In February 2017, American psychotherapist and humanitarian Majd Kamalmaz visited Syria to offer condolences to an elderly family member in mourning. Less than 24 hours after his arrival in Damascus, his family in the US received word that he was missing. Majd was apparently detained at a Syrian government checkpoint. More than 4 years later, Majd’s family have not spoken to him, heard from him or seen him since he was detained.
After the civil war in 2012, the United States suspended diplomatic ties with Syria. The US House of Representatives has passed a bipartisan resolution encouraging the State Department and other US government entities to engage with Syria to facilitate the safe release of Majd Kamalmaz. We speak to Majd’s daughter, Maryam Kamalmaz to find out how we can help bring her father back home.
We discuss Majd’s humanitarian work, his enforced disappearance, proof of life, his pre-existing health conditions, the toll this has taken on the Kamalmaz family, diplomatic ties between US and Syria as well as what the US government, Congress and President of the United States, Joe Biden should do better to bring Majd Kamalmaz home. We also discuss what journalists and the public can do to help.
If you prefer, you can watch the video version of this interview on YouTube.
For more information on Majd Kamalmaz, please check out the following:
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Free Majd Kamalmaz, American Hostage in Syria | Pod Hostage Diplomacy
Daren Nair, Maryam Kamalmaz
Daren Nair 00:05
Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We work to free hostages and the unjustly detained around the world. Together with their families, we share their stories every week, and let you know how you can help bring them home. I'm Daren Nair, and I've had the honour of campaigning with many of these families for years. These are some of the most courageous and resilient people among us. People who have never given up hope, people who will never stop working to reunite their families. And we will be right there by their side until their loved ones are back home. Thank you for joining us. And now, let's meet this week's guest.
Daren Nair 00:48
Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. 63-year-old American citizen, Majd Kamalmaz, has been held hostage in Syria since 15 February 2017. His family have not seen or heard from him since he was taken. Majd is a therapist and a humanitarian. He dedicated his life to the service of others by treating patients following natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Indonesia, and he also treated war victims in Kosovo and Bosnia. Majd most recently opened a centre to treat Syrian refugees in the most underserved part of Lebanon. The United States House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution on 12 March 2020, that stated the following. "This resolution expresses concern about the capture and detention of journalist, Austin Tice, and psychotherapist, Majd Kamalmaz, near Damascus, Syria. It encourages the Department of State, the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), and other US government entities to engage with Syria to facilitate their safe release. We are joined today by Maryam Kamalmaz, the daughter of Majd Kamalmaz. Maryam, I'm sorry for what you and your family are going through. We will do everything we can to help. Thank you for joining us.
Maryam Kamalmaz 02:08
Daren Nair 02:08
Can you please walk us through what happened to your father?
Maryam Kamalmaz 02:11
Well, we received the news on February 15, 2017. My mom received it from family friends that my father had never reached the destination that he was going to. What happened is he entered Syria on February 14, 2017, through Lebanon, legally, without any issues to the border. He didn't have any issues, no problems at all. He was able to safely make it to a family member's house in Damascus, Syria, where he slept the night. Everything was well. He phoned my mom. let her know that he had arrived. He's safe, everything's well. And it wasn't until the next morning that he was on this first trip to go visit friends that he never arrived at their house. And that's where concern grew. And, after two hours, these family friends decided to contact us and ask us if we had heard from him. And we hadn't heard from him at that time. And our concerns started to grow. And then we found out from the person that was with him at that time when he disappeared at the checkpoint that he was... he was taken at a checkpoint. We don't know what happened at that checkpoint. What caused the detention? What caused them to take him? We assume that most likely it's because of his American citizenship. There is no other reason, and the Syrian government has never come forth to say there is any reason that they had wanted him.
Daren Nair 03:53
I understand you haven't seen or heard from your father in over five years, have you received any proof of life? And I ask that in a respectful way, obviously.
Maryam Kamalmaz 04:05
Right. The only proof of life we received was in 2017. We had two former prisoners, one of them had a message that he... and he reached out to a family member to let us know that our father had told him to let us know that he is alive. And that was in 2017 after he had been detained shortly. And then, recently, around a year ago or so, we had gone public on a Facebook ad that targeted regions around Syria to see if somebody knew anything about him. And a former detainee contacted us and let us know that he was also detained with him in 2017. And that he had spent some time with our father for around a week. And at that time, he was fine. That was in 2017, and we haven't heard anything at all after that. Those are the only forms of proof of life. We haven't heard anything from the Syrian government, or his voice, or any sort of picture or, you know, any sort of documentation that means... of his condition or how he's doing.
Daren Nair 05:12
So in a way, this is an enforced disappearance.
Maryam Kamalmaz 05:15
Absolutely yes, definitely. We've frequently tried to reach out to the Syrian Government, to acknowledge his detention, acknowledge him. We have not heard anything at all. And that seems to be something very common with detainees in Syria, that they just completely disappear. It's like a black hole. Once you're in, you know, nobody knows anything about you. It's just been a very difficult emotional roller coaster trying to find out anything to..., you know, since 2017 up until now. It's been almost five years, and there is no way to really know his condition now, except by word of mouth in which there is no real proof.
Daren Nair 05:58
So, there is no way of finding out, at least, the type of conditions he's being held in. Is that right?
Maryam Kamalmaz 06:06
Yes. We don't know the type of condition he is in, his health or mental state. We really don't know much at all about him. We just keep hearing from different connections that he is alive. He is fine. And we do hear that, on different occasions, we've heard that he's in solitary confinement. But is there proof of any of that? That's where we're lacking. There's no proof of anything to be accurate. We're still trying to get some sort of information that can be of actual, you know, quality, where we know this is the accurate information, and we can say this is true.
Daren Nair 06:48
Does your father have any pre-existing medical conditions?
Maryam Kamalmaz 06:51
Yes. My father is a diabetic, and he suffered two strokes in the past. Although, you know, he is... he is really well at taking care of himself, he does need care and he does need, you know, specific medications and needs to be able to have specific types of food as well to take care of his diabetes. So I don't know how his condition is now. I think that's one of the major, you know, troubling thoughts that we always go through is how is he with his diabetes? Is he able to take care of himself? Are they caring for him? Will they give him what he needs if he needs it? We don't know. We don't know any of that.
Daren Nair 07:34
So, I can only imagine, but not knowing where or how your father is for over five years is obviously excruciating and stressful. Can you talk about the toll this has taken on you and your family?
Maryam Kamalmaz 07:47
Oh, yes, absolutely. To actually put it into words is way more difficult. It's... it's beyond horrific. I would say, not knowing anything about a loved one, not knowing his condition, not hearing his voice, and consistently trying to find a new way to, you know, to be able to reach him, to free him, to get any sort of information about him. It's like a consistent... you're consistently hunting, and trying to discover discover this mystery that is thousands of miles away from you. You have to be able to understand, you know. I'm sorry, this is kind of hard to explain it. But when you're thousands of... thousands of miles away from the person you're trying to find, it's very difficult to get any sort of information about him. We don't have much family in Syria. The majority of our direct family's here in the United States. So, we lack people in Syria to help us. We mostly try to go through different, you know, entities or different people, different connections that might be able to find us some sort of information. But trying to find these different people has been very difficult. Not only has it been very difficult for us to find people to find information about him, it was really also difficult working with the American government, getting everyone on board to start helping us. It was an absolutely horrific nightmare, I think. Throughout these five years, it's been an emotional wreck for my entire family. My grandma always cries. She always says will I ever see him again? My mother doesn't know what to do with herself. You know, she... she doesn't know how she should be able to go on with her life without him. For us, I think it's the pressure feels like it's all on us to try to keep thinking of new ways and new routes that we can do to find out information about him. Maybe this person can help. Maybe this, you know, entity can can help free him. It's just a consistent hunt. that we're constantly on, never ending. Going to sleep thinking, well, maybe I should try this, well, maybe I should try that. And you should contact this person maybe, you know, it's just never ending. And I think that's where it's really... it really takes an emotional toll on you to the point where, you know, like, you shut down, no longer wanting to see friends, no longer wanting to do normal activities. This has completely consumed us like this is my life now is just trying to find my father and get information about him and get him freed. So yes, absolutely horrific and very difficult.
Daren Nair 10:45
I'm sorry for what you and your family are going through. So, it's my understanding, the US government has suspended diplomatic ties with Syria in 2012, following the civil war. This makes things very difficult to negotiate, obviously. Are you able to talk to us about the type of support you've received from the US government over the last five years?
Maryam Kamalmaz 11:06
Well, the first two years that we heard of our father's disappearance, we were only in contact with the State Department. And they were only sending diplomatic notes to Syria, to try to get information about my father. And that, obviously, can't always came back that they have no information about him whatsoever. The only way we were able to get some sort of information that he was detained in Syria was also through the Czech Ambassador who used to play the middle person, between the Syrians and the United States. And in 2017, my family met with her in DC. She said she was going to go down to Syria and try to find my father. And at that time, she also did confirm that the Syrian government did have him. After her trip to Syria, she did not reply back to us. She went very cold and silent on us. We assume once she got there, she was told not to communicate with us and tell us that they had our father. And she stopped working or trying to help us. But that was a time we had so many family members that were there that all confirmed that she had said my father was detained in Syria, and she was sure of it. Yes. So, those first two years were basically based off of the State Department sending those diplomatic notes, and working with the Czech Ambassador for that small period of time. After that two year period, we realised that we're not getting anywhere, obviously. And they were not able to get any sort of... We kept finding different connections in Syria that were promising to be able to release him and then that was failing. So, we decided we needed to go public and reach out to President Trump himself, and get him to do whatever he can to bring our father home. And, at that time, it was really important to President Trump to free hostages. It was a big thing for him. And so, we decided to try to reach out to every media outlet. Let them know of our father's story. And once we did that, that's when the government really stepped up. We were able to commence communicating with SPEHA, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. We had... we were finally able to get in touch with the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell who are also able now that they're now on our father's case, and they're actively working on it. We were invited to the Pompeo... Secretary of State Pompeo's, event for families of hostages at that time as well. So, that opened up doors for us once we went public. It definitely helped get the government on board with helping us. They've been supportive. But unfortunately, we feel that it's more talk than action. While President Trump was an office, he did do something that I think was a very big move by sending SPEHA and a White House official to Syria. That was, I think, the biggest move since no senior diplomat had been to Syria within the past 10 years. And he sent SPEHA and a White House official to Damascus to talk about the hostages. That was a very big move, although it did not result in anything. And then the President took over, President Biden, and things just completely slowed down and shut down and we had a very hard time getting President Biden and Secretary Blinken to allow SPEHA to continue what he was doing. And we're fortunate that now things have taken another turn where it's finally moving forward in a way. But it took a long time for President Biden and Secretary Blinken to actually give the permission to SPEHA to continue working on the case.
Daren Nair 15:19
So, what should the US government do better?
Maryam Kamalmaz 15:23
In the beginning of President Biden's presidency, he had Secretary of State Blinken talk to all the families, which was an excellent move for President... for Secretary of State Blinken to get to know us, to hear our stories. And we really felt that, you know, they cared. But I think one of the things that they could do is just show more compassion, mention the names of these people that are unjustly detained and held hostage. Show that you're trying your best to do something for these families, and for these hostages and detainees. There is the role of SPEHA, which is really important. And anytime we do go to any sort of meeting with anybody, or any officials in the government, they refer back to SPEHA, that this is his role. And this is what his responsibility is. So, it feels as if most of the time when we do talk to the government, that, you know, they... they remove it off their shoulders. It's not their issue, it's SPEHA's issue. So, it feels as if, you know, they don't want to carry this responsibility themselves. They'd rather just hand it to him. And I do credit him that he is doing the best that he can. He really is pushing forward and trying his best to deal with all of these different cases. But it sometimes feels like the government doesn't care as much. They don't take personal time to understand what the families are going through. Who are these people that are being held? You know, it just feels as if they... they don't really want to deal with it. They'd rather push it on to SPEHA. It... this... this is true in certain cases. But I..., you know, I don't want to say that they completely ignore us. They did meet with us to talk to us. It's just that it's just like a pat on the back kind of, like, you know, we're here for you. But we don't do anything more than this. This is the farthest we can go is by giving SPEHA the role to finish.
Daren Nair 17:35
So, for our listeners, SPEHA is the acronym for Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. And the current US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs is Ambassador Roger Carstens...
Maryam Kamalmaz 17:35
Daren Nair 17:35
... who used to be a former US Army Green Beret.
Daren Nair 17:50
What can the Senate and House of Representatives do better? I know the House has passed a resolution, which I mentioned at the beginning. What else should they be doing?
Maryam Kamalmaz 17:51
Maryam Kamalmaz 18:03
Well, Congress has started a Congressional Task Force on American hostages, Americans wrongfully detained abroad, which is excellent. We are really looking forward to working with these Congressmen that have started this and they are ready to deal with any situation where we need to push the US government into doing more. These Congressman are ready to help in whatever way possible. And they've always been very supportive. And it's helped us a lot. Right now, we're at a point where SPEHA is doing his role. So, we've kind of backed off from Congress, but they will always be beneficial to any other family that also needs that extra push towards the American government to get them motivated to do something is to hear from the Congress. And I think that's excellent that they've started this. The one of the Congressman, French Hill, he... my father, used to be a constituent of Arkansas, and he is the Congressman of Arkansas. So, he's made it a personal and he's taking off... he's taking it on personally to work on our father's case, and to start this Congressional Task Force with our father in mind. So, we were very appreciative of all of his, you know, work to do this, and they're there for help and any other family that needs them.
Daren Nair 19:29
So, what should President of the United States, Joe Biden, himself do better?
Maryam Kamalmaz 19:33
I believe that, first, Joe Biden is President Biden. If he could reach out to the families, mention the names of these detainees, these hostages, get to know these families more often and try to find more diplomatic routes. Try to put more of his personal heart into dealing with these situations. It kind of slips off and comes off that he's not involved whatsoever in these cases, and it doesn't seem like he really makes much effort to care about them as well. So, I think one of these things would would be nice if he got to know these families, and these hostages and detainees, if he learned about their situations personally, and mentioned their names and pushed more personally from his own side, to bring them back home safely.
Daren Nair 20:31
So, I've seen some media coverage of your father's case, but not as much as other hostage families. What can journalists and the news media do to help?
Maryam Kamalmaz 20:41
Now, it's always good to continue pushing on media. And we do... we do take every chance that we get to reach out to media, although right now we've reached the point that we feel that let SPEHA do his role and continue doing what he's doing. We're hopeful in... in what he's pursuing. And so we've kind of backed out from pushing so much towards media. But yeah, I do feel that media is really important. And if we do have the chance to reach out and say anything about our father, or to mention his story to bring light onto what's happening, for Father, as well as all the other thousands of detainees in Syria, all of those unjustly detained in the Syrian prisons. There's thousands of them that are held there, we can help shed light on those. Absolutely, that would that would be my main goal.
Daren Nair 21:40
What can the public do to help bring your father home? the public
Maryam Kamalmaz 21:44
The public, they could..., they could continue possibly. Last thing is that if they could reach out to Congress, if they could, you know, help, tweet, bring about his story. Share his situation, try to raise more awareness with us, help us raise awareness about his case. That is the best way for us and for him, to continue working on his cases to keep raising awareness about his situation. That would be our main goal from the public is for their help and continuing to bring light on his case. So, that way, his case doesn't get forgotten and is no longer a priority for the United States government.
Daren Nair 22:30
So, if these members of the public who want to help need further information on your father's case, on the campaign to free your father, how can they keep up to date with yourself, with your family and with the campaign?
Maryam Kamalmaz 22:44
We have a Twitter page as well as a Facebook page. Both are called Free Majd Kamalmaz, as well as a website, freemajd.com. You know, we... we try to update whenever we can, if there's something new, then we update that information. But it would be great if they could share his story. Try to bring more awareness to his... to his case. So that way, you could keep it in the light.
Daren Nair 23:13
Have there been any other organisations besides the government that have been providing you support?
Maryam Kamalmaz 23:18
Yes, the Foley Freedom Foundation has been excellent at providing so much support to hostage families. If it wasn't for them, I think a lot of us would be, you know, very down and unconnected. Foley Foundation events have helped us meet other families that are going through similar situations. And just sitting down and talking to these families really helps. You feel like there's, you know, others that are going through similar situations where you, kind of, are able to get along and find comfort in each other. So, the Foley Freedom Foundation is one excellent foundation that we are truly appreciative of. The Richardson Foundation was also excellent at picking up my father's case when we went public. They tried really hard to help us in the beginning and tried to find our father in Syria. The Syrian Emergency Task Force as well, they've been very productive, very helpful in helping us in a lot of media, a lot of connections with Congress, with the US government. They've been excellent at helping us reach out to so many people that could help us. So, yeah, we've... we've had good connections with different foundations, and they've, they've been very supportive and we're truly, truly thankful for all their support.
Daren Nair 24:52
Maryam, we're almost at the end of our interview. Is there anything else you'd like to mention?
Maryam Kamalmaz 24:56
Um, it's just throughout these five years, I feel like we've gone through so much. I think the most important thing to us right now is to find any sort of proof of life about my father. That is the number one highest priority is to know how he's doing. Is he alive? How's his health? To hear his voice, and I would plead if anyone is able to help us in any way possible, to get any sort of information about our father, to contact us, please, and we are really desperate to find out information about him.
Daren Nair 25:34
Maryam, we'll do everything we can to campaign with you to bring your father home. Given all the humanitarian work he has done around the world, he seems like an amazing person. He has spent his life helping others. Now it's our time to help Majd Kamalmaz. We really appreciate you taking the time to speak to us and hope your father comes home soon. Thank you for joining us.
Maryam Kamalmaz 25:55
Thank you. Thank you, Daren
Daren Nair 26:02
Thank you for listening to this week's episode of Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We're not just a podcast. We're a community. If you're on Twitter, and we'd like to post a message of solidarity to the families, or have any questions for us, please tweet it using the hashtag #PodHostageDiplomacy, and we will get back to you. If you like what we're trying to do, please do consider supporting the show financially. You can do this using the support the show link in the description of this podcast episode. We're grateful for any contributions no matter how small. Thanks again for listening. And we'll be back next week. Take care