One day last summer when Joanna Tonetti received a phone call from her kids—Rosemary, 12, Sarah, 11, and Abdulaziz, 7—she sat down immediately afterward to commit the 20-minute conversation to memory. "I wanted to remember every syllable and inflection so I could cherish it," she says. To an eavesdropper, the topics of their exchange might have seemed perfectly ordinary: recent activities; choosing names for the family cat's kittens. But in reality the Aug. 30 telephone call was anything but commonplace. It marked the first time that Tonetti, 35, had been allowed to speak to her children in two years, ever since her ex-husband Abdullah al-Arifi, 45, abducted them and fled from the United States to his native Saudi Arabia.

Tonetti is still fighting to get her kids back—and she is not alone. According to the U.S. State Department, there are at least 20 cases of international abduction involving Saudis, and some victims' advocates say there may be many more. Saudi officials dispute those numbers. "We have six we're aware of, out of 1,100 [cases of American children abducted to foreign countries] worldwide," says spokesman Nail al-Jubeir, "and we're working on them."

Nevertheless, critics insist that no other government makes international abductions easier, or makes it harder for women to recover their kids. "The Saudis have not been a friend of the United States. They simply don't recognize United States law," says Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of a House committee that has held hearings on the issue of U.S.-Saudi custody battles. "The man controls the children and wife, and they just don't have any rights." Although the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act of 1993 mandates stiff penalties for such misdeeds, the fact that Saudi Arabia does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. makes it virtually impossible to enforce. Simply put, without such a treaty, says a State Department spokesman, "consular officers cannot enforce an American custody agreement overseas."

Tonetti, a Terre Haute, Ind., insurance-claims adjuster, knows that all too well. The youngest of three children of Wayne Stephenson, 68, a groundskeeper, and Rosemary, 66, a bookkeeper, Joanna grew up in tiny Lawrenceburg, Ind. Shortly after she graduated from high school, her parents divorced. Seeking solace, she began attending Muslim services in Cincinnati with a friend who had converted to Islam. Tonetti converted too and began corresponding with al-Arifi, a geology student at California State University in Chico, after seeing his personals ad in a Muslim singles magazine. The two began talking regularly by phone, and over the next few months he flew out five times to see her. At the time, "he seemed very nice," she recalls. "Very Western, extremely modern."

She learned otherwise, she says, after they married in 1989. Al-Arifi was moody and controlling, Tonetti claims, and so unwilling to care for the children that one day while she was out shopping he cropped Rosemary's hair to express his disdain at having to babysit. (Despite requests submitted through the Saudi embassy, al-Arifi has offered no comment about his ex-wife's allegations.) He dropped out of Cal State, then switched to Indiana State University, where he became a perpetual part-time student, living off scholarships and small business ventures. Tonetti says she lacked the courage to end the union. "I hated Abdullah, but I loved my kids," she says. "My kids were the only thing that kept me going."

When the couple finally divorced in 1999, Tonetti was granted custody, and al-Arifi, though hardly a devoted father, was allowed visitations every other weekend and for four weeks every summer. In the meantime, says Tonetti, he continually harassed her, following her movements and making obscene phone calls. "He wanted to control me and my life, and he always tried to assert that control," she says. "Leaving the kids with him was a nightmare." Fearing that they would be abducted, Tonetti persuaded a judge to confiscate their Saudi passports and alert the Saudi embassy that they should not be allowed to travel. But another judge refused her request that visits with al-Arifi be supervised.

During a summer visit, on Aug. 15,2000, Tonetti's attorney called to say that al-Arifi's lawyer had suddenly dropped his client. Sensing trouble, Tonetti raced to al-Arifi's house, only to find it empty and boarded up. "I kept walking around thinking, 'This can't be,'" she says. She learned that, despite a U.S. judge's order, the Saudi embassy had issued new passports, which al-Arifi had used to fly with the children to Saudi Arabia. Federal kidnapping warrants were immediately issued, but by that time al-Arifi was safely outside U.S. jurisdiction. "The children were there one minute and gone the next," she says. "I was devastated."

Since their abduction, Tonetti has received emotional support from Arthur Tonetti, a divorced police detective and father of four, whom she married in 2001—and with whom she has a son, Jacob, 2. Although she made seven trips to Saudi Arabia during her marriage, she now fears that Abdullah could make good on reported threats to have her arrested if she ever again sets foot in his country. Instead she has pressed her case through pleas to the Saudi and U.S. governments, to little avail.

The one bit of progress came this past Aug. 29. On that day Tonetti received an unexpected call from the office of her congressman, Brian Kerns, who, a staffer told her, was in Saudi Arabia with a delegation investigating child abductions. Would Tonetti permit the congressman to meet with her children and arrange for them to speak to her by phone? "Of course, I said yes," Tonetti recalls. "The State Department hadn't had much cooperation from the Saudis or Abdullah's family, but Kerns managed to go over and find them." At 6 the next morning she heard her children's voices for the first time in two years. "It was the best phone call of my life," she says. "I said I missed them, and they said they missed me."

Since then she has spoken to the children three more times. During their most recent call, on Nov. 27, she chatted with them about schoolwork and the upcoming holidays. Sarah said that she missed eating turkey, and Aziz sounded shy. What Tonetti didn't share was that on Oct. 2, not long after that fateful first call following their abduction, she had become something of an activist. That day she testified at congressional hearings on the subject that remains closest to her heart, and her impassioned testimony aroused strong support from the legislators. Though her ex-husband has so far not responded to her pleas, Tonetti's resolve is unwavering. "I've made sure that my kids know Mom is here and will always wait for them," she says. "It may take a little longer, but someday, God willing, they will find their way home."

Susan Schindehette
J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C., Trine Tsouderos in Terre Haute and Noah Isackson in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • J. Todd Foster,
  • Trine Tsouderos,
  • Noah Isackson.