Mother grabs back children in a Lebanon schoolyard

American woman and charity workers in dramatic airport dash
On Halloween three years ago, Nabela Henry's separated husband took her two children out to knock on their Florida neighbours' doors with the customary American "trick or treat". They ended up in Lebanon and she did not see them again until this week.

In a dramatic re-run of the book and movie Not Without My Daughter, Mrs Henry, a 26-year-old American, snatched the children from a Lebanese school this week and was able to spend Halloween with them in her Florida home. This time, she was not letting them out to trick, treat or otherwise.

Mrs Henry, an Arabic speaker of half-Egyptian, half-Lebanese extraction but born and brought up in the US, told The Independent how she had grabbed the children, aged seven and five, in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Monday and talked her way through Syrian army checkpoints and out of Beirut airport.

She was helped by two members of a private charity group, based in Houston, Texas, called The American Association For Lost Children, which charges no fee and relies on donations. They took on her case after the US government failed to help.

Mrs Henry, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was in the midst of divorce proceedings from her Lebanese husband, Saad Fouad Abdo, a computer engineer, 38, three years ago. At Halloween, she had kept their informal agreement that he should see her son Ramzy, now seven, and daughter Nora, now five, on weekends and holidays.

"He said he would take them round to trick or treat and get them some sweets. They were so excited. I never imagined they would end up in Lebanon and I wouldn't see them for three years," she said. "I started off by calling the Fort Lauderdale police but they just said he's their father, he has the right. It was the following week that a mutual friend told me he had received a letter from my husband saying he was either going to take the kids or kill me. I said I wish he had just killed me."

Mrs Henry, since re-married to Michael Henry, an American, then contacted the State Department. "All they did was trace the kids to Tripoli and give me what they called a welfare check, saying they were well but there was nothing else the State Department could do."

Next, she tried a self-styled Lebanese private detective in New Jersey who took her pounds 8,000 - she had pawned her pounds 5,000 wedding ring - then disappeared. When she read about a little girl snatched from her father in Germany by the American Association for Lost Children and returned to her mother in the US, she contacted the Houston group. She, the group's founder Mark Miller, and a woman group member, Pat Moore, neither of the latter Arabic speakers, flew into Beirut from Larnaca, Cyprus, last Sunday night, spent the night in a hotel and took a taxi north to Tripoli.

"We had traced them to the Tripoli American school, a private school where kids learn English," Mrs Henry said. "It was just before eight in the morning and kids were milling in the schoolyard. I went up to the fence and asked kids if they had seen Ramzy or Nora.

"I found Ramzy in the yard, he gave me a huge hug, called me mommy and I put him in the taxi. The bell had rung so I went along the corridor, knocked on Class A and asked, in Arabic, for Nora. The teacher told me she was in Class D but when I went, she wasn't there.

"I went to the principal's office and said I had forgotten to give Nora her lunch money. The principal said she would pass it on, then I realised I had no Lebanese money. I had to go back to the taxi. By the time I got back to the office, the principal was obviously suspicious but I suddenly saw Nora in the corridor. I just grabbed her up in my arms, walked real fast, then ran to the cab and we sped south towards Jounieh [north of Beirut]. Syrian soldiers kept stopping us. Mark and Pat kept quiet, I did the talking."

They had planned to take a ferry from Jounieh to Cyprus but found they had missed it so drove on to Beirut airport.

"We tried to get the first plane to anywhere, which aroused suspicions. Mark managed to get tickets to Paris but the Lebanese immigration officials detained me and the kids. I had got American passports for the kids in the States but obviously there were no stamps on them. I said the authorities in Cyprus and Beirut must have forgot to stamp them.

"Then they asked why I had come in for one night and was leaving so soon. I said Beirut had been more expensive than I'd expected, I'd spent all my money . . . They finally believed me, said the immigration officials on duty the night before would be reprimanded for forgetting to stamp the kids' passports and let me go. It was about 1pm when we boarded the plane, I was a nervous wreck, then the pilot announced there would be a delay. I thought my husband must have shown up and that they'd come and get me. But we finally took off. I cried, Mark cried, Pat cried. The kids said don't cry any more, mommy, why are you crying? I said we're going home."

Finally arriving in New York on Tuesday, Mrs Henry was questioned by immigration whose files showed that she had listed her children as missing. After calls to Fort Lauderdale police, she was allowed to fly on to Miami and a tearful reunion with relatives. Legally, US authorities say the children are hers since they have no official knowledge that she "kidnapped" them in Lebanon. But if her husband gets them back to Lebanon, there's nothing the US can do. The children seemed to have re-adapted quickly to Florida, gazing at the Disney Channel and video games and telling their mother they never wanted to go back to Lebanon. But Mrs Henry fears her husband may return. "He may try again. I'll always be looking over my shoulder," she said.