to talk about their situation beyond that.

In 2015, many thought the escalating violence would burn out, including Mr. Al Samawi. At that moment, he was more concerned with the anonymous death threats he was receiving for his work trying to have Yemenis speak with Israelis. People accused him of being an operative recruiting for the Israeli spy agency Mossad — an accusation that would lead to death.

Fearing for his safety and wanting to avoid reprisals on his family, he fled his home in the capital of Sana’a for Aden.

But tensions were rising between Houthi Shia rebels in the north and Sunni Islamists in the South. Al-Qaida militants were on the streets of Aden, rooting out anyone who appeared to be from the north and accusing them of being enemy combatants.

Mr. Al Samawi’s light skin, soft features and strange accent marked him as a northerner, and his surname, that of a prominent Shia family, provided further evidence he was an enemy of al Qaeda.

He frantically sent out messages to friends and acquaintances, really anyone he had met, asking if they could help him get out of the country.

Megan Hallahan, an American in Tel Aviv, had known Mr. Al Samawi for years through interfaith dialogue and peace workshops on Facebook and across the region. She was the first to take up the call to action.

Soon to join was Natasha Westheimer, an American-Australian environmental aid worker also in Tel Aviv, and Justin Hefter, a San Francisco-based tech entrepreneur. Both had met Mr. Al Samawi at a conference for peace activists in Jordan earlier that year.

The final link was biopharmaceutical consultant Daniel Pincus, who holds prominent roles in several U.S. and international Jewish groups and is passionate about social justice and Muslim-Jewish relations.

Over email, WhatsApp, Facebook and Skype, the four leveraged every contact they had to devise a plan to save Mr. Al Samawi by coordinating efforts across 10 time zones and pleading with international governments and the U.N.


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