Yvonne Abraham

Custody case shows limits of US power

Behold, the limits of American power.

Colin Bower sits in a Beacon Hill conference room, laying out the gut-wrenching details yet again. How many times has he told this story? To friends and relatives, to police officers and FBI agents, to congressmen, diplomats, TV reporters.

In 2009, his ex-wife kidnapped his two American sons and fled to Egypt. And the mightiest nation on the planet can’t get them back.


The divorce was beyond ugly. A Massachusetts family court judge found that Colin’s wife, Mirvat, was abusing drugs, and in denial about her addiction — and the effect it was having on the couple’s children: Noor, then 7, and Ramsay, then 5. The judge called Mirvat “extraordinarily manipulative and untruthful” and said she’d made false allegations of domestic and child-abuse against Colin.

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In 2008, the judge awarded Colin sole legal custody and called Mirvat a flight risk. The mother could have the boys two days a week, but wasn’t allowed to drive them anywhere.

Nine months later, Colin went to her home to pick up the boys and they were gone.

Mirvat had gotten them Egyptian passports. She bought one-way tickets to Cairo, with cash, at an Egypt Air counter. She was able to do this even though the names on the kids’ passports, different from hers, were spelled incorrectly. So many warning signs missed or ignored.

Egyptian courts granted her custody of the boys. Colin sued there and won visitation rights. But Mirvat wouldn’t comply. Colin flew all the way to Cairo for six-hour visits. “I’d sit on a bench, with two bags of gifts,” he says, wiping tears from his eyes. “You look around and hear someone that sounds like them, or looks like them. . . . After two or three hours, it dawns on you they’re not going to show up.”


He has gone to Cairo 12 times for visits ordered by the courts or brokered by government officials. He has seen Noor, now 12, and Ramsay, 10, only four of those times. Escorted by their relatives and armed guards, the boys seemed afraid to speak freely.

But the last visit, in January 2012, was the best. “They made eye contact,” Colin says. “They wanted to touch me.”

He hasn’t seen them since. Mirvat has ignored efforts at contact by American officials, and no one in Egypt seems inclined to compel her to act humanely.

While he was a Massachusetts senator, John Kerry fought hard to move the case, getting into a heated argument with then-President Hosni Mubarak. Colin says Mubarak wasn’t interested in helping: Mirvat’s wealthy family had connections with his government.

If current President Mohamed Morsi is more sympathetic, he hasn’t shown it publicly. His Islamist government — vital to American interests in the region — is probably loath to return two children being raised by a Muslim mother to an American father in a secular country, says former congressman Barney Frank, who sponsored a December resolution demanding the children's return.


Forty-eight American children have been wrongfully removed to Egypt, according to the resolution. Their lives, and those of the people who love them, have been ripped apart. How dispiriting that nobody, even at the highest levels of our government, has been able to stitch them back together.

Now that Kerry is secretary of state, Colin hopes Egyptian authorities will budge. Meanwhile, every day takes his children further away, their memories of him fading.

Colin believes the boys are afraid to reach out. So he communicates the only way he can, by posting updates to a Facebook page:

It is beautiful in Boston today. I watched the sun rise and thought for a moment you were watching the same star . . . God bless you both . . . And, know your father loves and misses you.

He hears nothing back, has no sense of who his sons are becoming. But he prays his messages will do what his country has not — find two sweet-faced boys 5,000 miles away.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at