Yesterday, on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, I received an email from my father saying that the photos affixed to the walls of his prison cell were ripped down and called “contraband” by the officer who took them.
My father is a political prisoner, convicted of terrorism charges in the vacuum of post-9/11 hysteria and incarcerated at a federal prison in southern Illinois–all under allegations stemming from his indisputable philanthropic work.
Until recently, the walls of my father’s 9-by-5-foot cell were covered with eleven photos of children from all over the world–children who were injured or killed during recent political events. My father wrote my family, heartbroken, to say that even though he had collected these images from The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and other publications, they were still seized–with no notice.
My father, Ghassan Elashi, is currently serving a 65-year-prison-sentence at the Communications Management Unit in Marion, Illinois for conspiracy to send Material Support in the form of humanitarian aid to charities in the West Bank and Gaza that prosecutors claimed were associated with designated terrorists; our biggest defense thus far (and the reason my father may be vindicated in due time) is that his charity, the Holy Land Foundation, used the same exact Palestinian charities that our own government agency –the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)–used to distribute its aid.
In his note, my father described the eleven photographs to me, images that we may have all seen during one time or another, images that we often glance away from because they are so hard to look at. My father brought back each photo to life in the order that he remembered it:
Image one. Afghan children, wrapped in colorful clothing, lay in rubble after their village was bombarded. According to news reports, they suffocated to death along with their mothers while attempting to seek shelter.
Image two. A young girl in Yemen stands on the street with a paintbrush in her hand. Behind her is a street graffiti drawing of a massive drone and a statement that reads, “Why did you kill my family.”
Image three. A Syrian toddler pulls away from the camera after being rescued from a building where his family once resided. The building was destroyed by a barrel bomb. The child, masked in dust, tightly hugs the man who rescued him.
Image four. Two preschool-aged brothers, also from Syria, sit on a bench with wounds on their faces. Inside a makeshift clinic in the war-torn town of Homs, the older boy cries while the younger one–despite his inability to comprehend his reality–attempts to console his brother.
Image five. Nearly 200 Uighur refugees occupy an asylum camp in the forests of southern Thailand. The camp, surrounded by a razor-wire fence and guarded by a local army unit, was created to help women and children flee oppression in China and immigrate to Turkey.
Image six. Two Palestinian children are captured at a Gaza beach a few weeks ago. One was running away from the shore and the other one’s body was strewn on the sand after being shot by an Israeli naval ship.
Image seven. Also captured recently, teary-eyed children from Gaza are crammed in the back of a truck after being displaced from their homes.
Image eight. A Palestinian child sits on a hospital bed, with his face burned and covered in white powder. He is weeping as he looks up at his mother who is beside him and also covered in white powder.
Image nine. A group of children from Myanmar (Burma) stand in a concentration camp, where they have been imprisoned for two years.
Image ten. A young man is injured on the streets of Egypt as a bulldozer moves towards him. A woman is yelling nearby, presumably pleading with the driver and pointing at the injured youth.
Image eleven. A Palestinian boy climbs the separation wall between Bethlehem and a Jewish settlement. The boy appears hesitant near the top, as he risks being shot by the guards in the towers.
These images covered my father’s prison cell walls until last Wednesday. After being away from his cell all morning, my father returned to his room to change into his exercise clothes. When he entered, he was shocked to find that all eleven pictures that he had carefully collected during the past two years were not on his walls anymore. When he learned that it was the prison guards who had confiscated the images, my father asked them to return them.
That is when a guard told him they are “contraband.”
“But they were newspaper clippings,” my father said. Still, the guard only repeated his claim, saying that it was too late anyways; he had already shredded them.
To my father, these images were more than just anonymous faces of damage and pain. He had photocopied each image while reading the news, he had plastered them on his wall, and as months passed, every child and mother became familiar to him. They became part of his confined space, characters from his abstract community –and a loud reminder that there were still so many people in the world in need of urgent help.
At the end of his email, my father told me that he wished he’d made two copies of each photo instead of one. It’s too late now, he admitted, but he reassured me that he will never forget their faces. The prison guard may have shredded the physical prints, but my father insists he could still see them and that they will forever remain imprinted in his heart. As I share his careful descriptions of them, I honor the people in these images for the world to remember.
Through my father’s story, I honor him. I bring back to light his unjust imprisonment, which has only grown more punitive 13 years after 9/11. This fallout has lead to a seemingly endless incarceration of my father who–in addition to remaining behind bars for his global humanitarian work–has to deal with his pictorial account being confiscated as contraband.
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