Israeli Woman Previously Detained by Russia Has Message for Brittney Griner

U.S.-based Na’ama Issachar was jailed for 10 months after pleading guilty to a drugs charge, and urges the basketball player to stay positive and try to smile. ‘It helps, even if it seems like it doesn’t’

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Brittney Griner. left, and Na'ama Issachar.
Brittney Griner. left, and Na'ama Issachar.Credit: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters, NBC screengrab
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Haaretz

The case of Brittney Griner, the U.S. basketball player who has been detained by Russia on dubious charges, has made headlines worldwide in recent weeks. Now, Israeli citizen Na’ama Issachar – who was jailed by Russia for 10 months after being accused of smuggling narcotics – is breaking her silence to send Griner a message of encouragement.

In an interview with NBC News this week, 28-year-old Issachar, who is a dual Israeli-American citizen, urged Griner to “stay positive” and said she was praying constantly for the release of the star athlete.

Asked what advice she would give to Griner, who pleaded guilty to a drugs charge in a Russian court last Thursday but denied she had intentionally broken the law, Issachar told the U.S. network she should “try to smile.”

“It helps, even if it seems like it doesn’t. It really helps, mostly for herself,” she said.

“There’s so much power in what we train our minds to think,” she added. “There was something that I read, and it really changed everything that I thought. It was a quote that said: ‘If you can’t change anything else, you can choose to change your mind.’ It was so simple.”

Issachar was sentenced by a Russian court to seven and a half years in prison in 2019, after a small amount of marijuana was found in her possession while she traveled through the Moscow airport. According to the indictment, Issachar was traveling from India to Israel and had stopped for a connecting flight in Moscow, where a police dog indicated there were drugs in her knapsack on the baggage carousel.

She was granted a pardon by Russian President Vladimir Putin in January 2020 after serving 10 months. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters at the time that Israeli officials had taken a special interest in her release because there was a danger to strategic relations with Russia.

“I was like, where did that [marijuana] come from? There was no point that I was like ‘Oh no, they found it!’ Like, I didn’t know it was in my bag,” Issachar told NBC, describing how she was held together with 40 other prisoners and barely allowed any time outside. “It’s loud. They don’t provide you with anything besides food. They don’t provide you with toilet paper or feminine hygiene products,” she recalled. “You walk around in circles in a small cell.”

Na'ama Issachar during an appeal hearing in a courtroom in Moscow, December 2019.Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/ AP

She also studied Russian and kept a diary in which she wrote positive messages to keep up her spirits.

“Everything is gonna be alright. You’re stronger than you seem. Keep smiling and your head held high. Soon you will be home. This too shall pass,” she wrote in one entry, telling NBC she “would see all the optimistic things that I wrote inside and say, ‘See it’s not that bad, it can’t be that bad.’”

“I know what she’s going through. I see the videos of her and I’m like, I know that courtroom,” she continued. “I separated the large people in power deciding whether I’m there or not and the people who I actually see on a day-to-day basis. I think that’s why I was able to smile to the prison guards, say thank you, be grateful, pray honestly with my whole heart, thinking: Wow, my life is so rich, so filled with, like, love and compassion.”

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