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'Anyone seen our father?' Family of jailed American in Syria seek help from former detainees Open in fullscreen

Elizabeth Hagedorn

'Anyone seen our father?' Family of jailed American in Syria seek help from former detainees

A clinical psychologist, Kamalmaz travelled to disaster and conflict zones

Date of publication: 20 February, 2020

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Three years after his disappearance, the family of American citizen Majd Kamalmaz, held in Syria, are calling on former detainees to share what they know.

In February 2017, Virginia resident Majd Kamalmaz travelled to Syria from neighbouring Lebanon to visit with relatives and pay his condolences following the death of his father-in-law.

A day later, the dual US-Syrian citizen was detained at a checkpoint in a Damascus suburb and has been missing ever since.

With no new leads on Kamalmaz's whereabouts or well-being, his children have created Arabic Facebook and Twitter pages and are giving interviews to Arabic-language news outlets in hopes of reaching former detainees.

"We have a message. Anyone who knows anything about him, please reach out to us," said Maryam Kamalmaz, one of Kamalmaz's five children.

"If we get a former prisoner or anybody that had seen him to tell us, 'yes, I saw him at this prison. He's in this condition,' that would be very valuable information to us," she said.

In the year since Maryam and her siblings took their father's story public and called on President Trump to intervene, the Kamalmaz family and the US government have quietly pursued various backchannels.

"We do know that they are working on the case, but nothing that has been productive yet," said Maryam. "Nothing that has been fruitful."

He's helped thousands of people. We're praying that we'll be able to help him
The Kamalmaz family believes their missing patriarch and grandfather is still alive

After a year passed with no progress from the FBI or US State Department, the family returned to Washington, DC last week to again advocate for Kamalmaz's release with Trump administration officials and members of Congress.

Maryam says the main obstacle to bringing her father home is the lack of official communication between the US and the Syrian government.

Since the US suspended diplomatic relations and shuttered the Syrian embassy in Washington in 2014, the two governments have relied on the Czech Republic as an intermediary.

The Czech ambassador in Syria, Eva Filipi, initially confirmed that the Syrian regime was holding Kamalmaz, but she is no longer communicating directly with the family.

Since the US suspended diplomatic relations and shuttered the Syrian embassy in Washington in 2014, the two governments have relied on the Czech Republic as an intermediary

In an email to The New Arab, a State Department spokesperson said Kamalmaz "has the attention of the highest levels in the US government" but provided no further updates on his specific case.

"This administration has invested immeasurable time and energy into bringing home Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad," the spokesperson added.

The Trump administration has negotiated the release of a number of American citizens and residents detained overseas, including those in Egypt, Turkey and North Korea.

But in Syria, the only other American citizen identified as missing is Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who disappeared in 2012 while reporting on the civil war. Tice – whose parents maintain he is still alive – is also believed to have been captured by pro-regime forces.

In 2016, Layla Shweikani, a young aid worker from Chicago, died while in Syrian government custody. She's among the tens of thousands of people rights groups say have been tortured or killed in Syria's vast network of prisons since the war began in March 2011.  

The Kamalmaz family believes their missing patriarch is still alive, in part because his work wasn't political in nature. 

A clinical psychologist, Kamalmaz travelled to disaster and conflict zones to offer free counselling, including in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami and New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

He worked with war victims in Kosovo and Bosnia, and most recently, opened mental health clinics in Lebanon where he treated refugees using a stress management method known as HeartMath.

"He is extremely empathic," said Renata Crescenzo, a colleague from Jupiter, Florida. "That's his life – to be in surrender to what he was called to do and who he was called to help."

Just before his disappearance, Kamalmaz and Crescenzo were in the process of setting up a programme for elderly refugees in Lebanon.

"He's helped thousands of people. We're praying that we'll be able to help him," said Maryam.

Elizabeth Hagedorn is a freelance journalist focusing on migration and conflict with bylines in The Guardian, Middle East Eye and Public Radio International.

Follow her on Twitter: @ElizHagedorn

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