Khalil Mohamed "Niko" Atteya, 12, must have been terrified when a woman in a burka grabbed his arm as he stepped off a school bus in Alexandria, Egypt and hauled him toward a motorized cart-until he saw her bright blue eyes through the slit in the dark fabric. "My first reaction was…[wondering] if that was my mom or not, and then I saw her eyes," Niko told Fox News. "I thought, 'Thank God. I'm going to finally get out of here. I'm going to be free.'"
It's a scenario to give parents nightmares: In August 2011, Kalliope "Kalli" Atteya of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, agreed to travel to Egypt with her ex-husband, Mohamed and only child, Niko. A few days, later, her son was gone.
According to Kalli, Mohammed had abandoned the family in 2000, only three months after Niko was born. "Basically he married me for a visa," said Kalli. They divorced in 2005.
Six years later, in late July 2011, at the height of the Egyptian revolution, Mohamed demanded she and Niko travel to Egypt to visit his aging mother. Though Kalli was reluctant to bring her son to an unstable country, she says, "[Mohammed] kept pushing and pushing until I finally relented. I didn't want his mother to die without seeing her grandson." She asked her sister, Maria Panagos, to accompany them for emotional support.
Shortly after they arrived in Egypt, Kalli said Mohamed kept trying to separate Niko from her and Panagos for a "man talk." On their second day, he began asking for his son's passport. The next day, the group took a hired car from Port Said to Cairo. En route, Mohamed told the driver to pull over claiming car trouble. "Mohamed threw me off to the side and ran to the car," she said. "I remember seeing [Panagos] dragging behind the car as my son pounded on the windows. It was so unreal to me. At that very moment, I knew this was all preplanned." Kalli and her sister were abandoned on the side of the baking highway and Niko was gone.
According to Kalli, Mohamed abducted Niko because, "He said that we [in the United States] lack the morality and the values that their system has. And he said that Americans were so violent, he said we are a rotting society."
After fruitless appeals to the Egyptian authorities for assistance, Kalli turned to a private Norwegian company. Three trips to Egypt and $100,000 later, she still had no clue to her son's whereabouts. She decided to take matters into her own hands. "Some people will say I was crazy," she toldPublicopinion.online in an interview. "I had already lost everything. I had nothing to lose."
In October 2012, she made her fourth trip to Egypt. She hired a local guide who she won't name to protect his safety. Tensions between the United States and Egypt were escalating and her family begged her to return home. "There was nothing I could say to her," said Panagos. "When a mother has that much love for her child."
With the help of her guide, Kalli tracked down Mohamed's address, and finally, after months of surveillance, saw an opportunity to make her move. On March 15, she grabbed her son off the school bus, dressed him as a girl and hid out in a safe house. "The brave thing was: He knew it was me, but he couldn't say anything," she recalled. A few weeks later they were able return to the United States.
Now, mother and son are safe in an undisclosed location near Chambersburg. Kalli's lawyer, Jeffrey Evans, says there is a chance Mohamed might still attempt to return to the United States seeking out Niko-although he is wanted by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service for making false statements and providing forged documents to obtain a U.S. passport. Evans told Yahoo! Shine, "Kalli is aware of others who share her experience and wants to tell her story to help those folks and offer some hope."
According to the U.S. State Department in 2011 more than 1300 children were abducted by a parent and taken from the United States to a foreign country.
For now, Niko is being homeschooled for his security though he says he would love to play football on the local junior high school team. As for Kalli, her family calls her their hero. "Never underestimate the determination and love that a mother has for her child," Panagos told a local Fox affiliate earlier this April.