‘They saved their whole lives for this’: American woman’s heartbreak as parents die on Hajj

Saida Wurie said it was her parents’ lifelong dream to participate in Hajj, the religious pilgrimage that brings Muslims from around the world to Saudi Arabia each year.

They’d spent $23,000 on an all-inclusive travel package through a tour company registered in the state of Maryland.

“They saved their whole lives for this,” she told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield.

But what was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime turned tragic this week, when Wurie learned that her mother Isatu Tejan Wurie, 65, and father Alieu Dausy Wurie, 71, were among the hundreds of pilgrims who have died during the extreme temperatures that have gripped the Persian Gulf country. More than 500 have been confirmed dead while there are fears that number is well above a thousand.

The Wuries were American citizens from Bowie, Maryland. Mrs. Wurie had recently retired as a head nurse at Kaiser Permanente in Prince George’s County, her daughter told CNN.

Speaking to CNN’s Whitfield on Saturday, Wurie said she had been in close contact with her parents while they were in Saudi Arabia via a family group chat. It was in that chat, she said, that she learned that the tour company did not provide the proper transportation or credentials needed to participate in the pilgrimage. The group her parents were traveling with, which included up to 100 fellow pilgrims, lacked sufficient food and supplies for the five-to-six-day journey that is a pillar of Islam, she said.

Wurie believes her parents were not “properly prepared” for the trip by the tour operator and “did not receive what they paid for” from the company. CNN has reached out to the tour company for comment.

Isatu Tejan Wurie and Alieu Dausy Wurie. - Family Photo
Isatu Tejan Wurie and Alieu Dausy Wurie. - Family Photo

She last heard from her parents on Saturday, June 15, when her mother messaged that they had already been waiting for transportation for hours to take them to Mount Arafat. She believes they were located in Mina at the time. The couple ultimately opted to walk instead and sent a message to their daughter after they had been walking for over two hours.

The couple then joined fellow pilgrims and others in their tour group on Mount Arafat, where they were gathering to pray and reflect on the holy site. A man on their tour group contacted Saida Wurie to say that her parents had gone missing on Mount Arafat, after her father said that he could not continue on the journey and stopped for a break along the way. The man had continued to the top of Mount Arafat but could not find the couple upon his descent.

Wurie received death notifications from the US Consulate in Jeddah, which had obtained them from the Saudi Interior Ministry, saying her parents had died of “natural causes” on June 15. She was later advised by someone at the US Embassy that heat stroke would be considered a natural cause.

The Consulate General’s Office told her that her parents had already been buried, but have been unable to tell her exactly where.

Now, Saida and her brothers are doing everything they can to get answers and find their parents’ burial place.

“We did ask the Saudi government to hold the bodies in order for us to travel to Saudi Arabia to at least give them the proper burial with [their] children being present and to be able to identify the bodies,” she told Whitfield. “Unfortunately, they have already been buried.”

⁠She would like American diplomats to meet her and her siblings on the ground when they arrive to assist them in finding where their parents are buried and collecting their belongings, since she does not know Arabic and is not familiar with the area. As of Saturday, diplomats have not committed to meeting them in person in Saudi Arabia, she said.

The US State Department confirmed there had been “deaths of multiple US citizens in Saudi Arabia,” but declined to comment on any specifics around the Wurie family.

Extreme heat has been named as a main factor behind the hundreds of deaths and injuries reported this year during the Hajj. Mecca, the holy city that is central for Hajj pilgrims, saw temperatures soar to a record-setting 125 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday.

High temperatures for this year’s gathering had been expected, with the Saudi army deploying more than 1,600 personnel with medical units and 30 rapid response teams specifically for heatstroke. Another 5,000 health and first aid volunteers were also on duty.

A woman uses a hand held battery run fan to cool off a man lying on the ground during the symbolic 'stoning of the devil' ritual at the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mina on June 16, 2024. - Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images
A woman uses a hand held battery run fan to cool off a man lying on the ground during the symbolic 'stoning of the devil' ritual at the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mina on June 16, 2024. - Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images

But CNN has spoken to other Hajj pilgrims who said the preparations weren’t enough, with one describing seeing fellow worshipers lose consciousness and walking past bodies covered in white cloths.

The exact death toll remains unclear and is expected to rise, as countries around the world have been independently announcing the deaths of their nationals.

Concern over improper tour groups has also grown. Egypt announced it was revoking the licenses of 16 travel agencies that organize Hajj trips on Saturday, according to the state-run news agency Ahram Online.

This isn’t the first time hundreds of pilgrims have died while traveling for the Hajj, which this year attracted more than 1.8 million people. In 2015 more than 700 people were killed during a stampede in the Saudi Arabian city of Mina, just outside of Mecca. In 2006, 363 people were killed during a stampede at the site where pilgrims gathered to participate in the ‘stoning of the devil’ ritual in Mina. Last year, more than 200 people died.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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