American Children Forced To Live In Saudi Arabia

It would seem unthinkable that dozens of American citizens could be held against their will in a country with which we've long had cordial relations.

But that's just what is happening to American girls who have been kidnapped from their American mothers by their Saudi fathers. Most of them never see the United States, or their mothers again.

Why? As 60 Minutes first reported last September, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where a female cannot leave without written permission from her closest male relative. And in most abduction cases, that is her father -- the man who kidnapped her in the first place.

Case in point: 16-year-old Maha. Correspondent Mike Wallace reports.

"You just want to see your mother. And be with her. And living in the States, I lived in the States for about 5 years. And those were the best years of my life," says Maha Al Rehaili, an American citizen with a U.S. passport. But without her father's permission, she couldn't leave Saudi Arabia.

"My daughter is a prisoner in Saudi Arabia. She has to wear a veil from head to toe," says Samiah Seramur, Maha's mother.

Samiah, born and raised in Wisconsin, had been trying to get Maha and her two other children out of Saudi Arabia for years.

"When I got nowhere with the U.S. government, I tried with the Saudi government. I went to the Saudi Embassy approximately 100 times," she says. "I said to them that my children are being held against their will by an abusive father. And I want to get them out of Saudi Arabia to live with me. And they refused."

Samiah met and married her Saudi husband in the U.S. and then moved with him to Saudi Arabia. Her life there, she says, was one of isolation and physical abuse.

The marriage ended in divorce in Florida, where a judge gave Samiah sole custody of their three children. Back in Saudi Arabia, her ex-husband re-married, claimed he was a changed man, and promised to pay child support if Samiah would please let the children visit him.

So she sent the kids to visit their father in Saudi Arabia, and he never let her see them again.

"It's been eight years," she says. Maha was 9, Faisal was 8 and Safiah was 12.

Samiah believed she had no hope of ever getting her children out of Saudi Arabia. In fact, without her ex-husband's permission, Samiah herself was barred from even entering the country.

"It didn't matter anymore what they said. I was going to take things into my own hands," she says.

Last summer, in a surprising turn of events, Samiah got a chance to rescue her three children from her ex-husband.

Her accomplice? Her daughter Maha, now 16 years old. With the help of friends, Maha had managed to get a message to her mother through the Internet.

"Every night, Maha would sneak on the computer and talk with me," says Samiah. "I want to reach into the computer and grab her away from the world that she has to live in."

For more than a month, mother and daughter tried to devise a plan, a way for all three kids to escape. When Maha learned that her father was taking the whole family on vacation to Malaysia, Samiah decided that was her chance. She sent Maha the address and telephone number of the hotel where she'd be waiting.

After Samiah contacted 60 Minutes and told us what she was planning, we made arrangements to be there, too. On the appointed day, Samiah arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia.

The next morning, 60 Minutes was with her when a local taxi driver, hired by Samiah to stake out the airport, called to tell her he'd just seen her children.

"She was under guard in Malaysia from the maid, the stepmother, her father," says Samiah. "They were all watching her very closely because they had fears that something might be up or she might be trying to contact me."

Believing Maha was asleep, her father and stepmother left their hotel and went to dinner. Maha called her mother. Samiah told her to stay in the lobby and look out for the taxi driver from the airport.

To prevent her ex-husband from recognizing her if he returned early, Samiah covered herself one last time, and, along with our cameraman, raced to the hotel where her daughter was waiting.

Minutes later, Maha appeared, but she had come out alone. Her sister and brother had been asleep and she was afraid they'd all be caught if she tried to wake them.

Their plan now was to go to the U.S. Embassy as quickly as they could, but first they had to stop for a moment at Samiah's hotel. If Maha were to be sent back to Saudi Arabia, she and her mother wanted proof it was against her will.

"If I had to go back to Saudi Arabia, I would kill myself," says Maha. "I've been waiting for this for eight years."

"I want to live with my mother in the States because in my heart I believe that America is my country."

And with the blessing of the U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia, Maha and her mother were whisked out of the country that very night.

Did Samiah expect the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to give her sanctuary?

"I didn't expect them to do anything. But I was going to try and force them because I wasn't going to leave unless I was kicked out of the Embassy," says Samiah. "And at least if I was kicked out, at least 60 Minutes would be there to get it on tape."

Kicked out of a U.S. Embassy? If you're wondering why Samiah Seramur would even think that was a possibility, just ask Monica Stowers.

Monica, a kindergarten teacher from Houston, Texas, had finally gotten her ex-husband's permission to visit her children in Saudi Arabia. In five years, she'd been allowed to see them only once.

This time, she picked up the two children and ran straight to the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh where she pleaded with an Embassy official to give them safe haven.

"I couldn't believe the attitude. Not even sympathy. Not even humanity. It was like 'This is not a hotel.' That's what she said, 'This is not a hotel. You're going to have to leave,'" says Monica.

When she refused, Marine Guards were called to escort her out of the Embassy.

"I couldn't believe my eyes. Two U.S. Marines come in the room there. And then it got scary for my kids 'cause my daughter saw these soldiers there and she was trying to get behind me. And my son was shaking," says Monica. "And I pulled out our passports and I put them in front of me like this. And I said "We're American citizens."

But the decision had been made to uphold Saudi law.

Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana has been investigating why Monica Stowers and other American mothers have not been helped by their own government.

"The State Department, in my opinion, for the past 10-15-20 years, has not done their job properly," says Burton. "Every Embassy in the world, every consulate in the world ought to be a safe haven for American citizens."

Last August, Burton led a U.S. delegation to Saudi Arabia. They were armed with a list of 35 American kids he says have been kidnapped from their mothers.

Although 60 Minutes was invited to travel with the delegation, the Saudi government refused to issue visas. Wallace asked the Saudi spokesman Adel Al Jubeir why.

"It became apparent to us that they were more interested in the publicity than they were in the welfare of the children," says Al Jubeir. "They could have dealt with the countries that had the largest numbers of cases. They chose not to. They dealt with Saudi Arabia when we are probably barely in the top 20."

Burton says he met with American women in Saudi Arabia who are desperate to leave, but couldn't get exit visas for their children.

"They were scared to death that they would be beaten or killed if their husbands knew they were talking to us," he says.

But Al Jubeir says they are being accused of a crime that they did not commit: "We are trying to solve these cases. Why would we want to have these cases linger?"

Monica Stowers was been trying to get an exit visa for her daughter, Amjad (who was born in Houston, Texas) since Amjad was a child. She's now 19.

"We were accused of not allowing her to leave. I'm telling you, she has a passport and she has a visa. Why doesn't she leave?" asks Al Jubeir, who claims he didn't know about this case until a month ago – and that they issued her Amjad a passport when she asked for it.

But back in 1988, Al Jubeir wrote a letter and signed it saying there was nothing the Saudi Government could do about Amjad's case.

It took more than a decade, and a dogged congressman, before an exit visa was finally issued just days before Burton's committee arrived. But for Amjad, the visa may have come too late.

It turns out that two weeks before Burton's trip, Amjad's father arranged a marriage for her to a 42-year-old Saudi military officer who already had a wife and five children. He sat right next to Amjad when she met with Burton.

"She told me she wants to come to America. She said that to me at least 10-15 times. But then she looked at him and said 'But not now,'" says Burton. "All you could see was her eyes and she was crying."

Amjad told the congressman she has not decided when, or if, she'll use her visa to leave.

But another young girl is about to begin her new life. Last August, Samiah Seramur and daughter Maha arrived back on U.S. soil.

For Samiah, the victory is bittersweet. She has been reunited with only one of her children.

"I had to make a decision that I never thought I would make," says Samiah. "Getting Maha out and leaving the two of them behind."

Adel al Jubeir says that the Saudis are trying to resolve these cases. And Samiah's two daughters, Faisal and Sophia, are on the list.

Despite the efforts of Congressman Burton, none of the 35 kidnapped children on his list have been returned to their mothers in the U.S. As for Maha, she completed her junior year of high school in the U.S. with a 4.0 average.