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When American girls are forced into marriage abroad, the U.S. can do little to rescue them

September 15, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Jada was 12 years old and living in New Jersey when her father sent her to Saudi Arabia to be married. With the U.S. government unable to intervene, her astonished family at home took up the challenge of bringing her back. Jada is not alone in her experience, and not everyone has the same happy outcome. Special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reports.

GWEN IFILL: Last night we brought you stories of American women forced into marriage in this country.

Tonight, in part two of her exclusive report, special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells us of Americans taken overseas for the same reason, both women and girls, who often find themselves beyond the assistance of their own government.

JADA, New Jersey Teen: I was a kid. I hadn’t really grown that much, so I was really scared.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Jada was just 12 years old when her father took her from the United States to live in Saudi Arabia. And her future was about to change dramatically.

How did you first find out what your father had planned for you?

JADA: Well, one day, we were walking. We were walking to a store. And he told me to stay on his right side, because they do that there, so that other men know that the woman that they have on their right side is for sale.

Watch part one of this report.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Jada, whose last name we are withholding at the request of her lawyer, hadn’t even started high school when her father, a convert to Islam, moved them both to Jeddah and began trying to marry her off.

SHIRLEY, Jada’s Aunt: She’s thousands of miles away, and there’s nothing we can do.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Jada’s family back in New Jersey was terrified when they heard what her dad had planned. Jada’s mother had died suddenly a few years earlier, but her aunt Shirley says her sister Mecca rose up to fill the role.

MECCA, Jada’s older half-sister: I was at work. And I got a text that said, help me.

And I was like, gee, what are you talking about, help me?

And she’s like, no, help me. My dad’s trying to sell me.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Over the next few months, Mecca tried to support her little sister, to plot her return and to save her from marriage.

MECCA: Other than texting, I never got to physically hear her voice. So I didn’t know if she was crying at the moment or if she was scared. I’m just looking at text messages.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: And the messages grew increasingly desperate.

MECCA: I was literally losing sleep, like every day depressed, going to work depressed, because I really didn’t know what to do.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Mecca contacted everyone she could think of, including the United States government.

MECCA: Even though the embassy was meant to help Americans, it was — they had to still go through — they had to still use Saudi Arabia laws.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: In the end, it was up to the family to protect Jada.

SHIRLEY: I started to feel like we were exhausting everything, because it seemed like everybody was saying, well, you know, you know, there’s really nothing we can do.

MECCA: So, my aunt started saving money to get Jada home. And I started just contacting everybody. And that’s when I came in contact with Casey.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Casey is Casey Swegman, a counselor at the Tahirih Justice Center, an organization in Northern Virginia devoted to protecting immigrant women and girls.

Mecca reached her via a human trafficking hot line. Over three months, Swegman gathered information about Jada’s case, working with Mecca on strategies to get her sister back.

CASEY SWEGMAN, Tahirih Justice Center: I think, as an advocate, if Jada hadn’t had Mecca, it would’ve been a profoundly different experience.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Together, they succeeded in bring Jada home before any marriage could take place. Today, she is a star student about to enter high school and dreaming of college at UCLA.

But not everyone is so lucky. According to the Tahirih Justice Center, thousands of American women are forced into marriages every year. Tahirih runs one of the only forced marriage programs in the country. And they have worked with nearly 400 girls and women to help them either avoid or escape a forced marriage.

LINA ALAHRI, Married at 21: I remember the engagement. I’m in this crazy dress.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: American citizen Lina Alahri was 21 when her father took her to his native Yemen, amid the ongoing war…

LINA ALAHRI: This is me.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: .. veiled as a visit to her ailing grandmother.

Once there, the former California high school Almond Blossom queen contestant quickly learned that she was about to marry a man whom she’d never met, forced by her father into a marriage she didn’t want. She says she tried everything to avoid it.

LINA ALAHRI: The first thing I imagined was, I can make a run for it right now. But I knew that wasn’t an option.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: According to custom, Alahri was taken to her new husband’s home, where she was expected to consummate the marriage while his whole family waited for proof.

LINA ALAHRI: I remember my father in-law telling me, what is the problem? Why are you not doing it? The faster you do this, the faster you get to go home. The faster that you have intercourse is the faster that you can come home.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: But Alahri was 8,000 miles away from her home. And no one, it seemed, could help her, not even her government.

LINA ALAHRI: You think, well, I am a U.S. citizen, and the one thing that you want to do is, you want to take off, hit the U.S. Embassy, and then they are your savior and they will fly you out.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: But it wasn’t the case. A close friend of Alahri’s was able to contact the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, on her behalf.

“Tell her that we’re unable to intervene directly,” their response read. “If she can find her way to the U.S. Embassy, we are open.”

But she couldn’t get there because it was too dangerous. And in the end, she consummated the marriage. She felt it was her only path to getting home alive.

LINA ALAHRI: Sometimes, the only way out is through. Right?

CASEY SWEGMAN: The whole system failed Lina. The world failed Lina.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Casey Swegman took on Alahri’s case after her best friend back in California contacted the group.

CASEY SWEGMAN: When a women’s only choice, only option for getting to safety is to capitulate to rape, into a forced marriage, that is a failure of the entire system.

MICHELLE BERNIER-TOTH, Overseas Citizens Services, State Department: We failed them by not having mechanisms to prevent them from going overseas and being forced into marriage in the first place.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Michelle Bernier-Toth is the managing director for overseas citizens services in the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

MICHELLE BERNIER-TOTH: They’re being held against their will, but in accordance with local law, because they have been legally married in that country. And their spouse now has legal authority and control over what happens to them. And contrary to a kidnapping or a hostage-taking, there is a legal basis for that action that is one of the big — it’s a huge challenge.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Americans usually think that, if they’re threatened overseas, the State Department can swoop in and rescue them, but the reality is much more complicated. Both young women in this story reached out seeking help from abroad. But the truth is, Americans don’t take their laws with them when they travel.

In both cases here, these young women were able to orchestrate trips back to the United States. Then-12-year-old Jada’s family won custody of her when she came to the U.S. for a visit with her father. And Alahri’s plan for freedom was even more intrepid.

With the war in Yemen pounding outside her windows, she worked with Tahirih and her best friend from home to orchestrate the plan. After marrying the stranger, she returned to the U.S. on a pledge to acquire visas for her in-laws. When she landed in the United States, Tahirih was waiting.

It took several agonizing months for each of them to find their escape routes. Now on American soil, Tahirih has helped them restart their lives and continues to offer counseling and support.

But Swegman and her colleagues still feel these are isolated successes over a problem few Americans even know exists: forced marriage in the United States.

CASEY SWEGMAN: I think the worst outcomes are probably somewhere out there, with a woman who maybe only have the 15 minutes to call, but I never heard from her again. And I think, you know the bad endings are the ones we never see.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: “PBS NewsHour” attempted to contact both Alahri’s and Jada’s fathers, and received no reply.

Today, home once again in California, Alahri considers Swegman a member of her own family.

LINA ALAHRI: To have that support and have that love from somebody you have never even met before, it makes a huge difference. Like, Tahirih and like Casey, and I seem so lucky to have all that, because if it weren’t for those people, you don’t know where you would be.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: But now the former Miss Almond Blossom contestant is back studying and working toward a future she nearly lost.

I’m Gayle Tzemach Lemmon for the “PBS NewsHour” in California.

GWEN IFILL: You can go online to watch the first of Gayle’s reports and a conversation about the series.

And, tomorrow, join our Twitter chat about forced marriage at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, with Gayle and a number of experts and advocates. You can find the link on our Web site,