CAIRO – A Virginia man said Wednesday he has been stuck in limbo in Egypt for the last six weeks, living in a cheap hotel and surviving on fast food after his name was placed on a U.S. no-fly list because of a trip to Yemen.
Yahya Wehelie, a 26-year-old Muslim who was born in Fairfax, Virginia to Somali parents, said he spent 18 months studying in Yemen and left in early May. The U.S. has been scrutinizing citizens who study in Yemen more closely since the man who tried to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas was linked to an al-Qaida offshoot in Yemen.
Wehelie was returning to the U.S. with his brother Yusuf via Egypt on May 5 when Egyptian authorities stopped him from boarding his flight to New York. They told him the FBI wanted to speak with him.
He said he was then told by FBI agents in Egypt that his name was on a no-fly list because of people he met in Yemen and he could not board a U.S. airline or enter American airspace. His passport was canceled and a new one issued only for travel to the United States, which expires on Sept. 12. He does not have Somali citizenship.
Wehelie said his brother Yusuf was allowed to return home, but only after he was detained for three days by Egyptian police on suspicion of carrying weapon. He said his brother was shackled to a jail wall and interrogated by a man who claimed to work for the CIA. He was then dumped in the street outside the prison when he feigned illness.
Wehelie said he had no dealings with a terrorist organization while in Yemen and does not see himself as a particularly observant Muslim. He said he was studying information technology at the Lebanese International University in the capital San’a and only visited a mosque a handful of times. He said he had also studied a little Arabic.
“It’s amazing how the U.S. government can do something like this,” he told The Associated Press from his ramshackle hotel in downtown Cairo.
“I’m cool with all their fighting terrorism and all that, I’m cool with that. I like that, more power to them,” he said in American-accented English, wearing baggy basketball shorts and a long white T-shirt.
“My home is America and I don’t know why I can’t go back there,” he said, adding that he even suggested to the FBI to “put me … in an airplane with a bunch of U.S. marshals or whatever, in handcuffs. Just get me back home.”
While in Yemen, Wehelie married a Somali woman whose family had close ties to his own. She remains in Yemen and was to have joined him when he returned home.
His family said Wehelie was never physically abused but subjected to enormous psychological pressure and denied access to an American lawyer his family hired for him.
When he asked the FBI agents how he could return to the U.S., he said one made a reference to how “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” possibly suggesting he take a sea route.
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said the bureau does not comment on whether a particular person is on a watch list. While Bresson did not discuss the FBI’s interest in Wehelie, he did note several recent high-profile terror plots, including an attempted car bombing and the failed Christmas Day jetliner bombing, as reminders of the need to remain vigilant.
Egyptian authorities confirmed there is a Somali-American stranded in Cairo waiting for his name to be lifted from a U.S. no-fly list.
Wehelie said the U.S. embassy is for now paying the $16 a night for his hotel, which he will one day have to reimburse, and gives him coupons to eat at U.S. fast food chains.
“I can’t even eat at Hardees anymore. I ate everything they had there for like two weeks straight,” he said. “Now I can’t even walk in there.”
He said he was eating pizza now and that his fast food diet has left him feeling unhealthy.
In a news conference Wednesday in Washington by a Muslim civil rights group, his mother Shamsa Noor said she sent her sons to Yemen to learn Arabic and get some direction in their lives and now she feels guilty for that decision.
“It is very frustrating. I feel so guilty because I’m the one who sent them there,” Noor said.
The family said Yemen was a natural choice because education was relatively inexpensive and many Somali natives live there.
Wehelie’s brother Yusuf also spoke at the news conference.
“What happened to me was wrong and I want to make sure it does not happen to any American citizens,” he said.
Officials at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which sponsored the news conference, said they are aware of at least two other cases where American citizens who are Muslims are similarly denied return to the United States.
CAIR’s executive director, Nihad Awad, said the organization understands the need to question travelers and the need to protect national security. But he said the no-fly list is being used as a weapon to punish American Muslims without providing due process.
“We are very concerned that this apparent targeting of American Muslims sends a very wrong message to American Muslims that they are second-class citizens,” Awad said.
Wehelie said he is having trouble sleeping and spends his days at Internet cafes and watching the World Cup in the hotel’s threadbare common room.
Wehelie has no intention of returning to Yemen and cannot imagine living in another country.
“My foundation is in America,” he said.
Walking through Cairo’s teeming streets, Wehelie winced as he passed a fast food outlet.
“I just want a home-cooked meal, man. I miss my mom’s cooking.”