Iyad Abuhajjaj walked out of jail last week with as many questions as he had when he went in 7-1/2 months earlier.
Over those weeks, he had been questioned by police detectives, FBI agents, newspaper reporters and attorneys. Every part of his life from birth to now was spilled and discussed in detail with strangers. And yet, he says, he never got the answer he craved: Why was he held by immigration authorities 3,000 miles from home?
He lost 20 pounds, his job in California, his car. He prayed every day for God to release him in time to celebrate the last day of Ramadan with his wife, Karen.
He got that wish, reunited with her the day before the end of the Muslim holy month, but not much more.
“Seven and a half months of my life are wasted,” he said this week during a stop in Tampa. “Taking me away from my family, my work, my clients, my friends, my soccer team, my singing choir.”
Justice Department and immigration officials won’t talk about his case. One of his attorneys said he thought the government was trying to recruit Abuhajjaj to be an informant. Another attorney thinks bureaucracy played a role.
On Tuesday, 37-year-old Abuhajjaj boarded a Southwest Airlines plane, bound for San Jose, Calif., where he lives. A thousand times he wondered whether he shouldn’t just drive cross country instead. It was, after all, a Southwest flight that led to his incarceration in the first place.
Water pooled in his eyes when he thought about what might happen next.
The details of that first Southwest flight on Feb. 28 come from Abuhajjaj, a physical therapist who works with the developmentally disabled.
He wanted a Florida vacation.
On the flight from San Jose to Phoenix to Tampa, he went to the restroom and stretched his legs and was told to be seated. On his laptop, he watched scenes from a movie he acted in: The Strange Case of Salman abd al Haaq, a film by two Stanford University students about terrorist torture.
When he landed, police questioned him about the flight and the movie. They found a warrant for his arrest out of Okaloosa County. A Florida woman he met online accused him of accessing her AOL account without her permission, according to documents. Abuhajjaj said he thought the charges had been dropped.
He was jailed in Tampa but was moved to Okaloosa County. On March 14, he pleaded not guilty, posted $20,000 bail and expected to be released. Instead, the Department of Homeland Security took him into custody and shipped him to the Wakulla County Jail in Crawfordville.
What are my charges? he wanted to know. Why am I being held?
Abuhajjaj tried to see into the minds of his questioners for answers. Two men who introduced themselves as FBI agents grilled him for four to five hours. (MORE)