Pushing a luggage cart, Hafez Almbasher emerged from customs Thursday at Miami International Airport.
"How did they treat you?" he was asked.
A wry smile. Just fine, he answered. He wore the thousand-yard stare of a man who had traveled farther than he ever expected.
After seven months of learning more about the workings of immigration regulations than they ever wanted to know, Hafez and Deborah Almbasher were not too worried about routine reentry questions. After the hugs and tears subsided, the Boca Raton couple headed for the parking garage.
At her husband's request, Deborah Almbasher is preparing a Thanksgiving dinner today. She had hoped he would make it home for the official holiday, but a last-minute flurry of bureaucratic paperwork delayed him one more week. Today, she says, they have that much more to be thankful for.
In April, Hafez Almbasher, 39, an auto body repairman, went to Gaza to visit his ill mother. By June, when he was ready to return home, the Israeli government had closed the border between Gaza and Egypt because the Islamic group Hamas seized the territory.
Almbasher, a resident alien in this country, carries a Palestinian passport, and his request to return to the United States was denied. With thousands already waiting at the border to leave, American citizens went first. After that, only hardship cases were allowed to the head of the line.
Every day for three months, he went to the border to see if he had been cleared. And every day, his wife frantically called and wrote officials.
Because of stress and long-standing health problems, she was unable to work more than a couple of days a week. Family finances were dire. But her argument that this qualified her husband as a hardship case fell on deaf ears.
In September, she sought help from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy agency with an office in Pembroke Pines.
Then it was Altaf Ali's turn to swim in red tape. The council's executive director kept a log that contains letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Israeli consul general and any other official he thought might be able to intervene.
By early November, after letters to U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who heads the Senate immigration subcommittee, and U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, there was reason for optimism. A Hastings aide called Deborah Almbasher to say her husband could cross from Gaza to the West Bank and Jordan. (MORE)