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Family of American grandfather imprisoned in Syria asks Trump for help

The family of an American who disappeared in Syria two years ago is going public with their story, hoping to persuade President Trump to intervene. American citizen Majd Kamalmaz came to the U.S. as a child. He dedicated much of his career to helping people affected by war and natural disasters. According to his family, he was also the "glue that brought everybody together." Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today in Syria, ISIS and U.S.-backed forces fought over one of terror group's final holdouts. And the U.S. is reinforcing the area with additional troops to prepare for withdrawal.

    But, as the U.S. draws down, there are still Americans being held by the Syrian regime.

    Nick Schifrin brings us one of their stories, with a family that is just now going public.

    Nick When Majd Kamalmaz wasn't throwing the football, hiking up a mountain, or fishing in the ocean, he was with his brood of grandchildren.

  • Khalid Kamalmaz:

    He was an amazing grandfather. We have family in Indiana, in Texas, in Iowa and Virginia, and he was the glue that brought everybody together.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Khalid Kamalmaz is Majd's son. And when Majd wasn't with his children and grandchildren, he was helping other people's children who'd suffered through conflict or natural disasters.

  • Ulla Kamalmaz:

    He had a big heart, and he couldn't help seeing anyone in pain. He saw a shortage, and he felt like there was a need, and so he was an advocate of that need.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    After the war in Bosnia, the tsunami in Indonesia, and Hurricane Katrina, he led an NGO that treated children who needed help. In 2012, he told an Arabic news outlet how children can be resilient, with their parents' support.

  • Majd Kamalmaz:

    Parents should always stand with their children. This gives the child confidence in his or her family and ensures they can overcome any issue in the future.

  • Ulla Kamalmaz:

    He's a father. He's a husband, a brother, a son. He is a friend of many, a colleague, and he is missed very deeply.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kamalmaz was last seen in Damascus in 2017. His family says he wasn't part of the war or helping rebel fighters. Instead, he was paying respects for his father-in-law's death.

    A Western diplomat told the family he was picked up by police and transferred into a Syrian prison.

    And now, after two years of no progress, they are going public with a media blitz to deliver a direct appeal to the president. They wrote him a letter asking for his assistance.

  • Khalid Kamalmaz:

    We're trying to approach President Donald Trump to see if we can get his attention, so he can take this matter personally. He's the only one we feel that would able to bring our father back home to us.

  • Donald Trump:

    We are very happy to have Aya back home.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump has secured the release of several Americans held hostage overseas. Aya Hijazi spent three years in an Egyptian jail. Last May, the president greeted Americans at the airport after negotiating their release with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

    And two months later, the president welcomed Pastor Andrew Brunson, who'd been held by Turkey.

  • Andrew Brunson:

    Lord God, I ask that you pour out your Holy Spirit on President Trump.

  • Ulla Kamalmaz:

    There hasn't gone a day that I haven't been praying and thinking about him, you know, is he OK? Is his health OK? Is he alive? We believe that President Trump has the ability and has the heart to do it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the U.S. has cut all diplomatic relations with Syria, and so has little leverage over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    Assad is believed to be holding at least one more American, journalist Austin Tice. On the anniversary of Tice's disappearance last August, his mother, Debra, pleaded for his release.

  • Debra Tice:

    Our beloved Austin was taken captive in Syria. We have had no contact at all with him. Five years is a very long time for any parent to be missing their child.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A State Department spokesman says — quote — "Our embassies and consulates abroad have no greater responsibility than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas, and the government remains in regular contact with the Kamalmaz family."

    Majd's children say they government has been helpful. And they have a message to their father.

  • Khalid Kamalmaz:

    We love you and that we're working very hard, as hard as we can, to bring you back home. And we haven't given up on you.

  • Ulla Kamalmaz:

    Please know that these two years have been hard for us, not knowing where you are, your health. We are doing our best. We're doing our very best to bring you back home.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    All they can do now is wait, and try to hold on to the resilience that their father gave them.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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