ELIZABETH, N.J. ― Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released a New Jersey teacher slated to be deported to Egypt despite facing a death penalty there, ending an agonizing monthslong wait.
“I told myself a lot of times, I need to get out. I need to get out for my students,” Ahmed Abdelbasit told HuffPost, surrounded by his former students and colleagues just an hour after his release. “I’m just very happy because my life now is safe.”
Abdelbasit, a former professor and physics doctoral student, fled Egypt in 2016 after facing persecution for his pro-democracy activism. He arrived in the U.S. in June 2016 and immediately applied for asylum in New Jersey. Meanwhile, the Egyptian military court sentenced him to death in absentia that same year.
Human Rights Watch told HuffPost the sentence was “completely baseless” and the evidence against Abdelbasit “almost nonexistent” at the time of his arrest in April 2018.
ICE officials arrested Abdelbasit while his asylum application was still pending and he was on his way to Rising Star Academy in Union City, New Jersey, where he taught physics. Abdelbasit told ICE officials that if he were to be deported, the U.S. government would be sending him to his death.
Dozens of students and community members pushed Abdelbasit’s case relentlessly. In the past four months, students at Rising Star Academy gathered outside the ICE detention center in Elizabeth every weekend and worked out a schedule to make sure their teacher had at least one visitor a day. They raised thousands of dollars for his defense lawyer and launched a social media campaign to raise awareness and gather more support.
“The feeling that I have now is just indescribable. I’m so relieved,” said Yusef Haddabah, 14, on Thursday evening. “Not only am I happy that he can live his everyday life again, but also I feel accomplished, even if I didn’t play a major role or a major factor, but that I had something to do with his freedom.”
Standing outside the detention center, Haddabah wore a #SaveBasit T-shirt while answering dozens of phone calls from fellow students. The teen had dedicated his summer to securing his teacher’s release, and had been waiting outside the detention center for over three hours that day.
Ready to pick up where they left off, Abdelbasit and Haddabah went straight to Rising Star Academy, where more than 75 teachers, students and family members had gathered to surprise Abdelbasit. His fellow teachers cooked an elaborate meal of lamb and rice to celebrate, a traditional meal served on Muslim holidays (Abdelbasit’s asylum was granted on the Muslim holiday Eid).
“It’s a really happy moment and very relieving,” Mariam Siam, 17 and an incoming senior at Rising Star Academy, told HuffPost. “I’m just very proud of the efforts of community. I’m ecstatic.”
Abdelbasit’s case “really showed the importance of due process,” argued Anwen Hughes, his lawyer and the deputy legal director at Human Rights First.
“The United States has been a haven for refugees for as long as its existence, and that’s been one of the defining characteristics of the nation,” Hughes told HuffPost.
“Refugees like Ahmed Abdelbasit come here because they believe in our system of government and they believe in our system of justice and I think having that faith confirmed in this case and ensuring that it continues to be confirmed in other cases is a really powerful and important thing,” Hughes added.
While detained in Elizabeth, Abdelbasit had asked his students to bring him the latest physics material to keep him busy as he waited for the results of his trial. Every day, Abdelbasit reviewed the school work of the previous year and prepared new lessons for the upcoming year. He has less than two weeks before the first day of school, but is already well-prepared, with a curriculum ready.
“The last time I saw the street, I was going to school. And the first time I saw the street again, I was coming back to the school tonight,” Abdelbasit said. “My life is from the school and back to the school. Thank God, I will be with them at the school this year. They make me very happy.”