Activist Shares Story of Escape From Yemen Along with His Passion for Interfaith Work

Mohammed Al Samawi was the keynote speaker of the annual AJC Murray Friedman Memorial Lecture. | Photo by Christopher Brown

Mohammed Al Samawi arrived in the United States almost three years ago.

But the journey it took to get from his native Yemen to San Francisco is the stuff movies are made of — which is good for him, since his memoir, The Fox Hunt (out April 10), has already been acquired for a motion picture.

He shared his story to a full audience at the annual AJC Murray Friedman Memorial Lecture on March 27. Growing up Muslim in the capital of Sana’a, Al Samawi shifted from believing that Jews and Christians were his enemy to kindling an interest in interfaith work, and then receiving terrifying death threats online and by phone. He fled from his home to Aden, which would become the heart of a sectional civil war. By using social media, he found his way out of the country with just the clothes on his back, and eventually landed in California.

A riveted crowd listened to Al Samawi share his story, which he didn’t want to tell when he first came to the United States.

“I wanted to live another life where I don’t think anything about it, so my biggest dream was working with Starbucks and I thought to myself, ‘This is the life I want to have,’” he laughed in a phone interview ahead of the event. “But when I started telling the story, the more I was telling the story, the more people were inspired and the more people were affected by the story.”

It also affected him in a different way; writing the book provided an outlet for him to explore his feelings. He had been having trouble sleeping and had a fear of beards because they reminded him of the men who could have killed him.

“The good thing about me writing a book, it was kind of like a therapy for me,” he said. “I decided to write the book also because I wanted to inspire other people. I want to inspire people who are different. I want to inspire people who want to do interfaith [work].”

His interest in interfaith work started when he was 23 and received a Bible from a teacher from England he met, who swapped it for a Quran.

“When I was first reading the Bible, I was trying to find mistakes,” Al Samawi said. “I was trying to find things I can say, ‘Aha! My book, Quran, is much better than this book.’ That was the first thing I was looking for. But then I discover something else.”

His interfaith passion is also strongly tied with social media. Facebook may be having its own issues right now, but it came to Al Samawi’s aid when he most needed it; in fact, it literally saved his life.

“When I first tried to use Facebook, I was trying to use Facebook to reach Jews, to ask questions about why do you hate us and why do you want to kill us,” he said.

At the event, he joked that he tried first friending cute Israeli girls, but they didn’t add him back.

“So Facebook was the first window for me that I can see the other world, I can hear the other world,” he said. “And also on the other hand, Facebook is the window that opened the faith activities I was doing. I was doing faith activities online and then from Facebook also I asked people to help me out.”

He went to interfaith summits and conferences — including AJC’s Muslim Jewish Conference in Bosnia — and made connections online from those events, which aided him as he sought help while trapped in his apartment in war-torn Aden.

Out of this emerged a group of four friends, almost none of whom knew each other and lived everywhere from San Francisco to Tel Aviv. They, too, were posting for him, looking for any connections who would be able to help him out of Yemen.

“The people who responded, they worked together as one team although they don’t know each other very well, some of them never met each other, and they connected because of me,” he said. “They wanted really to help me out to be safe, and that’s the amazing thing about social media, also.”

For him, the key to everything he’s been through is having faith that all will work out in the end.

He has a disability on the right side of his body, affecting his hand and leg. Growing up, he was jealous of other kids because he couldn’t play sports like football. Instead, he decided to learn English.

“Because of the disability I am here today,” he said, “because this disability helped me to learn English, and because it helped me to learn English I had the chance to read the Torah and the Bible, and because of that I did the interfaith work and I am here now today in the United States.”

He has not returned to Yemen since he escaped, but he works with organizations like nonprofit The Yemen Peace Project to educate others about the ongoing war, which is getting worse, he said.

He is excited — and admittedly nervous — about the book’s release, and hopes his story will inspire others to learn about those who are different from them and find common ground.

“Unfortunately, we live in a small circle where we only learn stereotype,” he said. He wants others to realize how similar Islam and Judaism are when the spotlight is removed from stereotypes and negative media attention. “I’m trying to focus now on the positive and how we can come together.”

His story serves as a reminder of the importance of helping others, said Marcia Bronstein, regional director of AJC Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey.

“When we see individuals as human beings and we look at all the things we have in common, we can see ourselves in all those people,” she said. “So the struggle in Yemen is not unlike the struggle so many of our forefathers had in Europe, just trying to get out, or in the Holocaust, just trying to find safe passage. And it’s through the help and kindness of strangers who extend a hand that all of us are lifted up, and that’s what Mohammed’s story reminds us of.” 

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