An Egyptian teenager accused of illegally protesting his country’s government has defected to the United States after attending an international science fair for high school students in Los Angeles.
Abdullah Assem, 17, decided not to board a Cairo-bound plane Sunday for fear he would be arrested upon landing.
For the last four days he has stayed with family friends in Los Angeles County while he seeks asylum in the U.S.
Last week, Abdullah was one of 1,787 teens participating in the six-day International Science and Engineering Fair sponsored by chipmaker Intel at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
His project, “Eye Detection and Tracking-Based Communication System for Tetraplegia Patients,” had qualified for the competition through one of the program’s 450 preliminary science fairs. His research involved the use of eyeglasses and motion sensors to enable quadriplegics to use computers.
Abdullah was arrested April 25 in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo and accused by police of illegally protesting — apparently by flashing the banned four-fingered hand gesture showing support for ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
After skipping his return flight, Abdullah told Al-Jazeera he feared being rearrested.
“In case I get back to Egypt, my future will be in jail, considering that I am threatened all the time to be detained,” the boy said.
Farida Chehate, an attorney with the Los Angeles-area Council on American-Islamic Relations, said her group will help the teen apply for amnesty with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
She said the teen may also be accused of setting fire to cars belonging to police officers, although Chehate has yet to see Egyptian authorities’ reports.
“He’s somewhat politically active,” Chehate said. “He has posted on Facebook and formed a group. His feelings have put him on the wrong side of the government.”
Chehate said media coverage of Abdullah’s apprehension in April apparently motivated the government to allow him to attend last week’s International Science and Engineering Fair. She said the boy’s family supports his asylum effort.
“We’d hope the family is not in jeopardy” since Abdullah’s arrest attracted extensive Egyptian media attention, she said.
The boy’s father, Assem Mohammed, told Egyptian news agencies that his son did not perform well in last week’s fair “because he didn’t have enough time to prepare” for judging. “He made his presentation with handwritten notes. He didn’t even have time to type it on a computer.”
Some $5 million in cash prizes and scholarships were awarded at the competition’s end.
Abdullah, a senior at Dar Heraa Islamic Private School in Assiut, Egypt, was scheduled to take his final high school exams this week.
Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in San Francisco, said her agency would not be authorized to discuss an asylum application, even if one had been filed on behalf of Abdullah.
There are five criteria for asylum, which can lead to citizenship, and two of them are fear of political leanings and membership in a social group, she said.
Rick Bates, interim chief executive of Washington, D.C.'s Society for Science & the Public, said he knows of no previous situation where a high school student participating in a fair has defected at the end of the competition.
“I don’t know that we have a reaction,” Bates said. “The young man and his family have made that decision.”
Annual science fairs have been conducted since 1950, and the event began including international high school students in 1958.
After Abdullah arrived in Los Angeles on May 12, “I think he had a normal week,” Bates said. “He did indicate that he wanted to stay and look at colleges.”
Times Staff Writer Sherif Tarek contributed to this report.