This story was corrected Nov. 15 to reflect that Heidi Sides and Mohammad Alsaleh met on the Internet in the late 1990s.
HARTLAND, Maine — A family with roots running generations deep in this Somerset County town is embroiled in a child custody dispute that stretches to the Middle Eastern country of Jordan. Maine’s two U.S. senators, as well as the State Department and Jordanian police, have joined the search for a man who is in hiding there with his 8-year-old Skowhegan-born son.
While some members of the Sides family are in Jordan struggling to reunite three young children — particularly 8-year-old Ahmed Alsaleh, whose whereabouts are unknown — with their mother and grandparents, others on the home front are rallying to correct a family crisis that they say would be hard to believe if they weren’t living it.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Shirley Gould of Hartland, the great-grandmother of the three children at the center of the dispute. “We’re just praying to God that there’s some way my granddaughter can get her son and come home.”
In the late 1990s, Heidi Sides of Hartland met a Jordanian named Mohammad Alsaleh over the Internet. Alsaleh moved to Maine, landed a job at Cianbro Corp. in Pittsfield and married Sides. In 2001, Heidi gave birth to a son, Ahmed, in Skowhegan. The couple’s two daughters, Manar, now age 5, and Sarah, 4, were born in Maryland after Mohammad’s job was transferred there.
At first, the young family was happy and Mohammad seemed to be a good father, said Gould.
“Everybody liked him, and he seemed to be awful nice,” she said. “When he got to Maryland, he changed.”
Greg Sides of Hartland, Heidi’s brother, agreed.
“Ever since I’ve known him, which is about 10 years, he was always a decent guy,” said Sides. “It seemed that it was his dream or his goal to be in the United States.”
But the Alsalehs’ marriage deteriorated, and they separated in 2009, agreeing informally to alternate custody of the children. On May 24, 2009, according to a recent statement written by Heidi Sides Alsaleh to her supporters in Maine, Mohammad took the children and fled to Jordan.
“Heidi was at work when she got a text on her phone,” said Gould of her granddaughter. “He said he was in Jordan with the children and wasn’t going to bring them home.”
Heidi and her parents, Dean and Geneva Sides of Hartland, went to Jordan in September 2009 hoping to reunite with the children and possibly bring them back to the United States. Heidi Sides, who hasn’t left Jordan since then, agreed to move in with her husband so she could be with her children.
“Life without them was a living hell,” she wrote in the statement. “[Moving in with him] was the only way he would allow me to see my children. I endured physical, mental and emotional abuse but dealt with it as best I could. I could not leave my children.”
But in September of this year, Heidi decided to extract her children from a situation she knew was doing them no good. As Mohammad and watchful neighbors slept, she fled at 2:30 a.m. one day. The U.S. Embassy in Amman transferred her and the children to the Family Protection Department of the Jordanian police. They lived in a safe house for more than five weeks.
Last month, Heidi’s parents returned to Jordan and rented an apartment for her and the children — a move that quickly turned out to be disastrous.
“My husband and his family agreed in writing not to interfere with this arrangement,” Heidi said during a telephone interview Wednesday. She said Mohammad, under the pretense that he wanted to see if the new apartment was fit for his children, arranged for family members to meet him there, speaking to them in Arabic over a cell phone. Ahmed and Heidi’s father were with Mohammad in one taxi; Heidi, her mother and the girls were in another.
“Halfway there my son started crying because he understood what his father was saying,” said Heidi. “He heard what his father was planning.”
Ahmed tried to run when the taxi arrived, but he’d never been to the new apartment and didn’t know where to go. Mohammad’s brother grabbed him and forced the kicking and screaming boy into a car, said Heidi. Mohammad would have taken the girls as well, according to Heidi, but they had already gone inside after arriving in the first taxi.
“When I tried to stop them, they very nearly ran me down,” said Heidi. “I still don’t know where my son is.”
According to the Sides family, Mohammad is in hiding despite a Jordanian arrest warrant in his name. Heidi, her parents and the girls live barricaded in their apartment, fearing that Mohammad or his family members will return.
“We slide a couch in front of the door just to be sure,” said Heidi. “Just in case.”
Ahmed will turn 9 years old on Sunday, observing his birthday for the second year in a row without his mother or sisters. Aside from their longing for him, the Sides family is worried about the conditions the boy may be living in, given that his father is unemployed and hiding from authorities.
“My bet is that Ahmed is not going to school,” said Heidi. “He’s seen the actions his father has taken, and he’s probably feeling pretty alone. I’m sure he’s very scared.”
Attempts to reach Mohammad Alsaleh were unsuccessful.
Even if Mohammed and Ahmed are found, Jordanian custody laws make Heidi and the children’s return to the United States difficult.
“I would have custody of the children, but he would have the right to see them,” said Heidi. “As long as he wants that right, I can’t leave the country with the kids.”
Heidi said she will stay with her children at any cost and that as a physical therapist, she can support herself in Jordan if she has to. Her brother, Greg Sides, said he’s convinced Heidi means what she says.
“Ultimately, she’s going to do what she needs to do to be with the kids,” he said. “She’s made that quite apparent. She’s already been in Jordan for more than a year.”
Sides, a Pittsfield police officer who has his own family, is overseeing his parents’ finances while they are in Jordan and serving as the point person for growing support in the community. Last weekend, a spaghetti supper and auction in Hartland netted more than $11,000, which will help pay a range of expenses, including the rent on the apartment in Amman. Still, Greg Sides said maintaining hope has become a daily struggle.
“There’s just an overwhelming sense of my inability to help,” he said. “I’m sitting here in Hartland. I can’t do anything to help them.”
Dean and Geneva Sides have drained their savings and mortgaged their home to pay for trips to Jordan and the apartment. Geneva Sides has abandoned her job training nurses at Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield and Dean Sides, a self-employed builder, has mothballed his business. Ella Buker, a longtime family friend, is one of several people soliciting support. Their efforts were buoyed by more than 300 people who attended last weekend’s fundraiser.
“It was unbelievable,” she said. “Five minutes before the auction, we were still taking items. People were dropping 50- and 100-dollar-bills and saying, ‘Keep the change.’”
Sadly, said Buker, the situation has the potential to disrupt the Sides family indefinitely. “Geneva has told me that she will never leave her daughter and grandchildren in Jordan,” she said.
Dean Sides, who returned home Friday to take care of some business matters, said he’ll return to Jordan in about two weeks for a court hearing regarding his daughter’s divorce.
“I’m going to try to get back to Jordan before that,” he said. “Right now, the biggest thing is to try to keep pressure on our government, to make sure they’re pressuring the Jordanian government.”
Greg Sides said in addition to collecting donations, he also is encouraging well-wishers to contact members of Maine’s congressional delegation.
“The American Embassy in Jordan seems quite interested now,” he said. “They’ve actually got Mohammad’s picture in most of the law enforcement offices over there. It sounds like it’s similar to an arrest warrant here.”
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told the Bangor Daily News that her contacts at the U.S. Embassy in Amman have confirmed their involvement in the Alsaleh family’s case.
“My office will continue to monitor this situation and, as with every case brought forward by my constituents, offer whatever assistance and resources at our disposal to assist with the situation,” Snowe said in a prepared statement.
Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said at the family’s request the senator has contacted the State Department Office of Abducted Children at the U.S. Embassy in Amman.
“Officials at the U.S. Embassy have assured our office that the case of the Alsaleh children is of highest importance to them,” Kelley said in a prepared statement.
Meanwhile, the Alsaleh girls have shown signs of improvement. While living with Mohammad and later in the safe house, 4-year-old Sarah was wetting the bed almost every night. Since moving into the apartment with her mother and grandparents more than a month ago, she’s wet the bed only once. That tells Heidi a lot.
“It tells me the situation she was in was very stressful,” said Heidi, her voice trembling with despair. “Though we never argued in front of the children, it must have been obvious to her that it wasn’t a loving relationship. She’s very sensitive to my emotions.”
Checks in support of the Sides family’s efforts should be made out to Dean Sides and mailed to Greg Sides, 196 Huff Hill Road, Hartland, ME 04943.