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Tuesday, April 29

W. Virginians thankful Lynch tipster got asylum in U.S.

By Jean Tarbett, Dave Lavender | The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - They have prayed for him, planted a garden for him and, someday soon, they hope to meet him.

People throughout West Virginia were elated at the news that Iraqi lawyer Mohammed Al Rehaief, who helped U.S. commandos locate and rescue prisoner of war Pfc. Jessica Lynch of Palestine in Wirt County, has been granted asylum in the United States.

West Virginians hope that Al Rehaief and his family will visit West Virginia, where such groups as The Friends of Mohammed formed to help call for his asylum.

The Friends of Mohammed on Saturday planted a garden outside the Palestine Post Office. On May 24, the group is planning a six-mile walk starting at the Islamic Center of West Virginia in South Charleston to pay homage to Al Rehaief's dangerous six-mile trek to alert U.S. Marines to Lynch's whereabouts at a hospital in Nasiriyah, Iraq.

Jamal Daoudi, spiritual leader of the Islamic Center, said it is an answer to prayers.

``We are glad after our requests and our calls on the government for him - that this is fulfilled,'' Daoudi said. ``We are happy he is here, and we are happy the government is in the right process. And we are adding another request: We would like him to come and visit West Virginia so he could meet with Jessica as friends in Palestine.''

Some residents of Wirt County want to meet the man some residents have called Lynch's guardian angel.

``I think he deserves whatever he wants,'' said Miriah Duckworth, a friend of Lynch's who has been recording a song written for her friend and other patriotic music. ``He's truly a hero. He risked not only his life, but his family's life and everything he knows.''

His role in Lynch's rescue has shown residents the power of overlooking differences in nationality and religious beliefs, said Ken Heiney, principal at Wirt County High School. ``I hope (a visit from Al Rehaief) would be a way to mend a lot of bridges.''

James Thibeault, who runs the Good Living assisted living center in Malden, W.Va., said the group he founded, The Friends of Mohammed, quickly realized the government would bring Mohammed and his family to the United States, so they have concentrated on ways of honoring him here.

Thibeault said about 200 people signed a petition to form the group. The Friends of Mohammed has had donations from $10 to $100 from around the country and has gotten e-mail and calls from as far away as Siberia wanting to know about the group, he said.

``Our friends group is about trying to do the kind of thing a neighbor would do in a time of need,'' Thibeault said. ``When something tragic happens, you don't push yourself. You let people know you are available. The Middle Eastern community in Charleston has come forward, and I think the whole group has become friends. I think that was sort of step one.''

On Saturday, the group planted a garden in Al Rehaief's honor on Lynch's birthday at the Palestine Post Office in a ceremony with Middle Eastern food and members of the Islamic Center.

The next step, Thibeault and Daoudi say, is honoring Al Rehaief with the six-mile walk May 24.

They hope Al Rehaief and his family will attend, but both are focused on keeping alive a story that has already brought many different people together in West Virginia and elsewhere.

``We are focusing on the humanitarian aspect of the whole story,'' Daoudi said. ``We are working quietly and slowly. We haven't been in touch with him yet. We are requesting and informing him through (the media) that there is a group and they are on his side and they are preparing all of the best for him when he comes to West Virginia.''