Faith guides couple through Egyptian ordeal
Posted May 15, 2012
Durham, N.C. — A Durham couple is trying to rebuild their lives and business after years spent defending themselves against human trafficking charges that stemmed from their attempt to adopt twin Egyptian babies.
Iris Botros, an immigrant in her 40s, and her husband, Louis Andros, a naturalized U.S. citizen in his 70s, ran Zorba's Greek restaurant and dreamed of being parents together. They researched fertility treatments and tried to adopt in the U.S., but nothing worked out.
Botros inquired about adopting in her native Egypt, and in December 2008, they got a phone call that a 3-month-old boy and girl were waiting for them at an orphanage in Cairo run by a Christian church.
"We went to Egypt. We went quick to pick up the babies. We were so happy to get the babies," Botros said.
Hindsight shows that they should have hired an attorney, Botros said, but they trusted the orphanage to handle all the arrangements.
"I asked a million times, 'Is everything good? Is everything legal?' And they said, '100 percent,'" she recalled.
When the couple went to the U.S. Embassy to arrange passports for the babies to leave Egypt, however, everything unraveled.
Embassy staffers were suspicious of the orphanage and got local authorities involved. Botros told Andros to take the babies and leave, and she would sort out the details. The couple was arrested separately at the Embassy and reunited three days later at the police station.
"I was like, 'Honey, where are the babies? And he was like, 'Honey, they came and took the babies,'" Botros said.
The couple was accused of being part of a gang smuggling babies, and they were initially charged with child trafficking and forgery. They denied wrongdoing, saying they were unaware of the country's murky adoptions laws. While Islamic law bans adoption by Muslims, it permits adoption by non-Muslims, but proponents say it's still difficult for non-Muslims to adopt legally.
Botros said at first, a judge threatened her with up to 15 years in prison, but her lawyer did a good job of showing there wasn't a shred of evidence that she and her husband belonged to a gang stealing children from different countries. They never even met some of their co-defendants, she said, until they were in jail together.
But the public was outraged by the case; people shouted names and threw things at the couple when they appeared in court, chained in a cage.
The judge instructed prosecutors to find another charge, Botros said, and along with two other U.S. residents, the couple was convicted of illegal adoption. Seven Egyptians, including a nun, doctor and orphanage employees, were convicted of forging birth certificates.
Surviving prison on faith
Botros and Andros were sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay a $40,000 fine.
They were separated into men's and women's prisons, but both spent the years "reading our Bibles, holding to our faith," Botros said.
"That's the only thing we had – just our faith," she added. Durham couple shares Egyptian ordeal
Botros said a missionary visited with her, and the couple also found support from letters around the world after the media picked up their story.
Andros said conditions were worse in jail than in prison. At the jail, up to 60 men were crowded into rooms made for 20, and he saw others beaten by police. His rings were stolen from his fingers when he fell asleep, he said.
The people in prison got along with each other, and foreigners were treated better than Egyptians, he said.
Meanwhile, the revolution that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak was brewing outside their cells. Protesters eventually broke into the jail.
"They broke the jails and the police station. They broke them down, and everybody ran," Botros said. "Me and Louis did not run. We had nowhere to go. We had no IDs. We had no passports. We had no money. We had no family."
An officer told the couple to leave, and they went to a man Andros had met at jail. They found a lawyer and stayed with him for eight days before arranging to return to prison and serve the remainder of their sentence.
They agreed to have another three months tacked onto their sentence in lieu of paying the fine, but when they were released in March 2011, Egyptians authorities demanded that they pay the fine before being allowed to leave the country.
"After we served the three months, the penalty still stood," Andros said. "For some people, they take it off. For some people, they don't."
They spent another nine months convincing the Egyptian courts that they didn't have the money to pay the fine.
They had to show documents proving that their home was in foreclosure and that they had lost their cars and hadn't worked for three years. At one point, the judge ordered them to have English-language documents translated at the cost of $10 a page.
Returning home to loss
Finally, last December, they returned home to what remained of their lives in Durham.
"We lost everything," Andros said.
The restaurant they owned was closed, and even the equipment was gone. "We do not even know who sold what for what," Botros said.
Their family scrapped up enough money to save their home from foreclosure, but the couple estimates they are about $25,000 behind on payments.
Botros also faces more legal issues in the U.S. because her green card expired while she was in the Egyptian prison. She is fighting to prove that she didn't abandon her residency and meets with immigration officials at least once a month.
They believe, but can't be sure, that the babies they wanted to bring home were placed in a Muslim orphanage.
"We tried to see the babes. We were not allowed to see them," Botros said.
Despite all their troubles, the couple said they are not angry.
"It's more hurt and sad," Botros said.