It is a mother’s worst nightmare. Edeanna Johnson-Chebbi separated from her husband Faical Chebbi via a protective order in February 2010 after he threatened to kill her. Although Johnson-Chebbi had full legal and physical custody of their children, five-year old Eslam and two-year old Zainab, her ex-husband did have limited unsupervised visitation with them. On November 11, 2011, just weeks after their divorce was finalized, Chebbi picked up the children for their regular visit and didn’t return. Instead, Chebbi abducted the children and boarded a flight to Tunisia with them. Johnson-Chebbi is now fighting to get her children back and looking for answers about how this happened.
On November 12, 2011, a day after Chebbi picked up his children for their regular visit, Johnson-Chebbi received a phone call from her ex-husband. He told her it was the worst phone call she’d ever have –he had the kids and they were in Tunisia, his birth country. Initially, it wasn’t clear how this could have happened because the children should not have been able to leave the country with Chebbi.
Johnson-Chebbi met with a staff member responsible for passport issuance at the Tunisian Embassy earlier this year and was assured that the children, who are both U.S. citizens, would not be able to get passports. She explains what happened at that meeting:
I was given personal assurance that copies of the notarized separation agreement, granting mutually consented to sole custody to me, along with copies of the protective order and a then valid court order not to remove the children from the U.S. would all go into Faical’s file and there would be no possible way for him to obtain passports for the children, as U.S. law indicated that he had no legal authority to them.
Nonetheless, Chebbi somehow obtained Tunisian passports for the children. Chebbi-Johnson has since been told by officials at the Tunisian Embassy that “under Tunisian law the father has the right to register his children as Tunisian citizens and obtain passports.”
Someone Should Have Stopped Them
Beyond the Tunisian Embassy, Chebbi-Johnson questions how a single man traveling with two minor children were able to get past the TSA and airline officials without being required to produce notarized documents indicating that he had permission to travel with the children. Johnson-Chebbi noted how alarming it is that her ex-husband was able to leave the country so easily with the children while she has to undergo a private pat down each time she goes through security due to her hijab: “The fabric on my head carries more weight for National Security than two children traveling with a suspicious male on differing passports out of the country. That’s a shame.”
Escalating Control and Abuse Tactics
Johnson-Chebbi left her husband when he threatened to kill her. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that she hasn’t escaped his abuse. When Johnson-Chebbi spoke to her ex-husband on the phone after the abduction, he said: “Now you know how it feels.” Johnson-Chebbi says: “This is completely about control and abuse of me, and nothing about the children. I pleaded with him to stop thinking about he and I and think about Eslam and Zainab. They are like possessions to him. The conversation left him trying to tell me how awful I am and how this is the same as he had it in America.”
Chebbi appears to be settling down with the children and shows no signs of making plans to bring them back. The children are already enrolled in school in Tunisia. However, that hasn’t stopped them from being homesick and it is painful for Johnson-Chebbi, who has been able to speak with the children on the phone and Skype, to see them suffering:
It’s heartbreaking to hear your child cry out for you and there’s nothing you can do to comfort him/her. And I realize I’ve never had to hear him cry for me like that because I’ve always been there for him. And then realizing that they are in a house full of people, but when they cry for me, no one bothers to console them…it’s maddening.
Watching my babies cry for me over a computer screen or listen by phone, knowing they want to be home and I can’t touch them, hug them, comfort them… it’s an awful thing.
Johnson-Chebbi has tried to use common sense to appeal to her ex-husband, but hasn’t received any response.
Looking for Answers and Help
Johnson-Chebbi has been working with officials at the Virginia State Police, the State Department, Missing and Exploited Kids, and the FBI. All of them have been helpful, however, none of them has any authority over Tunisia. Johnson-Chebbi is now asking elected and appointed officials to register their concern with the Tunisian Ambassador and with border officials for not paying better attention at the border. “It’s incredulous,” she explains, “that two American citizens have been kidnapped from this country by the aid of a foreign embassy on this soil, and not a single U.S. official, elected or appointed, finds that worthy of their attention or concern.”
Johnson-Chebbi has started a petition and is asking for your help:
Tell President and Mrs. Obama as well as Secretary Clinton to utilize all diplomatic and legal resources available to ensure that Eslam and Zainab Chebbi are returned to their mother in the U.S. Ask them to condemn the practices of the Tunisian consulate that contribute to international child abduction. Raise your voice and demand that our State Department act in full capacity to protect its citizens.
She wants elected officials to step in to protect their citizens and join her in saying “Never Again, Not on American Soil!” Of course Johnson-Chebbi also wants her children returned to her custody as quickly as possible: “I await that day that I can hold my babies close and kiss them and feel their cheeks against mine,” she says.
Help Johnson-Chebbi get the attention of elected officials by signing her petition to Bring Home Kidnapped American Siblings Eslam and Zainab Chebbi.
Photo used with permission from Edeanna Johnson-Chebbi