Foreign Policy Magazine

The Vanishing

Last year, Dahlia Yehia traveled to Nepal to volunteer in earthquake relief. Through Couchsurfing.com, she connected with a friendly host. He gave her a free place to stay. They socialized. They ate dinner. Then Dahlia Yehia was never heard from again.

On the rainy afternoon of Aug. 5, 2015, Dahlia Yehia stepped off a public bus in the center of Pokhara, Nepal, a resort town nestled on a lake at the foot of the western Himalayas. Pokhara is a popular starting point for treks to some of the planet’s highest peaks, including Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Machapuchare, revered as sacred in the Hindu faith. During mountaineering season—roughly October to April—tourists crowd Pokhara’s Lakeside Road, a mile-long strip of businesses offering guided pony tours, paragliding courses, and sightseeing flights.

Yehia, a slender 25-year-old Egyptian-American with dark, soulful eyes and a shy demeanor, couldn’t afford those kinds of outings. She was backpacking on a shoestring budget and hoping to relax for a few days before deciding on her next destination. She wasn’t carrying much: her bag, a few articles of clothing, some novels, a diary that doubled as a sketchbook, and an iPhone 5. She hadn’t bought a local SIM card, so Yehia had to rely on Wi-Fi to use her phone. Connectivity in the Himalayas was spotty, however, and she hadn’t contacted her friends or family for several days.

One of her first stops in Pokhara was an Internet café, where, through the message app Voxer, she sent a short note to Robert Klugerman, a close friend back in the United States whom Yehia had met in college. “Hey I’m back to civilization,” she wrote.

Klugerman heard from Yehia again a day later. She had found a place to stay and was hanging out in the Lakeside area. She had discovered a German bakery that made cinnamon rolls, an exotic treat in Nepal. “[I]t’s rainy season [and] there are no tourists so it’s really beautiful here and peaceful,” she wrote. “I think I will rest for a week or so.”

Later that same day, Yehia texted Klugerman that a mysterious rash she’d had once before on her trip had returned. She sent a close-up photo of the red patch on her skin, along with a message: “Guess what’s back. Sigh.”

Then, Dahlia Yehia vanished without a trace.

The harrowing story of what happened—or didn’t happen—to Yehia has humble origins thousands of miles from the Himalayas. Yehia was raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a town of about 75,000 people midway between Chicago and Detroit. Her father, who worked in health care services, and mother, a doctor, were originally from Egypt. Friends say the couple expected Yehia would stay close to home and one day marry within their Islamic faith. (Both parents declined to be interviewed.)

Despite her cloistered childhood, Yehia was determined to go her own way. At Portage Central High School, she excelled at painting and drawing. She also became passionate about humanitarian issues. During her senior year, a representative from a charity called 4 OneWorld spoke about child soldiers in Uganda to one of her classes. Yehia was so moved, teacher Jason Frink recalls, that she created an art portfolio depicting child fighters, including a charcoal sketch of a hollow-eyed boy clutching a Kalashnikov rifle. 4 OneWorld used the image in promotional materials. “You felt like you were looking into the eyes of that child,” Frink says.

After high school, Yehia enrolled at Kalamazoo College and majored in art. She spent a semester abroad in Ecuador, where she explored the Galapagos Islands, hiked in the Andean foothills, and ruminated with friends about the future. “We liked to talk about how we would change the world,” says Katie Weeks, who roomed with Yehia all four years of college. “She wanted to continue to do her art and use it to make a difference.”

Yehia left Kalamazoo

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