NORTH LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Nabela Henry's ex-husband took their two small children for a weekend visit three years ago, then left with them for the Middle East with no intention of returning.
This fall, Henry--with the help of a private organization--slipped into Lebanon, snatched her children and returned to this country.
But she says her worries are far from over. Henry, 26, fears that her ex-husband, Saad Fouad Abdo, might again abduct Ramzy, 7, and Nora, 6.
"I'll never be comfortable. Never," says Henry, now remarried and living in this suburban Fort Lauderdale community. She and her present husband, Michael Henry, a hairstylist and manicurist like herself, recently opened their own shop near their home.
Glancing at her children as they feed bread to ducks that wander up from a lake behind her home, she says, "I know he's coming back. This guy, he wants his kids."
The couple didn't know much about each other when they got married in Fort Lauderdale nine years ago. Their families arranged the union, a practice common in certain tradition-minded societies.
Henry is half-Lebanese and half-Egyptian and was born in the United States. Abdo, a computer engineer who came to this country years before and holds Lebanese and U.S. citizenship, is 13 years older than Henry, who was 17 when they got married.
The couple was mismatched from the start, their cultural differences too great, Henry says.
She said her ex-husband, now 39, maintained tight control over her life and forced her to withdraw from school. After the children were born, the couple's relationship deteriorated, though Henry acknowledges that Abdo was a good father.
The couple separated in early 1993, and Abdo abducted the children on Halloween night of that year, after taking them on a regularly arranged visit.
Henry didn't confirm the abduction until a week later when one of Abdo's friends told her about it.
"I wouldn't leave the house at first," she recalls. "I would cry so hard I would vomit. At first I lost a lot of weight and then, after that, I gained a lot of weight. I didn't want to cook, I didn't want to clean, I didn't want to do anything."
Henry says the authorities weren't much help. Police could do little because the couple wasn't divorced and she didn't have full custody. The State Department's Lebanese branch said it could only check on the children, not force Abdo to return them.
Abdo and Henry were frequently in touch, their conversations mainly about the divorce. He was sometimes repentant, sometimes angry and all the time adamant about keeping the children. And Abdo sometimes let Henry speak to Ramzy and Nora.
The divorce was finalized in 1994. A judge awarded full custody of the children to Henry because Abdo didn't appear in court.
She remarried and decided to hire someone to retrieve the kids.
She had two false starts. One man who promised to bring back the kids for $12,000 disappeared with the money. Another man, who said he was an ex-CIA agent, wanted too much money upfront.
A friend who had retrieved her children from Germany with the help of a Houston-based organization called American Assn. for Lost Children introduced Henry to the nonprofit agency.
Mark Miller, the agency's head, and Pat Moore, an agency investigator, agreed to help Henry, though none of them had ever been to the Middle East before.
"Before I even went, we prayed, we fasted," says Miller, a Christian who founded the agency in 1987 and has returned about 90 children to parents who have lawful custody. "It is the hardest case we ever worked on. We were going into a country where there was a war going on."
The agency asked for no money. It never charges parents and relies exclusively on donations. Miller says he, Moore and Henry went to Lebanon at a cost of about $14,000, a tab the agency picked up. They went armed with the children's passports, birth certificates and visas.
The three arrived in Tripoli, Lebanon, on Oct. 27. The next day, they went to the Evangelic School of Tripoli where the children were enrolled. Henry entered the school on the pretext of giving the kids lunch money.
"You could feel that fear kinda hit you," recalls Miller, who was waiting with Moore in a taxi outside the school. "The pressure, fear. What if this doesn't work?"
Henry couldn't see her children at first. She began asking schoolchildren for Ramzy and Nora. Someone pointed to Ramzy as the boy was rushing to class, and Henry grabbed him in the hallway.
For a few tense minutes afterward, Henry and Ramzy searched for Nora--and saw her getting off the school bus. Henry grabbed her daughter and mother and children hugged, kissed and wept, a quick reunion on the spot.
Then they got into the taxi and sped off to the harbor to take a ferry to Cyprus--but the boat wasn't due that day.
Frantically, they went to the airport and bought tickets, all the while sick with anxiety that Abdo might show up any minute.