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Custody fight stretches from Kansas to the Mideast

By DAWN BORMANN
The Kansas City Star

After taking his three children to Gaza earlier this year, a former Overland Park man now faces federal charges in a custody dispute that reaches across the globe.

Ahmed Abuhamda, 40, allegedly told his ex-wife that he would be gone for three weeks to attend a family wedding when he left Kansas on Feb. 22.

The couple’s divorce orders allow Abuhamda to relocate overseas with the children but only if the mother, Bethany Gonzales, signs off. The mother agreed only to a visit, the criminal complaint said.

Gonzales, 32, of Overland Park, said she has contacted U.S. officials and done everything possible to get her children back but acknowledges that she’s at the mercy of Gaza officials who aren’t likely to take notice of her predicament.

“He thinks he’s untouchable at this point,” Gonzales said of her ex-husband.

Abuhamda could not be reached in Gaza for comment. However, he told The Associated Press he has done nothing wrong.

Abuhamda is charged in Johnson County with three counts of aggravated interference with parental custody. In addition he was charged in federal court last week for leaving the U.S. in an attempt to avoid prosecution on the custody charges.

Before the trip, Abuhamda told her that his sister’s wedding was coming up in Gaza, Gonzales said.

“And his aunt was sick and she was on her deathbed basically,” said Gonzales, who is remarried and has a 3-month-old child.

She was skeptical of the plan, but felt reassured after requesting and receiving a detailed itinerary that included return flight plans for Jahad, 13; Edhem, 10; and Jannah, who turned 9 while overseas.

But after they left, three weeks came and went, and then Gonzales said Abuhamda sent her a text confirming her worst fears:

“Hey Bethany, I want to let you know that me and kids are going to stay here and I enrolled the kids in school here. Also I will pay for your ticket to come and visit the kids as in the court agreement.”

By then Gonzales had already learned her ex-husband had cleared out his apartment and appeared to have left for good.

Gonzales said the children left their belongings at school and dirty clothes at her house.

Abuhamda disputes her claim and told the Associated Press that his wife knew the children were moving to Gaza.

“I didn’t kidnap the kids, and the kids know that we are going to live overseas,” he told the AP.

Abuhamda requested the children’s records be sent to the American Palestinian School, according to federal court records.

The couple had joint custody with primary residence at their father’s home. Gonzales said they spent about three days a week with her.

Now she speaks to them daily by phone.

“We talk about school,” she said. “We talk about what they did. We talk about what the baby is doing.”

Gonzales said she worries constantly about their safety and their state of mind. She and her ex-husband lived in Gaza for about five years, in the same building where he is staying now with family members. A missile attack blew out their apartment windows years ago, she said.

Abuhamda’s brother, Maher Abuhamda of Kansas City, Kan., said he was contacted by an FBI agent about the case.

Maher Abuhamda said he has spoken with the children by phone and they are happy in a “family atmosphere” surrounded by cousins and extended family.

“They do not want to come back,” he said. “They like it there. That’s one of the reasons he wants to stay there, I think.”

Maher Abuhamda said his brother has offered to buy her a plane ticket or “free vacation” every year to see the children.

He also offered another side to the story saying Gonzales tried to move the children to Chicago not long ago.

Gonzales said she moved to Chicago in September 2010 because of her husband’s job. She fought to take the kids with her, but her ex-husband refused. She moved back in September 2011.

“I saw that my ex-husband wasn’t going to budge and he wasn’t going to let them come and stay there in Chicago,” she said. “I just decided that I’m going home. I’m going to be with my kids.”

Gonzales said she believes the children are being controlled just as she was during her marriage. They married when she was 16.

She blames herself for not confirming the ticket information that Abuhamda sent her before the trip. She let her guard down, she said, because they had been getting along.

“We had our little tiffs but overall everything seemed fine,” she said.

Three weeks before the trip her ex-husband brought the kids to the hospital to visit her she gave birth.

“And he brought me flowers,” she said.

The Associated Press said the U.S. arrest warrant can be registered with Interpol, but Gaza does not have to honor it. Gonzales could appeal diplomatically to Hamas leaders and try to put political pressure on authorities there, but there’s little guarantee they would listen.

The Hague Convention, an international treaty that provides for the return of wrongfully removed or retained children, includes only one Muslim nation, Turkey, said Andrew Zashin, an international family law attorney from Cleveland, Ohio, who is not involved in the case.

Family law in Gaza, like in most Arab countries, is based on Sharia Islamic law, according to The Associated Press. It awards legal guardianship of the child to the father while granting physical custody for rearing the child to the mother until a boy reaches age 9 and a girl reaches age 12, although some countries have now extended that to age 15 regardless of gender. However, a mother would not be able to leave the country with her children without the father’s permission.

‘It is a very tragic situation,” Abed Awad, an expert on Islamic Sharia law and adjunct law professor at Rutgers University Law School in New Jersey told The Associated Press. “She faces substantial hurdles to secure the return of her children.”

To reach Dawn Bormann, call 816-234-7704 or send email to dbormann@kcstar.com

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