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Mother of missing 11-year-old clings to faith, family and community for strength

Kalliopi 'Kalli' Atteya says she will never give up seeking her son, Niko

December 22, 2011|By ROXANN MILLER | roxann.miller@herald-mail.com
  • Maria Panagos, left, and Kalliopi "Kalli" Atteya, are shown in the Broadway Deli in Chambersburg, Pa. The sisters say they will not give up trying to find Niko Atteya, who allegedly was kidnapped by his father in Egypt.
Photo by Roxann Miller, Staff Writer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — It's been almost impossible for Kalliopi "Kalli" Atteya to focus on Christmas when her son is missing a world away.

Physically, Kalli and her sister Maria are home for the holidays in Fayetteville, Pa., but emotionally, they are in Egypt, where 11-year-old Niko Atteya was allegedly kidnapped by his non-custodial father on Aug. 1.

"I had a breakdown before I left," Kalli said this week, trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears.

"Getting on the plane means I left my child behind. I don't know where he's at — I don't know how he's doing. To get on that plane means you leave your soul behind. You leave your heart behind."

She worries not only about her son's safety, but his health.

Niko suffers from asthma triggered by dust, grass, pollen, cats and a host of other things. He uses an inhaler frequently.

"I've seen my son not being able to breathe, and I worry about him. His father sent all his medications back to me saying, "He needs to learn to breathe on his own,'" a distraught Kalli said.

The two main reasons that she came back to the United States were to talk to Franklin County District Attorney Matt Fogal and to have surgery in early January.

"My main objective is to talk to (Matt) Fogal. He is the key. He's the link that says whether I get Interpol. He holds the key to signing papers that would enable me to move up the ladder from the FBI to Interpol," Kalli said.

"With the help of Interpol, we would not only be able to contain Mohamed (Niko's father) within Egypt or whatever country he's in, but also the Egyptian (law enforcement) counterparts can look for him as well."

She has contacted Fogal's office, but so far a meeting has not been scheduled.

District Attorney Matt Fogal did not return a message left at his office Tuesday.

Before the trip to Egypt there was no custody agreement, but now the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas has granted Kalli primary custody. She also was granted full custody by an Egyptian court.

While in Fayetteville, Kalli said she can't bear to stay in the home she shared with Niko.

She said the tidal wave of memories is almost unbearable, so she is staying in Fayetteville with her parents.

But, even at her parent's home, it's difficult not to think of Niko.

"You walk into a living tomb, and you can't breathe. There shouldn't be anything left in your heart, but yet it's still being shredded over and over again," Kalli said.

"I'm going to have things for him (Niko) under the tree as usual; unfortunately, by the time I find him nothing will fit," she said. "We're thinking about leaving the tree up until he comes back."

Kalli's sister, Maria, who remained in Egypt with Kalli since her nephew went missing, said what happened to Kalli is one of the cruelest things someone can do to a mother.

When Kalli and Maria were shoved out of the car that was also carrying Niko and his father, Maria hung on to the back of the car.

"I was dragged by the car. My arms and legs were scraped up, because I didn't want to let go, because I knew when I did, he (Niko) was gone," Maria said. "I had to decide between leaving my sister alone in the desert or hanging on to the car. It was the hardest part, because I knew once I let go he was gone."

"You are just walking dead. Your body is here, but you're dead," Kalli said about living day to day without her son.

Both Kalli and Maria know they must remain strong for Niko.

"I constantly remind myself that I can't break down. I tell myself, "Don't lose your mind now, because you're not going to come out of it'" Kalli said.

She clings to the positive memories of her son.

"Even at his age, he would give me a kiss and tell me how much he loved me. I used to tell him how much his kisses made me melt," Kalli said.

Kalli wants her son to know: "Mommy loves him bunches and bunches, and I will never give up. I will die trying."

As she goes through her ordeal, Kalli has learned to treasure life's smallest blessings.

"Don't take anything for granted," she said.

Both sisters say it's the support of their family and the Franklin County community that has kept them going.

"We want to thank everybody in our community from the bottom of our hearts. When we felt like we were going to have a breakdown and lose it, it's the community that gave us the strength and kept us motivated to keep fighting," Maria said.

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