Kidnapped boy, now 15, reunites at last with mom

Mar. 26, 2005

By Robert Digitale
SANTA ROSA PRESS DEMOCRAT

For 14 years, Kathleen Ziadeh longed to see her only son, Zaid, who as a
toddler was abducted to the Mideast by his Jordanian father tired of life
in the United States.

During those years, Ziadeh and the child’s grandmother, Barbara Dooley,
lobbied U.S. presidents and Jordanian royalty, sought help from the State
Department and courts overseas, and even had the weight of a national
newspaper columnist behind them.

But none of their efforts succeeded in bringing back Zaid or easing their
heartbreak.

“It’s devastating,” Ziadeh recalled. “It’s like you lose a part of your
body or your soul.”

But Ziadeh’s dream of a happy reunion was realized when Zaid, now 15,
landed just before midnight Feb. 27 in San Francisco after a flight that
began in his former home of Amman, Jordan. The teen’s return opens a new
chapter in what seemed like a book closed long ago.

Ultimately, politics played only a small role in bringing Zaid Ziadeh
home. This is the story of one teenager’s resolve to return to his
mother’s side and to explore a country he had no memory of.

“I just knew some day I’d get a phone call,” said the boy’s mother, now
41.

Zaid was 15 months old in January 1991 when Jamal Ziadeh, a Jordanian
citizen, picked up the toddler from his mother’s home for what was
supposed to be a weekend visit with family in the Bay Area.

The parents had legally separated the previous October and such visits
were part of the agreement that gave Kathleen Ziadeh legal custody of the
child.

When her husband failed to return at weekend’s end, she learned from a
relative that her husband had fled with the child to Jordan, a country
with no international treaty on parental child abduction.

The timing was difficult, coming four days after hostilities began in the
Persian Gulf War. Ziadeh’s husband later would tell her he would stay in
Jordan and would raise the child on his own.

The mother and grandmother began a letter-writing campaign to anyone who
might help: Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Queen Noor of
Jordan, billionaire Ross Perot and Javier Perez de Cuellar, then U.N.
secretary-general.

Soon after the abduction, Ziadeh buttonholed Jordan’s ambassador to the
United States during a visit to Santa Rosa. He said he would do what he
could, but nothing came of it.

In 1993, Kathleen Ziadeh hired a lawyer in Jordan to fight for her only
child, but the courts there awarded custody to the father.

In 1994, the mother and grandmother’s efforts were profiled by then-New
York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, now with Newsweek, who castigated
U.S. officials for failing to do more in cases of children abducted to
countries without international accords for resolving custody disputes.

In 1995, Dooley traveled to Jordan. In order to see Zaid, she agreed to
the father’s demand not to tell the boy, then 5, that she was his
grandmother.

“My heart hurt so bad that I thought I would die,” she said of the moment
she left him.

In the intervening years, Kathleen Ziadeh lived in Alaska, Washington and
Los Angeles, but never stopped trying to win the return of her son. It’s
a wound “that gets deeper and deeper and doesn’t heal,” she said in a
1997 interview.

Living in Jordan, Zaid first learned of his past when he was 6. During
school registration, he discovered he had been born in the United States.
That’s when his father first began to tell him about his mother.

From that point on, Zaid said, the desire to meet his mother grew.

The father allowed his ex-wife to speak with Zaid once by phone about
seven years ago. Over the years, she received occasional pictures and a
few videos: one scene of her son skating, another at a family picnic.
More than a decade ago, U.S. Embassy personnel began making annual visits
to the boy and passing reports on to his mother.

About a year ago, Jamal Ziadeh spoke to his former wife about the
possibility of Zaid returning to the United States. He later said the
time wasn’t right.

Late one night in July, the phone rang and the grandmother answered.

“I am Zaid,” came the voice through the receiver.

“I said, ‘Zaid, this is Grandma’!” Dooley recalled of the night
everything changed.

After that call, Zaid obtained an e-mail account without his father’s
knowledge and made contact with his mother. He said he wanted to win
passage to the United States.

Kathleen Ziadeh helped her son get in touch with officials at the U.S.
Embassy in Amman, who readied a U.S. passport. Zaid said he also tried to
obtain a Jordanian passport, but without success.

With the U.S. passport in place, and contact made with his American
family, Zaid approached his father, whose permission he would need to
leave the country.

The teen’s persistence paid off.

One of Zaid’s Jordanian uncles intervened and urged the boy’s father to
allow the son to come to America. Kathleen Ziadeh said her former husband
contacted her with the surprising news: He would allow Zaid to come to
her.

She quoted Zaid’s father as saying that if he refused his son, “I
realized I would have a problem with him for the rest of my life.”

Since the late 1970s, the State Department has been contacted in the
cases of about 16,000 children who were either abducted from the United
States or prevented from returning by one of their parents.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is tracking 733
children who have been abducted by parents to other countries. Since
Zaid’s abduction in 1991, the center has followed 35 children taken by
parents to Jordan. Of those, seven, including Zaid, have been reunited
with a parent in the United States.

“It’s wonderful when that happens,” said spokeswoman Lena Alhusseini, but
it remains a rare event.

Zaid, newly enrolled as a sophomore at Santa Rosa’s Montgomery High
School, would like to complete his high school education here.

His reason for coming to Santa Rosa is answered simply: “To see my mother
and see my family here.”

For his mother, the lesson is to never give up, to “hang onto the hope.”

Whatever the lesson, Dooley said she sees the difference that Zaid’s
return has made for her daughter.

“It’s brought life back,” she said.

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