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Living Faith In Fear: the story of a Utah family trapped in Dubai

Picture of the Ismails, 2007, just arrived in Dubai. Picture credit: Nora Ismail

DUBAI — Hunched over her phone, Nora Ismail spoke quietly. It was nearly midnight in Dubai and she was hiding in a hotel lobby so she could borrow their Wi-Fi for the skype call to Utah. Ismail cried as she explained her family, once thriving, is now penniless.

“I feel like my life is falling apart,” Ismail said.

Just three months before, the 21 year-old was enrolled in her sophomore year of college at the University of Utah. She used texts, phone calls and emails to stay in contact with her family back in Dubai. It was her mother’s increasingly frantic calls that finally convinced Ismail to drop out and return to the United Arab Emirates, to a home decorated only with a mattress, to a city she both feared and hated.

The beginning

Ismail’s parents met in New York. Her mother is a refugee from Russia, her father an immigrant from Egypt. They married, and when Ismail was five the family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah.

“My Mom always had a really close tie with the LDS church. I felt like Utah opened up to us with open arms,” Ismail said. “It’s somewhere I felt safe.”

When Ismail turned eight, all three were baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ismail said most of their community continued to open their arms to the family, but Utah, in general, was getting increasingly hostile. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Ismail says her father’s colleagues began harassing him.

“Calling him Muslim terrorist, Arab, Osama Bin Laden,” Ismail said. “They accused him of stealing 20 dollars from the register.”

Ismail is adamant her father didn’t take the money but said Rafik Ismail’s attorney told him to plead guilty, pay the fine, and let it disappear before it attracted the attention of immigration agents. Rafik Ismail was still in the U.S. on a visa and did as his attorney suggested. The move would come back to haunt the family.

Less than a year later Ismail’s grandmother passed away in Russia. Her family flew out to settle the estate and stopped in Dubai on the way back. She said they only meant to spend a few years there to develop an interior design business, build up to their savings, then return to set up their home in Utah again.

Picture credit: Nora Ismail

Ismail was ten at the time. Looking at the picture of her family, their smiles big and excited, Ismail told me, “I wish I could go back in time and tell them to get back on a plane and get out of there.”

Apostasy

The United Arab Emirates is considered one of the most progressive of the gulf-states and has a reputation for tolerance toward non-Muslim faiths. Apostasy is seen differently. In fact, under UAE law a citizen can be given the death penalty for apostasy, and missionary work from other religions is against the law.

“The government prohibits proselytizing and the distribution of non-Islamic religious literature under penalty of criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and deportation,” The U.S. Department of State explained in a 2012 religious freedom report. “The legal punishment for conversion from Islam is death, although there have been no known prosecutions or legal punishments for apostasy in court.”

As a family of Muslims-turned-Christians, Ismail said they learned quickly to hide their faith in Dubai. The family stopped attending services and kept a low profile, but before long the word got out to their neighborhood. One day Ismail says a traditionally dressed Muslim man came into the family’s company building demanding answers.

“He started asking my Dad, ‘You are Muslim. Why is your wife not covered? Why is her hair not covered?’” Ismail said. “’You’re not being the man in the house and letting your daughter-‘ and here he used an Arabic word that translated kind of means rot.”

Father, Rafik Ismail, and mother, Marina Svadkovskaya in Dubai.

The man was powerful in their community. He kept coming back to the store, even threatening the family. Ismail said her parents tried to sell the business and flee, only to learn they’d been blacklisted in the community. Ismail said he set up civil lawsuits to trap them in the country and freeze their bank accounts, although at this point there is no longer any proof of it. They couldn’t even escape back to the US because her father’s visa had expired and his attempts to get a new one were rejected because of the misdemeanor on his record. She said the reality was overwhelming for her family.

“Everything around you is caged. You can’t renew your visa. You can’t work. You can’t leave the country,” Ismail said. “Your life is over.”

The man continued to push her family into Islam. When she turned seventeen,  Ismail said he began bringing older men to her family’s home to set up a marriage in the faith.

“I’d be in this room crying. Men would come in and touch my face. I felt so violated,” Ismail said. “That was it. The end of my life.”

It was also the final straw for her family.

The Escape

Desperate, Ismail reached out to her former bishop in Utah begging for help to escape Dubai before she was married off.

“We were standing there, heard that conversation. That’s the first we ever heard of her,” Rita Tyrell, a Utah woman currently serving an LDS mission in New York, said.

Ismail’s bishop is Tyrell’s brother-in-law. When he couldn’t take the girl in, Tyrell and her husband did.

It was a terrifying commitment. Tyrell said she had heard rumors of radicalized Muslims who posed as innocents to get in the country, but her husband was determined to help.

“It sounded like she needed help. So we really prayed about it and felt like were directed, given inspiration and prompted to tell her we would take her in,” Tyrell said.

Clinging to their faith, the pair rounded up the money pay for a plane ticket and Ismail’s family snuck her out of the country in the middle of the night. Tyrell said she can still remember Ismail’s relief as they drove her home from the Salt Lake International Airport.

“She kept saying, ‘I am home! I am Home! I am finally home.’ We were just in tears and her parents were sobbing on the other end [of the phone],” Tyrell said. “And they were just saying, ‘she’s safe. She got out of here. We don’t care what happens to us.’”

Threatening phone calls plagued the house for the first few months, as Ismail buckled down and tried to catch up in school. She had been barred from attending school in Dubai after the eighth grade and Alisa Kearl, East High School’s scholarship advisor, said she was years behind the other students.

“It didn’t stop her. She’s an incredibly determined person,” Kearl said.

Ismail with a friend after acceptance to the University of Utah, 2016.

Ismail graduated in two years and was awarded scholarships at several schools. She made it to her sophomore year at the University of Utah before frantic calls from her mother, still in Dubai, made her pause. Ismail’s parents had been cut off from medical care and her father, suffering from diabetes, was dying.

“My dad is bedridden at this point.” Ismail said through tears, “I thought this might be the last time I see my parents again.

Ismail dropped out of school, and with help financial help from friends, she went back to Dubai to help her parents. She surprised her mother at the door of the tiny apartment they were living in.

“She was just sobbing,” Ismail said. “There was nothing in the house. Just a little kitchen and a mattress on the floor that they sleep on. Nothing else.”

Trapped

Ismail and her mother are U.S citizens. Her father is still a citizen of Egypt, and Ismail said he is terrified to go home because his family has threatened to kill him for his apostasy.

Ismail is now acting as a nursemaid for her parents, simultaneously trying to find someone in the United States who can get her father’s visa approved.

“We filed a petition and it kept getting rejected and rejected and rejected,” Ismail said.

She has also reached out to Senator Orrin Hatch’s office for help.

“Senator Hatch is aware of Nora’s situation and he’s doing everything he can to help behind the scenes but we can’t share any specific at this point,” said Matt Whitlock, spokesperson for the Senator.

He said it takes time, the one thing the Ismails don’t have.

“I’m hoping that people can step in and help us,” Ismail said. “You don’t have a home without your family, no matter where you go.”

Local Imams say this kind of community punishment is rare and the majority of Muslims embrace other religions. But because it does happen, tomorrow we go in-depth on what can motivate Muslim communities to lash out at apostates, and the effects of that treatment on Muslims here in the U.S.

If you would like to help the Ismails financially,  you can find their GoFundme page here. It has raised nearly 12 thousand dollars in several months.

*KSL Newsradio does not assure that the monies deposited to the account will be applied for the benefit of the persons named as beneficiaries. If you are considering a deposit to the account, you should consult your own advisors and otherwise proceed at your own risk.

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