SAN JOSE, Calif. - He was young, displaced, and frustrated, and he wanted nothing more than to reunite with his mother in their native Africa.
The 15-year-old Somali had been arguing at home, and in the kind of impulsive move that teenagers make, he hopped a fence at San Jose International Airport on April 20 and clambered into a wheel well of a Hawaii-bound jetliner. He survived, and has not spoken publicly about the ordeal.
But his desperation and frustration is becoming apparent through interviews with friends, family, and law enforcement agents.
"What people need to understand is that these young teens are coming from a country torn by a civil war with no basic education and suddenly put in these high schools or elementary schools where they have a cultural shock," said Talha Nooh from the Muslim Community Association, where the family were members.
"This whole thing should be looked at in the context of a teen who is emotionally attached to his mom and grandparents," Nooh said. "The father is working 24 hours a day to take care of family here and other family members" in Africa.
For decades, Somalia, where the family is from, has been plagued with internal conflict, drought and violence. Today more than a million Somalian refugees are living in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen.
A U.N. official said the boy's mother, 33, lives at the Sheder Refugee Camp in Ethiopia, which houses about 10,200 displaced Somalis. Speaking with Voice of America radio from a refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia, the teen's mother, Ubah Mohamed Abdullahi, said her son had recently learned that she was alive after being told by his father she had died.
"I know he was looking for me, and I am requesting the U.S. government to help me reunite with my kids," she told VOA. She said her ex-husband took their three children to California without her knowledge, and that she hadn't heard from them since 2006. But community members said the parents had gone through a difficult divorce and that there are differing versions of what their children were told. The family is working with the Council on American-Islamic Relations to help communicate with medical providers, law enforcement, social workers and the media.
The boy's father, Abdilahi Yusuf Abdi, told VOA his son had struggled in California schools; school district officials confirmed the boy came to the U.S. four years ago. His father said his son had very little education in Africa.
Omar Lopez, who teaches at University of Southern California's School of Social Work, said typically in runaway cases, social workers assess the child and the family to rule out violence or abuse. He said it can take longer to do those assessments in cases of immigrants with limited English skills, and that in this situation, there are several state bureaucracies involved that could delay a reunion.
Jaque Kelley-Uyeoka of Hale Kipa, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth in Hawaii, where the teen remains hospitalized, said the state has several options for youth who run away from home, including foster homes and emergency shelters. Stressing that she neither speaks for the state nor has firsthand knowledge of this case, she also said case workers may prefer not to disrupt the boy's comfort if he feels safe at the hospital.