As extremist groups surrounded his apartment in Aden, Yemen, Mohammed Al Samawi faced the harrowing choice of being tortured and killed by al Qaeda operatives — or of killing himself first to avoid capture.
It was March 2015, the beginning of the brutal Yemeni Civil War that continues today.
Al Samawi decided to make a last-ditch appeal for help, reaching out to his Facebook network in an attempt to receive aid.
Amazingly, over the course of two weeks, four near-strangers devised a daring mission to lead him to safety — an improbable journey that spanned six technological platforms and ten time zones.
At an IVY Ideas Night in New York City, Al Samawi shared his moving tale of desperation, humanity, and hope. He has chronicled the tale in his new book, The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America, which was picked up last February by Fox 2000 for a film adaptation. La La Land producer Marc Platt will be teaming up with Josh Singer, the Oscar-winning screenwriter for Spotlight, to bring the story to screen.
Mohammed Al Samawi with New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler.
IVY’s conversation was moderated by Bruce Feiler, the New York Times columnist and bestselling author whose own work explores the Middle East, religion, and interfaith. Also in attendance was Natasha Westheimer, one of Al Samawi’s four aides, who exchanged hugs and kind words with the author before the talk.
Al Samawi began by describing his upbringing in Yemen: born in the Old City of Sana’a to a pair of middle-class doctors, he was raised a devout Muslim and inculcated with the belief that Christians and Jews were his enemy. This belief dictated his life until he secretly received a copy of the Bible at the age of 23 from a Christian man he had met.
Al Samawi began reading the Bible and was shaken to the core. He saw similarities between the Islamic and Christian traditions, a realization that set him on the path towards a larger questioning of his fundamental religious beliefs. He began to connect surreptitiously with Jews and Christians on social media, and even to attend international interfaith conferences abroad. Over the years, Al Samawi became an activist and made it his mission to promote interfaith dialogue across Yemen.
“When you have religion, you don’t need someone in the middle to tell you how to worship God,” Al Samawi said.
Then death threats began to pour in. As the Yemeni Civil War broke out in 2015, Al Samawi — an increasingly prominent interfaith activist — became a natural target.
Al Samawi fled to the southern port city of Aden in an attempt to protect himself and his family. Within a short time, the city would become the heart of the north-south civil war — a battleground bombarded with gunfire and grenade explosions.
It was at that point that Al Samawi threw out a lifeline on social media, inciting an incredible escape that involves a Sheraton hotel, the help of the Indian Embassy, and his crossing of the Red Sea on Passover.
“The four of them teamed together to help me out,” Al Samawi said of his auxiliaries. “At one point, they started teaching me how to use Google Maps.”
Mohammed Al Samawi and Bruce Feiler with Natasha Westheimer, one of Al Samawi’s rescuers.
Since the escape, Al Samawi has been a leading voice in a number of NGOs and interfaith groups, working diligently to facilitate tough conversations and combat extremism.
Despite all the hardship, Al Samawi has maintained his charming sense of humor. His favorite aspect of America, besides the freedom and diversity of religion? “I’ve had the pleasure to know KFC.”
For those looking to help Yemenis like Al Samawi still stuck in the war-torn country, he recommends supporting the Yemen Peace Project. To take action within larger interfaith initiatives, Al Samawi endorses the Muslim Jewish Conference and Muslim Jewish Solidarity.