West Michigan students banned abroad

Posted at 4:57 PM, Sep 02, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-02 18:06:29-04

AMMAN, Jordan - “So, the man did not believe what we were saying and said, ‘Dave, you’re denied entry and I’m giving you a 10-year ban for lying.’”

Emily Clark and David Leestma were traveling from west Michigan to the Middle East to study Arabic.

They planned to travel to Palestine through Israel, but that’s where they were banned from stepping foot onto the soil of one of America’s strongest allies.

It’s not an entirely uncommon occurrence; a simple Google search yields dozens of results.

The couple arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel on Aug. 23.

Minutes after touching down, their trip turned to turmoil.

“All the Israelis were going through,” said Clark. “We were in a foreign line. We showed her our passports; she asked us where we were going. We said we were going to Nablus in the West Bank to study Arabic at An-Najah (National) University.”

A red flag was raised and the pair was sent to a waiting room where they sat waiting to be questioned.

It was a process Emily described as ‘easy and fast.’

“They asked my profession was, my address in the states; she asked also if we had a return flight, which we didn’t because we were there for a year. They did not like that.”

For Dave, the questioning was more interrogation, lasting about an hour.

“Most of the interrogation was just, ‘why are you here?’” Leestma explained. “I had a letter from Grand Valley State. Some of the other questions they asked me were, like, if I was a Christian, if I was a practicing Christian, if I had ever thought about converting. I was actually quite terrified because I knew the next year and a half of my life was on the line. It was pretty scary.”

The Israeli officials even demanded Dave log into his personal email account so they could search for any time Israel was mentioned.

“I’m almost certain that they were looking to see if I was part of like, a group that protests,” said Leestma.

Dissatisfied with the answers they were getting, the Israeli officials called in Leestma for further questioning, which took place about an hour later. This time, they demanded to know why he did not have a letter from a university explaining why he intended to visit Palestine.

“He had already given it to the people who questioned him and it was nowhere to be found,” said Clark. “They did not pass it along.”

It was at this point the couple was transferred to a detention facility where they would spend the night.

“It was a regular room,” explained Clark. “The difference is that the door did not have a handle to get out. We had no way to get out. The windows had double bars on them. The bathroom didn’t have a door. That was kind of jail-ish I thought. They gave women feminine supplies, just one. And I was given a toothbrush that was clearly used. None of the beds had fresh sheets.”

The next day, the couple was told they would be going back to Toronto, but with no answers about why they were turned away.

“I think something we’re really taking away from this is that we were not treated like equal humans and the thing is, I think we were treated better than most of the people who go through there because we were white Americans,” Clark said.

The couple is now studying in Amman, Jordan and they expect to be there for the next year.

Clark says she was in contact with Will Adams, the chief of staff for Rep. Justin Amash.

According to Clark, said Adams told them it was shocking that could happen to American citizens.

Clark says Adams promised he would call the State Department and the Israeli Embassy to see if he could get them some answers.