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Free from prison in Egypt, aid worker Aya Hijazi speaks out on her message for Sisi, meeting Trump

May 26, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
In 2013, Aya Hijazi and her husband Mohammed founded an organization that helps impoverished children living in the streets of Cairo. But during a crackdown on civil groups in Egypt, Hijazi, an Egyptian-American, and her husband were detained, imprisoned and falsely accused crimes. In an exclusive interview, Hijazy, now released, joins Judy Woodruff to tell her story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to Judy’s exclusive interview with Aya Hijazi, the Egyptian-American aid worker released last month from prison in Egypt, along with her husband, Mohamed Hassanein.

The 30-year-old Hijazi grew up in the Washington area and in Egypt. In 2013, she and Mohamed founded the Belady Foundation, the goal, to help impoverished street children in Cairo. But they soon found themselves in prison, falsely accused of horrendous crimes and the subjects of international efforts, including by Presidents Trump and Obama, to gain their release.

Judy spoke with Aya and Mohamed earlier this week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The calm, mundane routine of daily life is something new and special again for Aya Hijazi and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein. The apartment they just moved into outside Washington is still sparsely furnished, but it’s a place to call their own, and it’s a world away from the Egyptian jail cells and crowded courtroom cages they were kept in for three years.

They had met in Tahrir Square in the heady days after Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

AYA HIJAZI, Co-Founder, Belady Foundation: Initially, it seemed like the political climate to allow for political change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But by 2013, after the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government, the picture darkened. They looked to build a little light.

AYA HIJAZI: And so it seemed like the only venue to actually do change and give hope and not be — not vilify or be vilified is to work on humanitarian causes that no other two people could differ on, like, say, children. Who would want a child to sleep in the streets?

JUDY WOODRUFF: In an Orwellian twist, the organization they founded to help those children would lead to heinous unfounded charges of child abuse and human trafficking.

AYA HIJAZI: We still don’t really know what happened. Like, we know the picture, but we don’t not why or how.

The kids started to love us and really tell each other about our organization. And everything was going on smoothly, until one day supposedly a father came looking for his son, whom we have never seen and the children have never seen, and we went with him to file a police report, because he was quite abusive with us and the NGO and the children.

And instead of us filing a report, we found that we are charged with human trafficking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, there had been no indication before that of a problem?


JUDY WOODRUFF: And were you immediately taken into custody?

AYA HIJAZI: Yes, from that day on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did you deal with it? You were separated pretty immediately, is that right?

AYA HIJAZI: Yes. Yes. And we couldn’t contact anyone, but the word got through very, very quickly.

And so lawyers came, but they weren’t ours. They were just volunteers. And so I just thought that, immediately, when I talk to a prosecutor or a judge, we will be released within a day or a few days. And it went on for three years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Three years shuttled from different prisons to court appearances, the newly married couple seeing each other only fleetingly.

How much were you able to be in contact with each other during the time you were held?

AYA HIJAZI: It was very hard to get letters across, through our families. Our families would visit us, exchange letters. Other than that, we would wait for court sessions to meet. So, it’s like, a total of 18 months, we saw each other only three times and maybe only for a minute, or less even.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell me about your experience.

AYA HIJAZI: I wasn’t tortured in prison or beaten or even — I didn’t receive abusive words.

It was very hard for me that I was placed with regular crimes. Like, I wasn’t even classified inside the prison as political prisoners. And I was like the charges were very heinous, like raping children. And so it was very hard just coping with that.

MOHAMED HASSANEIN, Co-Founder, Belady Foundation (through interpreter): Prison itself is against human nature. The idea of prison is that it takes away from the person’s humanity and the person’s ideas. But if the person was able to keep his or her core ideas and humanity, then the person has won.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Aya taught herself French and Spanish while in prison and she learned to draw. She showed me one pencil sketch that reflected what she said was her own experience.

Where are you in this drawing?

AYA HIJAZI: I find myself in a lot of those. Like, I find myself here, like, all right, come, I’m ready to go to prison just to prove my point.

I find myself here looking at the window, seeing the streets and wishing that I could be part of it one day again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it true that most of the people in Egypt don’t know what’s going on inside prison?

AYA HIJAZI: Yes, prisons are largely a closed place, and we suffered that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While they endured, unbeknownst to them, Aya and Mohamed had many advocates on the outside, and many in high places.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: I would like to raise the case of Egyptian-American citizen Aya Hijazi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Were you aware that President Obama was trying to get you out of prison?

AYA HIJAZI: I know that the administration towards the end was involved and did a lot. It was towards the end of our imprisonment and towards the end of their administration that they have — and I have to give credit where credit is due, so I am thankful to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that happened. And then a new president comes into office. And how did you hear that he was working on this?

And what we saw was, he said something to President El-Sisi. So, how did you hear about all this?

AYA HIJAZI: So, in Egypt, we — in the prison, we got to see some newspapers. And so Trump was saying that they shouldn’t be discussing human rights issues publicly. It seemed like it’s being discussed, but behind closed doors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then how did you learn that something might happen, that you might be freed?

AYA HIJAZI: So, we knew that there was American interest, but up until the last day, we had no idea how it will go, until the day of the acquittal. It was a surprise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Until the final day?


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how did you learn? What — how did you learn?

AYA HIJAZI: It was actually in the cage where the judge acquitted us all, and it was — it was unbelievable. Like, we prayed for it so much, but we thought it’s far-reaching, like the best that could be done is a pardon. And we were really hoping we wouldn’t reach that. And it was a surprise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You literally had no preparation for when you were — the judge told you, OK, you are acquitted.

AYA HIJAZI: Yes. We didn’t know that he would say acquitted, in a sense. It was like the best moment of our lives, all of us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That moment just six weeks ago came after President Trump’s meeting in Washington with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Mr. Trump has made a point of befriending Sisi and has been highly complimentary of him, following years of strained relations with the Obama administration.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I just want to say to you, Mr. President, that you have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Aya’s view of Mr. Trump’s praise of the Egyptian leader are complicated.

AYA HIJAZI: This is difficult for me, because I don’t share his view on Mr. Sisi. I could differ with Mr. Trump.

And I would like to actually direct this to Mr. Sisi, if he listens. It wasn’t just us who were imprisoned, unjustly imprisoned. And if Mr. Sisi had a role, or if — I would tell you, Mr. Sisi, if you had a role then, then that’s good, but there are thousands and thousands of wrongly imprisoned people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Almost immediately upon her release, a U.S. government plane whisked Aya and Mohamed to the United States, where Aya soon sat with the president in the Oval Office, the same chair in which President Sisi had sat a few weeks earlier.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are happy to have Aya back home, and it’s a great honor to have her in the Oval Office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How was your meeting with President Trump?

AYA HIJAZI: He was very hospitable. He made us feel very welcome, and he admired our strength. And I work for the children. So, I was glad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did he ask you?

AYA HIJAZI: Oh, one of the questions he asked was about the time of my arrest. And he like — I’m not sure, but it seemed like he had this idea that — or a conviction that it was at the time of the Muslim Brotherhood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which was before President El-Sisi.

AYA HIJAZI: Which was before Sisi. So, he was like, “So was your arrest — be at the time of the Brotherhood?” And I said, no. And then he said, “Oh, it was at the time of Sisi.” And he was taken aback. It seemed, like, different to what he had in mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a contradiction between President Trump working to get you released and, on the other hand, praising the government of Egypt which was holding you in prison?

AYA HIJAZI: I think he’s trying to be effective, because he even said it to me while we met, that, well, that he was effective, wasn’t he?

And I don’t know how to say no. So there is the traditional way of just, like, mere criticism, very sharp criticism, and there is the more diplomatic way, perhaps.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think that maybe, in your conversation with him and in his learning about your experience, that maybe he’s — you have adjusted his thinking about human rights? Or what do you think about that?

AYA HIJAZI: I hope he gets to know that the human rights situation is really horrible at that time, and people are not just — it’s not just for fighting terrorism, because people are unjustly held, and there are so many fabricated cases. They are illegitimately held.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are both of you optimistic that things are going to get better in Egypt?

MOHAMED HASSANEIN (through interpreter): Worry and optimism are different things. It’s very normal to be worried, but it’s not normal to live out hope. And we’re also hopeful. And I’m worried.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you want for Egypt, for the people of Egypt? What do you want for them?

AYA HIJAZI: We want what we call — some may call American values. I would like to think of them as universal values, humanity, number one, a good governed state where people can express themselves, where they can freely assemble, where they can live in harmony and peace.

Democracy is not a bad word to describe that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you believe that time is coming?

AYA HIJAZI: We have to believe until the very last day we die. I mean, if we want to be parents — we’re not parents yet — and we want to see something good for future generations. So either we say we have given you a better world, or we die trying.