‘I can’t abandon him. He’s my son’: A mom spends months in Algeria searching for her child
On a hot Sunday morning in July, Jerusha Hall walked her 3-year-old son, Aksil, outside their Salem home to meet his father, who was more than an hour late picking him up. Aksil was unhappy. He never liked what they called “the handoff” and wouldn’t take the bag she had packed with his swimsuit and water toys.
Malik Benhamza didn’t say what he had planned for the day, but Hall offered to let him bring Aksil home a little later than usual since he had gotten a slow start. He could drop him off at 6:30 p.m., but no later.
As they climbed into Benhamza’s silver Hyundai, Aksil looked back sadly at his mother as he waved goodbye.
Six-thirty came and went, but Hall, 44, wasn’t too worried. Benhamza, her ex-husband who was allowed to see Aksil three days a week, texted that he was having car trouble.
But as the hours passed with no sign of him, her fear grew. Around 9:30 p.m, he texted that his phone was dying. She called the police. They went to his East Boston apartment, but no one was home.
The next day, police traced Benhamza’s cellphone to JFK International Airport in New York. Officers showed up at Hall’s door, sat her down, and broke the news: Her ex-husband, a native of Algeria, had boarded a flight to his homeland with their son. Despite a court order barring either parent from traveling out-of-state with Aksil without the other’s permission, Benhamza had obtained an Algerian passport for the boy at the Algerian Consulate in New York and left the country.
The FBI launched an investigation, and the US attorney’s office in Boston charged Benhamza, 33, with international kidnapping.
Six months later, Hall hasn’t seen or heard from her son. She has run into dead end after dead end here, and confronted studiously unresponsive officials in Algeria where she has spent months trying to rally support for her cause and persuade someone, anyone, of influence to connect her again with Aksil.
The absence of a sense of urgency about the case is baffling to her: Why would anyone run cover for a kidnapper? And when she thinks of her boy, she can’t help but imagine the worst — that he is hurting and thinks she doesn’t care.
“He was taken from everything he has ever known, without a single thing of comfort, not a stuffed animal, not anything, and for all my son knows I abandoned him,” Hall said during a Skype interview from Algeria. “I just need to see my son. He needs to know I have not left him.”
It’s terrifying not knowing where Aksil is living and whether he is OK, she said. She has been unable to see him, hold him, comfort him, or even talk to him since her ex-husband took him away on July 1. She missed his fourth birthday.
Hall’s lawyer, Michael K. Loucks, a former acting US attorney for Massachusetts who has taken the case pro bono, said it would be “a simple thing” for Algerian and US officials to allow a meeting between Hall and her son. But it hasn’t happened. Diplomatic officials in both countries appear sympathetic to her plight, but Loucks said there’s been no urgency and little action.
“It would be so simple to have a meeting in a police station, and no one is helping to make that happen,” Hall said. “Nobody.”
Between 2008 and 2017, 11,000 children were abducted internationally from the United States, according to the State Department. Many never come home.
In 2017, the State Department opened 345 international kidnapping cases and fielded more than 3,500 inquiries about how to prevent international parental child abduction, a nearly 40 percent increase from the year before.
Aksil’s case is a particularly difficult one. Algeria is not a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, an international treaty designed to foster cooperation between governments in returning kidnapped children to their home countries.
With that treaty not in play, the US Justice Department, at Loucks’s urging, formally asked the Algerian government for its assistance last month under a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, which the countries signed two years ago to help with criminal investigations.
The pact was enacted primarily to support terrorism investigations, but Loucks said he hoped it could be invoked to help reunite mother and son.
The process has been painstaking, glacial. Algerian authorities arranged a meeting on Dec. 17 between a US consular officer and Aksil, described by authorities as a “wellness check.” But they denied the consular official’s request to let Hall speak to her son on the phone during the meeting because Benhamza refused to allow it.
“It’s completely mystifying to me why Algeria would allow the father to veto the child speaking with Jerusha after kidnapping him,” said Loucks, who is also critical of US government officials for not intervening more aggressively. “It’s almost like she’s being treated as the suspect.”
The two began dating in the summer of 2013 when Benhamza, who was born in Algeria and raised in France, was living and working at Hall’s parents’ home in Beverly along with other international travelers, according to court records.
He had returned to France when Hall, an architect born and raised in Massachusetts, discovered she was pregnant. She considered what her son would want and decided he deserved to know and love his father.
Benhamza told her he wanted to be involved in his son’s life, and he returned to the United States. The couple married in 2015, but the marriage soon broke down. They filed for divorce the following year.
In August 2017, Benhamza was charged with reckless endangerment after leaving Aksil alone for about 30 minutes in a hot car while he went grocery shopping in Chelsea, according to court filings.
The charge was dismissed after Benhamza attended parenting classes, but the incident hurt his efforts to win shared custody of Aksil. In February, Essex Probate Judge Frances Giordano said that Benhamza’s “poor judgment” raised concerns and awarded Hall sole custody of the boy. At the same time, the judge found it was an isolated incident by a loving parent and granted Benhamza unsupervised visits with his son.
Both parents were ordered to surrender their passports and told not to leave the state with Aksil unless one parent notified the other in advance and provided a detailed itinerary. Benhamza, who holds dual citizenship in France and Algeria, turned in his French passport, saying it was his only one, according to Hall.
Benhamza was angry with the custody arrangement and felt wronged, according to Hall.
The FBI later discovered Benhamza had obtained Algerian passports for himself and Aksil at the Algerian Consulate General in New York City. The consulate declined to comment. But information provided on its website indicates that the children of Algerian men are considered citizens of that country, even if they were born in the United States.
Patricia Apy, a New Jersey attorney who specializes in international family law and has served as a consultant to the State Department, said Aksil’s abduction could likely have been prevented if his name had been placed on the “Do Not Depart List,” a registry created as part of a federal law designed to limit child abductions.
Under the law, judges handling custody cases can issue an order prohibiting a parent from leaving the country with a child and ask that the child’s name be placed on the list.
If a parent tries to board an international flight with a child who is on the list, the Transportation Security Administration receives an alert while scanning the child’s passport and prevents them from boarding.
The list is a powerful tool but is “tremendously underutilized” because most people aren’t aware of it, according to Apy, who worked on the 2014 legislation with New Jersey Representative Chris Smith.
“In a case like this, you are playing catchup because once that child is gone, you are in a position of trying to get enforcement of existing orders in a foreign country,” Apy said.
The 2014 law allows the secretary of state to seek sanctions against countries that don’t cooperate in the return of abducted children, including the withdrawal of US development, security, or economic support assistance; the delay or cancellation of state visits; and the extradition of parents charged with kidnapping.
“To my knowledge, extradition has been used once and the other options not at all,” Smith said. “That’s got to change.”
She has been living at a women’s shelter in the capital, Algiers, sharing a dormitory style apartment building with six other women, some of whom are escaping abusive relationships.
There’s no hot water or laundry facilities, but Hall considers it a sanctuary.
The women are supportive, sympathetic, and kind.
Hall, who had never been to Algeria, is taking courses to learn French and the local dialect. She tries to stay busy by volunteering at a local school. She e-mails people who might be able to help, and tries to build relationships with local officials and diplomats. She visits the US Consulate regularly and even joined a choir so she could sing at an embassy Christmas party and maybe chat up some of the guests.
In late September, Algerian authorities told the US State Department they had located Aksil in Oran, a coastal city in northwest Algeria, Loucks said.
Hall is desperate to see him but has been advised against going there. She doesn’t want to do anything to upset Algerian authorities or make Benhamza flee again, and traveling in Algeria can be dangerous.
In November, Hall went to France to meet for the first time with Benhamza’s parents at their home in Marseille. Through a translator, she told them, “My goal is not to hurt Malik or anything, I just want to see my son.”
Benhamza’s mother told her she had spoken to her son by telephone but had no influence over him. She was sympathetic and told Hall to try to work it out with Benhamza, but she wouldn’t share his address or telephone number.
Hall hired a lawyer in Algeria, but said her efforts to begin legal proceedings seeking custody or visitation of her son can’t move forward because authorities won’t disclose Benhamza’s address.
“Right now, I can’t officially request a visit with my son because I have no legal standing here,” she said. “It’s like I don’t exist.”
In Boston, Loucks, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, is working with a team of associates to help Hall navigate a seemingly impenetrable legal system half a world away.
Loucks has written Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and Representative Seth Moulton, describing Hall’s plight and pleading for help.
Each declined to discuss the case but said in statements they were concerned about the situation and were working on her behalf.
On Christmas Eve, Hall flew back to the United States. She plans to rent out her Salem duplex then return to Algeria in about a month. She hopes to support herself with her rental income and a job if she’s allowed to work overseas. She said she’ll stay as long as it takes to get her son back in her life.
“If I have to stay here forever, that’s what I’m going to do,” Hall said during a Skype interview from Algiers last month. “If I have to stay here and raise him in Algeria, that’s what I’m going to do. I can’t abandon him. He’s my son.”