Maine family in Jordan released from safe house

Posted March 22, 2011, at 2:27 p.m.
Last modified March 23, 2011, at 12:47 a.m.

Three children and their mother from central Maine who have been confined to a safe house in Jordan for most of the past six months were released Monday after a Jordanian court settled a custody dispute that has been simmering since 2009.

Heidi Sides Alsaleh, a Hartland native, and her children, Ahmed, Manar and Sarah, moved into their own apartment in the capital, Amman, on Monday after the court hearing. Heidi and her husband, Mohammad Alsaleh, will share custody of the children, with Heidi having them five days a week and Mohammad the other two.

“This was a big step to get us out of the safe house,” said Heidi during a telephone interview Tuesday with the Bangor Daily News. “Having a custody agreement is a big relief. I’m happy to get the kids out so they can start back with a normal life.”

By any standards, the Alsaleh family has been embroiled in conflict for the past two years.

Heidi and Mohammad met in the late 1990s over the Internet and Mohammad moved to the United States and married her. They had three children together. By 2009, their marriage had deteriorated to the point that Heidi was contemplating divorce. In May 2009, while the family was living in Maryland, Mohammad took the children to Jordan without Heidi’s knowledge. Heidi joined them in September 2009, but it didn’t last. In September of last year, fed up with what she saw as a failing marriage, she fled to the U.S. Embassy in Amman, which placed her and the children in a safe house. Jordanian law would not allow Heidi to leave Jordan with the children — and still won’t.

In October of last year, Heidi and the children were released to their own apartment. Mohammad accompanied his family there but when they arrived he took Ahmed, who was 8 at the time, by force, according to accounts of the situation from both Mohammad and Heidi. Mohammad and Ahmed were in hiding until late November, when he returned the boy to his mother on the condition that she and the three children be kept in a safe house. Heidi and the children were not allowed to leave until Monday, when a judge authorized the custody agreement.

As part of the arrangement, both Mohammad and Heidi have secured guarantors, people who have agreed to be jailed if either parent tries to leave Jordan with the children or violates the custody agreement. Heidi is due to turn the children over to Mohammad on Thursdays and he is to return them to her on Saturdays.

“From what I saw of Mohammad at the court yesterday, he wasn’t very happy about this agreement,” Heidi said Tuesday. “It’s very nerve-wracking.”

Mohammad could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Heidi’s parents, Dean and Geneva Sides, have supported their daughter through the ordeal, both financially and by having at least one of them in Jordan at all times. Geneva said Monday that she will remain in Maine, where she works per diem as a nurse at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Waterville, until May. At that point she and Dean will switch places so Dean, a builder, can work.

“It’s all been very traumatic for everybody, especially the kids,” said Geneva. “We’re just so glad that she and the kids are out of the safe house.”

As if the situation weren’t stressful enough, the Sides family also has had to worry about growing unrest in Middle Eastern countries, including some demonstrations in Jordan.

“There were some peaceful demonstrations,” said Geneva. “A taxi driver there who has become a friend told us we just shouldn’t go into the city during the demonstrations.”

Heidi said she will stay in Jordan with her children as long as she is legally bound to do so. She is exploring the possibility of working there as a physical therapist.

“It’s not what I want, but I have to do things by the law,” she said. “If the law will not allow me to take my kids to the United States, then I will have to be here indefinitely.”

Heidi said she was busy Tuesday trying to enroll Ahmed in school in hopes that he can make enough progress in the next few months to attend the fourth grade next year. All three children spent the day playing outside, which they were not allowed to do very often at the safe house. Dean Sides and Ahmed were at a local market Tuesday afternoon buying fresh strawberries, said Heidi.

“Tonight we’ll probably just eat them out of the box, but tomorrow maybe we’ll have strawberry pancakes,” she said. “Right now, I’m just trying to enjoy today.”

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