Home News At least 11 Americans killed in Saudi Arabia pilgrimage

At least 11 Americans killed in Saudi Arabia pilgrimage

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At least 11 Americans who travelled to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj in sweltering heat this month have died, the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday, adding that more deaths were likely to be confirmed in the coming days.

In Maryland, the daughter of a couple is still seeking answers about the circumstances surrounding her parents’ deaths and the actions of the travel agency they paid tens of thousands of dollars to help them make the trip.

Daughter Saida Wurie said she and her brothers do not yet know where their parents, Isatul Wurie and Alieu Wurie, are buried. She said she plans to travel to Saudi Arabia as soon as she knows where her parents are.

“It’s hard to lose a loved one,” she said Tuesday. “But not being able to bury them, that’s an indescribable feeling.”

The couple is More than 1,300 people died Muslims who travel to the holy city of Mecca for the annual Hajj face high temperatures, sometimes reaching 120 degrees. The Saudi government says the vast majority of Muslims do not have permission to perform the pilgrimage.

The hajj is a deeply spiritual rite that Muslims are expected to perform at least once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able. Nearly two million people perform the pilgrimage each year, and it is not uncommon for pilgrims to die from heat stress, illness or chronic disease. It is unclear whether the death toll this year is higher than in previous years because Saudi Arabia does not regularly report these figures.

Friends and family of Issatou, 65, and Aliou, 71, said their trip was not surprising because they were both devout Muslims and had dreamed of visiting Mecca their entire lives.

Alieu and Isatul Wuri, left, were married in Sierra Leone last year. Friends and family said they were devout Muslims and their lifelong dream was to go to Mecca.Credit…Wurie Family

“They’re just an amazing group of happy people,” said Seda, 33. “Everyone loves them.”

Saving money for the trip was no easy feat. The couple paid about $23,000 to a Maryland travel agency and set off on the journey in early June with dozens of members of the Muslim community in and around Bowie, Maryland, outside Washington, Seda said.

But upon arriving in Mecca, they told Saeedah that the operator seemed unable to get official permission for them. Saeedah said the couple was frustrated because they had always thought they were “doing things by the rules”.

The last message she received from her mother was that the bus to take them to one of the locations had not arrived and they had been walking for more than two hours. In the days since, Sayda has tried to contact her parents by phone, but has been unsuccessful.

Seda learned from a U.S. official about a week ago that their names had been added to the list of victims. The tour operator did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

The death toll this year has exposed the dangers of unregulated tour operators and smugglers around the world who profiteer from Muslims eager to make the journey to Mecca. Pilgrims who are not officially registered often have difficulty getting shelter and air conditioning.

The deaths also point to serious failures in Saudi immigration and security procedures to prevent unregistered pilgrims from reaching the holy sites.

The Wooris both grew up in Sierra Leone, where they met as children. Mr. Woori went to the United States to study first. Ms. Woori followed and they got married.

They have two sons, a daughter and four granddaughters, all of whom worked as nurses before retiring. The couple separated about a decade ago, but last year they held two more weddings, one in the United States and another in Sierra Leone.

Last year, Ms. Wurie had planned to travel to Saudi Arabia but postponed her trip to perform the pilgrimage with her husband.

Friends and family described her as a woman of optimism and an unwavering commitment to serving others. She helped organize food drives and vaccination outreach in the early days of the pandemic and served on the African Diaspora Advisory Committee for Prince George’s County, said C. Vincent Iweanoge, the commission’s chairman. She also volunteered for County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, who is now retired. Running for Senate.

“For her, it wasn’t about being in the spotlight,” Mr. Ivigno said of Ms. Wurie. “She was all about the service.”

Community leaders described Mr. Wurie as a political activist and entrepreneur with a joyful spirit. Teslim Alghali, the imam at the Sierra Leone Muslim Jamaat Mosque in Hyattsville, Maryland, said Mr. Wurie could come across as quiet and even shy, but he was passionate about “guiding young people to their full potential” and was active in Sierra Leone’s politics.

Once in Mecca, the couple were still able to perform some of the initial rituals of the Hajj, and their daughter said they were “very excited to see the Kaaba,” the cube-shaped building Muslims believe was the first house of worship.

She said she believes her parents must have been filled with joy in their final days. “They died doing exactly what they wanted to do,” Seda said.

The community also mourned Tuesday the death of Fatmata Koroma, 61, who her family said was also on her way to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage. She and her husband, also from Sierra Leone, had lived in Bowie, Maryland, for decades and worshipped at the same mosque as the Uri couple.

Ms. Koroma’s daughter, Umu Jallow, said her mother was excited about the trip. “For every devout Muslim, this is their dream,” said Ms. Jallow, 24. “This is something she’s really excited about.”

In the days before her death, Ms. Koroma sent happy text messages and cheerful photos to her family. But her daughter said she also shared troubling news, such as mysterious delays and concerns about obtaining the correct documents.

The family learned of Ms. Koroma’s death from U.S. officials on June 16. They were invited to Saudi Arabia for her funeral.

Vivian Nerrim and Emmad Mekay Contributed reporting.

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