At ‘Guantánamo North’

Sara Jayyousi

It is March 2005. I am nine years old and my father has just been arrested for a crime he did not commit. He had volunteered at various charities that provided relief for civilians in war-torn Bosnia and Chechnya. He collected, sorted and sent food, medicine and clothing. The government says he sent those supplies to aid the enemy. He is charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism.

My father, Kifah Jayyousi, has a PhD, was a professor at Wayne State University and a chief facilities director for schools in both DC and Detroit. He is a US Navy veteran. None of this matters because he is also a Muslim American.

My two sisters, our mother and I move from Detroit to Miami, where my father is held in solitary confinement as the trial unfolds. For years, the government tried to recruit him to work with them against the Muslim community but he refused. They try again after arresting him. He continues to say no.

I turn 10 that November and I am in court watching as my father is made into ‘the enemy’.

2006 and I’m 10. I’m familiar with the smell of a courthouse. My father is held in solitary confinement in a tall building in downtown Miami. My sisters, our mother and I draw pictures in chalk on the sidewalk for him. We don’t know which, if any, of the dozens of windows is his, but spend hours in the sun with chalk-covered hands, trying to tell him we love him.

2007. I’m almost 11. The jury finds my father guilty. My mother comes home carrying his suitcase. Everyone’s eyes are red for a week. The judge sentenced him to almost 13 years, recommending low-security prison.

2008. I’m 11. We move back to Detroit after my father is secretly moved to a new high security facility called the Communications Management Unit (CMU) in Terre Haute, Indiana. Most of the inmates are Muslim. The prison is nicknamed ‘Guantánamo north’.

At the CMU, we only get four hours of visiting a month. We combine the end of one month and the beginning of the next to get eight hours' visiting over a three-day period. We drive there. It’s expensive.

The visiting room is small and only seems to get smaller. Down the middle of the room is a Plexiglas window that separates us from him. He grips the phone on his side, not allowed to put it down during the long visits, and places his other hand against the glass. We place our hands over his on our side. I pretend I feel the glass get warmer. A large steel door is locked behind us. We cannot hug my dad. We cannot touch him. We cannot smell him. He is there for three years.

2010. I am 14 and starting to have trouble sleeping at night. They say they’ve moved my father. We think it’s closer to Detroit but it is further away, to another CMU in Marion, Illinois. The rules are the same but the visiting is a lot worse. We are led into the building with other families, other children. But then we are separated. We pass inmates with swastika tattoos; we pass men with their families sitting in chairs right next to them, holding their hands, sitting in their laps. We are led into a room with a Plexiglas window. It is dirty with smudges. We clean the glass with wet tissues. We leave our handprints on the glass at the end of the visit.

The steel door is left open but the noise of the dozens of visitors outside makes it difficult to hear anything, even with the sticky black telephone pressed to one ear and a hand over the other. We can’t breathe if we close the door. We can’t breathe anyway. My father spends another three years there.

I am 11, 12, 13, 14. I am 15, 16, 17 and I am not allowed to breathe the same air in the same room as him without Plexiglas between us. We ask them on holidays for just a quick hug with our father and they say it’s a security issue.

2014. I am 18. My father is moved to general population where we finally get to have contact visits. I hug him for the first time in six years and can’t stop shaking. We are still surrounded by cameras and keys and guards and metal bars. My father is still innocent.

My little sister looks like she might cry so I buy a box of raisins and stick them in my teeth. She laughs, even some guards laugh. Everyone laughs but I just want to scream.

2017 and I’m 21. My father is released into a halfway house and then sent home after serving almost 13 years for a crime he did not commit. He is given 20 years' probation and not allowed to leave the Eastern District of Michigan. He spends months looking for work. Most places won’t hire a convict. Everything is upside down and we all say sorry too much.

But the State of Michigan Board of Professional Engineers unanimously votes to renew my father’s engineering licence, rejecting his conviction. He is now working for a prominent Michigan construction company.

2018. I am 22. I still hear the guard’s keys, still smell the metal. I still feel the Plexiglas against the palms of my hands. None of us ever left prison but they will never break us.


  • 13 December 2018 at 1:03pm
    Stu Bry says:
    That's a terribly sad story. Your father sounds like a good man who showed incredible character during his ordeal. You will always be traumatised by this but at least your family is back together.

    This story is also a reminder of the pre Trump nature of the USA. Nothing has changed and men like the Bushes, Comey and Mueller who personally oversaw this kind of barbarity should not be valorized.

  • 17 December 2018 at 5:38pm
    Camus says:
    In the Guardian recently there was a report on the inmate who has been in Guantanamo south the longest period of time. He has never been tried, let alone sentenced. A regime that incarcerates small children for crossing the
    border and then forgets where they have sent the parents is capable of many other monstrosities, including exonerating the murderers of a reporter trapped into entering his country‘s embassy in Turkey. Time for the Europeans to step up and condemn the USA for its crimes against humanity.

  • 18 December 2018 at 7:05pm
    Jan Lewis says:
    Thanks for sharing your experience, Sara, and for exposing in such a moving way the injustice of your father's imprisonment and its profound impact on your family. Thanks to you I have learned about the work of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. May you all go from strength to strength in your determination not to be broken, and in the work of supporting the many families in similar situations.

  • 18 December 2018 at 7:54pm
    Hotch46 says:
    This article is remarkably devoid of specifics for the reader to make a judgement about the actions of your father. Was he a criminal or was he a victim of an unjust prosecution? The first paragraph describes actions that would be considered providing material aid to a terrorist organizations if not done very carefully. It is widely known that terrorist groups use charities to raise money and equipment. Both Chechnya and Bosnia have severe problems with radical Islamic terrorism. Based on the information in this article, there is no evidence that your father was unjustly prosecuted. It sounds like he had the option to cooperate with the Government but refused. To suggest that this happened because of prejudice against Muslims is also not based on any evidence. I suspect justice was well served.

    • 19 December 2018 at 9:26am
      Cleombrotus says: @ Hotch46
      My thoughts exactly as I read the article. Why, if the original sentence was three years, was he incarcerated longer? The article does not include that bit of information and if it was unjustly administered, one would think it would be included as more evidence of the injustice of the American legal system, particularly towards Muslims, as the author seems intent to portray.

      Its absence is telling.

  • 18 December 2018 at 11:36pm
    Chrisdf says:
    The curiously vengeful nature of US justice, and of the Americans who cheer on its most pitiless applications, seems to have been turned up to eleven under the current regime.

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