Oakland Gardens’ Grapel returns home after Egyptian captivity

Ilan Grapel hugs his father Daniel (l.) and sister Michal at JFK International Airport. Photo by Christina Santucci
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After four and a half months of detainment in an Egyptian jail on espionage charges, Oakland Gardens native Ilan Grapel walked down a hallway at John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 4 and into the arms of his family Saturday morning.

Grapel’s release was negotiated between Egyptian and Israeli authorities and U.S. Rep. Gary Ackeman (D-Bayside), whose office the 27-year-old Grapel interned for as a teenager.

Grapel, an Emory Law School student, was scheduled to leave Israel for Queens midnight Saturday, but his plane was delayed for two hours due to mechanical problems and touched down at JFK at around 9:30 a.m. Saturday.

The Oakland Gardens native said his life flashed before his eyes while being held in solitary confinement in an Egyptian jail, thinking of bygone days playing basketball in South Jamaica and other memories from his youth.

Grapel said he was treated well by his captors: “Nothing physically happened to me,” he said, explaining that he received medical check-ups and was offered fish from the Nile River, as well as chicken and vegetables when he did not have an appetite for fish.

The 27-year-old said he “pestered” Ackerman in the past for recommendations for college and law school.

“I didn’t think I’d need a recommendation that I wasn’t a spy,” he said.

Grapel spoke with his family on the phone every two weeks, which he said helped him cope.

“To hear from my mother … it helped,” he said.

Ackerman said Grapel’s ordeal began when he decided to check out the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and a man charged him $1 to hold up a sign and have his picture taken.

“He had the perfect profile” of a spy, Ackerman said, noting that Grapel has duel United States and Israeli citizenship, served in the Israeli armed forces as a paratrooper and spoke fluent Hebrew and Arabic.

“He was the kind of kid if he wasn’t in jail for the last four and a half months, might have been in Zuccotti Park,” the congressman said.

Grapel was working in Cairo with a non-governmental organization to help relocate Sudanese refugees who were stuck in Egypt.

He stayed in a youth hostel near Tahrir Square.

Grapel’s mother, Irene Grapel, said she always held out hope that she would see her son again.

“Four and a half months we’ve been heartbroken and having approached Gary (Ackerman) first, I put all my trust in him. I’m elated and relieved that this whole scenario is over,” she said. “I can only say, ‘God bless America.’”

Grapel and his family then left the airport in a black Chevy Suburban and headed to an IHOP to satisfy Grapel’s craving for his favorite breakfast: chocolate chip pancakes.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4573.

Updated 8:41 pm, November 2, 2011
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Reader feedback

Dave from Bayside says:
Perhaps the good Congressman should change the flower in his lapel to a weed. This would signify the going to seed of this country and our society in general due to the so called leadership of the Congressman and his ardent support of Communist President Obama.
Nov. 11, 2011, 11:13 am

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