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Bittersweet homecoming for Libyan-American caught in no-fly limbo

John Brecher / msnbc.com

Jamal Tarhuni hugs his wife Nariman Samed as his son Rasheed walks past at the Portland International Airport after returning from Libya.

 

 PORTLAND, Ore. — Family, friends and supporters celebrated the homecoming Tuesday of Jamal Tarhuni, a Libyan-American businessman whose return to the U.S. from North Africa was delayed by a month after he was detained for questioning by the FBI.

A burst of applause and cheering went up as Tarhuni emerged into the waiting area at Portland International Airport after clearing the last bureaucratic hurdle of his trip – a two-hour wait to clear customs. His youngest son, 10-year-old Rasheed, armed with helium balloons, stood at the front of a welcome line of men.

The tone of the homecoming quickly became serious again, as Tarhuni reassured others about the status of another member of the Libyan-American community – Mustafa Elogbi, 60, who remains in Tunisia after being barred at the last minute from joining Tarhuni and their attorney, Tom Nelson, on the flight home.


Tarhuni, 55, left for Libya in October to deliver medical supplies to hospitals and refugee camps, but he said that when he tried to return on Jan. 17, he was denied boarding and directed to the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, where he was questioned extensively by FBI agents.

At the Portland airport, he addressed the gathered press with a message to the FBI:

"We value your work when you stop criminals," Tarhuni said. "We do not value your work when you do not do your homework and stop innocent people."

He called his ordeal a shock and said he was particularly disappointed in the U.S. Embassy.

"I was not able to get straight answers or help you would expect from your embassy abroad," he said. "I was not even able to get basic information on who made the decision to stop me from coming home."

Tuesday’s reunion with his wife, Nariman Samed, and four children ended a month of uncertainty for Tarhuni, a naturalized American citizen, but it did nothing to clarify why he was held or whether he faces further questioning. He does not know whether he is on the government’s secret no-fly list, which would prevent him from flying back to his native Libya or in U.S. airspace.

The uncertainty around Elogbi remains, although he has booked a flight home from Tunis on Sunday.

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"I’m really happy that Jamal Tarhuni is coming home, but I’m really ready for my dad to come home," said Elogbi’s daughter, Allaa, 20, fighting back tears. "(This return) does give me hope that within a week my dad will be here. … But so far you don’t know if you can trust them or not, you know? There is no reason my dad should not be home today. There is no reason he shouldn’t have been home last month."

The crowd of about 40 people on hand to greet Tarhuni was a mixture of family and friends from Muslim and interfaith communities.

John Brecher / msnbc.com

Karen Redington, of Beaverton, Oregon and Paul Maresh of Portland hold signs to greet Jamal Tarhuni before his arrival at the Portland International Airport. Maresh explained his motivation for coming to the airport: "I don't know this gentleman. I'm not a Muslim. I'm deeply offended by the way this man has been treated."

"What brings me out is injustice, not allowing someone to come home because they are Muslim or have an Arabic name, or a foreign-sounding name – the nemesis du jour," said Pam Allee, a Portland resident who came to show support but does not know the families.

Karen Redington, a Christian who said she has worked with Tarhuni on interfaith events, carried an American flag and a sign that read: "I’m sorry."

"I am so sorry that this would happen to anyone, let alone somebody who is one of the most gentle, humble, caring men, who has taken the time to go back to his country of origin to bring millions and millions of dollars of humanitarian aid through Medical Teams International," she said. "I am so sorry. This does not represent this community; this does not represent this country."

No one was more relieved at Tarhuni’s return than Rasheed, who was looking forward to spending some quality time with his dad after an absence of four months.

"He missed my birthday, so he said we’re going to have a cake and we’re going to go out and we’re going to invite my friends, maybe go to Evergreen waterpark. Or we’re going to take trip to Disneyland," he said.

Going forward, he said, he’s going to keep his eye on his dad:

"I’m going to hug him so much and never let him go back anywhere else, and tell him, ‘If you’re going somewhere, the whole family comes with you.’"

 

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