Is It Safe Yet?

For Muslims in St. Louis, politics gets personal as fear dominates their lives

Sept. 11 ripped away the blanket, broke the dreamless sleep of Americans who'd lived their whole lives in safety and freedom. Ordinary joys lost their power to console. The push of commerce seemed suddenly obscene, and the fallen-away sought the nearest place of prayer.

As the surface distractions fell away, tragedy summoned a deeper identity. Liberals hoisted huge flags. Strangers sobbed together in grocery aisles. People flew into American action, filling firemen's boots and stitching rescue-dog booties. Gradually the shock faded. By October, most had accepted with alacrity the president's urgings to resume their normal lives, reinvest in the market, return to the skies.

But for thousands of Muslim refugees, Sept. 11's terror refracted, splitting into a thousand memories and private fears. In the place they'd come to feel safe, they saw flames and smoke and body counts. Sarajevo clawed its way back to the surface, along with Srebrenica and Kosovo; Chechnya; the Sabra and Shatila massacres; the gassings in Iraq.

Osama Elfar: "The FBI asked me who I knew and how I  came here."
Osama Elfar: "The FBI asked me who I knew and how I came here."
Osama Elfar: "The FBI asked me who I knew and how I  came here."
Osama Elfar: "The FBI asked me who I knew and how I came here."

Now there was no place left to go.

Nerves kept constant vigil, with no end in sight. Immigrants started to worry that their phones were tapped. Co-workers reported Arab-Americans to the FBI because they were Muslim. On Sept. 28, the Pew Research Center released a nationwide poll of 1,200 Americans: Almost one-third favored interning legal immigrants from unfriendly countries during times of crisis. On Oct. 3, a Wirthlin Worldwide survey showed that more than eight of 10 Americans supported restrictions on the number of Arabs or Muslims immigrating to the U.S. And 58 percent said there should be "tighter controls on all Muslims" traveling on planes or trains. Nearly one-third condoned acts of vandalism or threat against Muslims and Arab citizens, calling them "understandable." Since Sept. 11, the Council on American Islamic Relations has logged about 800 hate crimes against Arab-Americans -- and many Arab-Americans said they wouldn't report one. Not now.

Teenage Nazar* left his parents in Herat, in western Afghanistan, to come here with his older sister. She'd been interpreting for a Norwegian who wanted to bring social services to women in their village. When the Taliban tried to stop her, she fled.

Now she and Nazar live in an apartment near Grand Boulevard and Chippewa Street. She's working in a factory, and Nazar is a sophomore at a city public school. His mind burns with memories of earlier classrooms: "One day the Taliban comes and asks all the students, 'Do you have TV at home?' All of us say, 'No, we don't have TV,' and they say, 'Who has pictures, who has mirrors?' One boy had a picture postcard of an Indian film star in his bookbag, and the Taliban arrested him."

Nazar and his friends ran to the boy's father, who sold candy in a little shop on the street, and tried to tell him what had happened. Then, when the Taliban let the boy go, Nazar asked how he was. "He said they did bad things on him, they used him as a girl. He said he could not show his face.

"He was sitting in the same chair near to me; he was my classmate," Nazar bursts. "He was a very hard worker -- his family was very poor, but he was the smartest in the classroom. But he didn't like to stay any more in life. In Afghanistan we have a river, like the Missouri River, and after one month he put himself in the water." Nazar gulps. "His mother went crazy after that. It was very sad."

Nazar had his own brush with the Taliban, walking to a (later banned) English class. Saying his hair was too long, they arrested him. "They took any money we had and shaved our heads," he says. "Then they asked us about the Quran, and when I couldn't answer one of the prayers, they said, 'You are not Muslim.'" After three days, they released him. "But I saw in my own eyes," he continues, "they got two boys -- one 19, one 20 -- who went to visit their girlfriends. The Taliban said, 'Why do you look at women?' Then they brought the boys in front of everyone in the big stadium and shot them.

"When I got here, I felt very free, I felt very good," he finishes, his voice lifting. "Except I am worried about my family. And now I am shy, because it is a shame on me that those people are in Afghanistan."

His name is Elfar. Osama Elfar. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, he studied at an aeronautical institute in Cairo, then transferred to the companion program at Emory-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. He came in 1996, but at the end of 1997, his dad had run out of money to support him, so Elfar went to a campus job fair and landed a job in St. Louis, doing maintenance for a commuter airline.

By this fall, Elfar, now 30, had saved enough money to enroll in the University of Missouri-St. Louis/Washington University joint program in mechanical engineering. But he continued working off campus, and he took only two classes -- both violations of his full-time-student visa.

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