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At Least 11 Americans Among Those Dead in Hajj Pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia

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At least 11 Americans were among those who died while making the Islamic pilgrimage of hajj to Saudi Arabia this month in searing temperatures, the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday, adding that it was possible that more deaths could be confirmed in the coming days.

In Maryland, the daughter of one couple was still searching for answers about the exact circumstances of her parents’ deaths, and about the actions of the tour operator whom the couple had paid tens of thousands of dollars to help them make the trip.

The daughter, Saida Wurie, said she and her brothers had not yet been told where their parents, Isatu and Alieu Wurie, had been buried. She says she plans to travel to Saudi Arabia as soon as she learns where they are.

“Losing a loved one is hard,” she said on Tuesday. “But then not being able to bury them is just an indescribable feeling.”

The couple were among the more than 1,300 people who died while making the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, as temperatures reached 120 degrees at times. The Saudi government said that the vast majority of them did not have permits.

Hajj is a deeply spiritual ritual that Muslims are encouraged to perform at least once in their lifetimes, if they are physically and financially able to do so. With nearly two million participating each year, it is not unusual for pilgrims to die from heat stress, illness or chronic disease. It is unclear if the number of deaths this year was higher than usual, because Saudi Arabia does not regularly report those statistics.

Friends and family of Isatu, 65, and Alieu, 71, said that it was no surprise that they had made the trip, as both were devoted to their faith and had a lifelong dream of going to Mecca.

Alieu, left, and Isatu Wurie celebrating their wedding in Sierra Leone last year. Friends and family said they were devoted to their faith and had a lifelong dream of going to Mecca.Credit…The Wurie family

“They were just such amazing joyful people,” Saida, 33, said. “Everyone loved them.”

Saving for the trip was no easy feat. The couple paid about $23,000 to a tour operator based in Maryland, Saida said, and made the journey in early June alongside dozens of other members of their Muslim community in and around Bowie, Md., outside Washington.

But after they arrived in Mecca, they told Saida that the operator seemed to have trouble getting them official permits. The couple were frustrated because they had believed that they had been going “by the book,” Saida said.

The last message she received from her mother said that a bus to take them to one of the sites had not arrived, and that they had been walking for more than two hours instead. For days after that, Saida tried and failed to reach her parents by phone.

About a week ago, Saida learned from a U.S. official that their names had been included on a list of the dead. The tour operator did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

The death toll this year exposed the dangers of unregulated tour operators and smugglers around the world who profit off Muslims who are desperate to make the journey to Mecca. Pilgrims who are not properly registered tend to have less access to shelter and air-conditioning.

The deaths also suggested a broad failure of Saudi immigration and security procedures meant to prevent unregistered pilgrims from reaching the holy sites.

The Wurie couple both grew up in Sierra Leone, where they met as children. Mr. Wurie came first to the United States to study. Ms. Wurie followed, and they married.

They had two sons, a daughter and four granddaughters, and both had careers in nursing before they retired. About a decade ago, the couple split. But last year, they married again in two ceremonies, one in the United States and another in Sierra Leone.

Ms. Wurie had been planning a trip to Saudi Arabia last year, but she postponed it so that she could make the pilgrimage with her husband.

Friends and family members described her as an upbeat woman who was steadfast about serving others. She had helped organize food drives and vaccination outreach campaigns during the early days of the Covid pandemic, and served on the African Diaspora Advisory Board in Prince George’s County, said C. Vincent Iweanoge, the board chair. She also volunteered for Angela Alsobrooks, the county executive who is now running for Senate.

“For her, it wasn’t about a spotlight,” Mr. Iweanoge said of Ms. Wurie. “It was just about the service itself.”

Community leaders described Mr. Wurie as a political activist and entrepreneur with a joyful spirit. Imam Teslim Alghali, of the Sierra Leone Muslim Jamaat mosque in Hyattsville, Md., said that he could come off as a quiet person, even shy, but that he was passionate about “leading the youths to live up to their full potential,” and was active in Sierra Leone’s politics.

Upon arriving in Mecca, the couple were still able to perform some of the initial rituals of hajj, and their daughter said that they were “so excited to see the Kaaba,” the cubic structure that Muslims believe was the first house of worship.

She said she believed her parents were filled with joy in their final days. “They died doing exactly what they wanted to do,” Saida said.

On Tuesday, the community was also mourning Fatmata Koroma, 61, who family members said also died while making the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. She and her husband were from Sierra Leone as well, lived in Bowie, Md., for decades and worshiped at the same mosque as the Wuries.

Ms. Koroma’s daughter, Wumu Jalloh, said that her mother had been excited about the trip. “For every devoted Muslim, that’s their dream,” Ms. Jalloh, 24, said. “That was something she was really excited for.”

In messages to her family in the days before her death, Ms. Koroma sent happy notes and cheerful photos. But she also shared troubling news about mysterious postponements and concerns about getting the right paperwork, her daughter said.

On June 16, the family learned of Ms. Koroma’s death from U.S. officials. They were invited to travel to Saudi Arabia to attend her burial.

Vivian Nereim and Emad Mekay contributed reporting.

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