Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Duped on Muslim Matchmaking Site

Every year, according to the New York Times, some 20 million Americans seek love or relationships through matchmaking websites.

Many succeed. You can tailor a search to particular interests, and short-circuit fruitless dates.

But there's also that unknown element about the person one meets in a vacuum, without a community to vouch for him or her. The Dec. 18 Times story told of the dangers of ending up with a sexual predator, a convicted felon or someone who's already married.

Sherri Abdelmawgoud, now of Urbandale, is learning about online matchmaking the hard way. "
The person I thought he was never existed," she said this week of her husband.

Sherri Welch met Ahmed Abdelmawgoud through a dating site two years ago, when she was 28 and he was 26, as she recalls. She was living in Las Vegas, where he said he was visiting a friend, having been in America a few months with plans to get his master's in mechanical engineering.

Her Egyptian Prince Charming was handsome, playful, attentive and won the hearts of all her
relatives. She liked the old-fashioned image he projected — a devout Muslim virgin who didn't
believe in holding hands before marriage. Three months later they wed in a Muslim ceremony in
Texas where Sherri followed her parents to live.

She converted to Islam, and began wearing a head scarf, as some Muslim women do. Ahmed got hired at a computer repair shop and enrolled in a university. "I was blinded by love," she says, "and he was a very charismatic guy. "

Sherri says they were working on starting a family when, back in Texas a month ago, her eyes fell
upon his open e-mails. There were love notes to and from another woman, and something that
looked like a marriage certificate.

It was in Arabic, but had pictures of him and a woman, and fingerprints. When Sherri confronted Ahmed, he shrugged off the other woman as an obsessed ex-girlfriend. Unconvinced, Sherri e-
mailed her.

What she got in return, she says, made her feel "like I died that day." It was a studio photo of a glamorous woman in what looks like a Western bridal gown, stretched out on Sherri's husband's

Based on subsequent e-mails and instant messages, Sherri says the woman, identified as Dalia, lives in Egypt and told her she's been married to Ahmed five years. Sherri says Ahmed would neither confirm nor deny the marriage when she questioned him, instead packing up all his belongings and saying he was flying to Egypt to be with his dying father. He quit work, missed final exams and drained their bank account, Sherri says.

In a phone interview Tuesday from Texas, Ahmed denied Sherri's allegation that he's married to Dalia, telling me, "I am having problems with my wife ... I will prove to my wife it's not true." Reached in Egypt later, Dalia denied to me that she and Ahmed are married. But Sherri says she found a Facebook page of Dalia's — since removed — naming Ahmed as her husband, with pictures.

The ironies are hard to miss. While Ahmed wanted his American wife to stay home and care for the house, the Egyptian woman is a self-described professional. In the picture she sent Sherri, there was no Muslim head covering, either.

In retrospect, Sherri sees things she might have questioned more. She never met any of Ahmed's friends. She never spoke to his parents in Egypt; he told her they disapproved because she wasn't Egyptian. In June, he left for 40 days, claiming he needed to take his father to Spain for cancer surgery. He rarely contacted Sherri in that period. Dalia told her she was with him in Spain, and that his father never had cancer.

Sherri showed me e-mails sent from Dalia this month. In one, Dalia said Ahmed is with her all the time and denies everything Sherri said. Ahmed called Sherri from Egypt this month and told her he never loved her. "I think he loved me in some way," Sherri says, but wonders. "I don't understand how a person can look at you every day and (act) so sincere. I could never do that to somebody, even if I hated them."

Asked why she thinks Ahmed married her, Sherri shrugs. To get a visa? He did, though it could be revoked if the government finds it was fraudulently obtained. To have someone cook and clean for him? Did he just get lonely? One thing Sherri insists is that his Muslim faith not be blamed.

Sherri turns 30 today, but the big celebration her husband had promised won't take place. She has no income, job or car, and can't afford a divorce lawyer or name change. She fears the Ahmed she didn't know, cries a lot, and wonders how she can trust again.

New York and New Jersey require matchmaker sites to post safety tips. But Sherri already knew to take precautions like meeting in public places.

Her experience is a painful reminder that even with criminal background checks, which all such sites should be required to perform, trust cannot be given unconditionally. The cliche taught to journalists is true for everyone in the Internet age: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

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