Is It Safe Yet?

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

Around 7 a.m. Sept. 24, two FBI agents and another officer, presumably from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, showed up at Trans States Airline. He says they were alerted by one of his co-workers because he was a Muslim and had access to airplanes and maybe was related to the other Osama. "The FBI asked me who I knew and how I came here and what I thought of al Qaida," recalls Elfar, his voice shaking. "I told them, 'If you want to come to my apartment to complete your investigation, you are more than welcome. My dad is there."

Mohamed Elfar, who had come for a visit, speaks little English. But after watching the agents riffle through his son's phone bill and seize an address book, he started worrying, and when the agents left with Elfar in custody, he panicked. That night, one of Elfar's friends found them an immigration lawyer.

Dorothy Harper went to see her new client the next morning, but after several hours' wait, she says, she was told he was still being questioned by the FBI. Elfar says he was told that Harper had not filled out the proper forms. On Sept. 26, Harper says, the INS told her he was at the federal holding station in Jennings, and Jennings said they'd brought him down to INS. When she asked again, she says, she was told he had not specifically requested an attorney. Late that afternoon, after checking on writs of habeas corpus, she finally got in to see Elfar. He'd been charged, just hours before, with overstaying his student visa. He would await his hearing in 24/7 lockdown, with no visitors.

Nadine*: "You have to understand how insecure  we are!"
Jennifer Silverberg
Nadine*: "You have to understand how insecure we are!"
Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein: "In many ways, some of the persecutees have become the persecutors."
Jennifer Silverberg
Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein: "In many ways, some of the persecutees have become the persecutors."

"After five days, I said, 'I did not even take a shower since I came here,'" says Elfar, calling Oct. 2 from the INS building on Spruce Street, where he has been brought several times. "The immigration people have been very nice, but when they take me back to Jennings --" He breaks off. "That Friday afternoon, they did let me out for an hour to take a shower," he resumes, his voice calmer. "I told them I need to know the time, because I pray five times a day. They said I could ask the guards, but one lady guard wouldn't give me the time; she just kept telling me I was an INS prisoner.

"The guy who serves the food is an inmate," continues Elfar. "I asked for soap, and I heard him say, 'The terrorist in cell 22 needs a bar of soap.' The next time I saw him, I asked him why he said that, and he said, 'That's what you're here for, right? We all know. You are a terrorist linked to bin Laden and al Qaida.'"

On Monday, Oct. 1, Elfar asked the same inmate to tell the supervisor -- who'd been both kind and fair -- that he wanted to talk to him. The reported response: "What does that motherfucker think, that we're in the Persian Gulf?"

"I was surprised," says Elfar carefully, "because the supervisor had been very nice. Later I found out this was a different supervisor, and he'd been in the Gulf War."

Justin Meehan, an attorney who's been working pro bono trying to prevent the inevitable civil-rights violations, managed to see Elfar early on. Then Meehan called the FBI agents, who by then had returned to Elfar's Delmar Boulevard apartment and seized his computer. Meehan says they assured him they'd found no reason to suspect anything but a student-visa overstay. Publicly, the FBI will neither confirm nor deny that its investigation is finished. But INS has told Harper that if the agency uses anything it considers classified information as evidence at Elfar's hearing, she won't be allowed to review it ahead of time. "I'm trying," she says, "to have faith in the system."

Normally Elfar would be released on a minimum $1,500 bond and allowed to pay his bills, close his bank account, gather his belongings and formally abandon the degree he was so close to finishing. But INS has advised him not to count on that, and even Harper agrees it's a long shot; she's just worried how long he'll be detained before the inevitable "escorted" deportation. "One of the first things the government did after Sept. 11," she notes, "was extend the right to hold someone, 'in a period of emergency,' for as long a period as they deem reasonable -- whatever that is."

On Oct. 8, Harper's fears moved closer to reality; the INS, she says, was asking for a continuance of the bond hearing scheduled for Oct. 9.

Imam Muhammad Abdullah says Elfar has worshiped at the Daar-Ul-Islam mosque in West County for the past three years and says, "He is a nice person. He volunteered to help the refugees from Afghanistan and Kurdistan, gave them rides to the mosque, sat with them and taught them. Very few people do that kind of thing." The imam pauses. "If it is immigration, at least we need justice. If he is guilty of something, we should know. But if he is not guilty, he should be treated fairly."

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