Is It Safe Yet?

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

In one of the nightmares, Mohammed Baban is back in the mountains of northern Iraq, at one of Saddam Hussein's checkpoints. An officer is shouting, and Baban is trying to hide to keep from being beaten, "because they will just take you and nobody will ever see you again."

Other nights, Baban dreams about his family, who still live in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. "In the morning, when I wake up, I am still in a bad dream," he says. "I call them -- 'Is everything OK? Did anything happen?' -- and my mother says, 'We are worried about you now, please come back. At least let's all die together."

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."

An interpreter at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Baban came to St. Louis as a refugee in 1996, bringing his wife and one brother. Their passage was guaranteed because he'd worked for a humanitarian organization, but the rest of his family had to stay. "They wanted to come," he says in a tight voice. "But not now. Nobody wants to come now. They cannot choose which one is better.

"In the beginning, we didn't know that we would be hated by the American community," he recalls. "We thought, 'These are terrorists, and they are going to do something against them." But soon all the Muslim refugees were canceling their clinic appointments -- some to lock themselves in their apartments for the next 10 days -- and Baban was hearing about nothing but "Islamic terrorists," his faith equated with its perversion. "I thought of American people, all of them, as very smart," he says now, "understanding what is going on in the world, understanding politics, religion, technology, everything. This has confused it."

One of Islam's important teachings, he says, is that "if you go anyplace in the world, if you eat and drink something there, that is your home, and you should never cheat it." But though Baban's own faith binds him to America, he is afraid to speak the word "Islam." Though he works at the airport every weekend, he avoids saying that word, too. "My friend put me down as a reference, and he called me at the hospital to ask the address," he says. "I said, 'Just call this number at the airport.' Then I realized what I'd said." To his friend's bewilderment, Baban started babbling irrelevant details, just in case anyone had overheard.

"I was feeling free a month ago," he sighs. "A month ago, I was going to language school, I was very energetic, very happy to go and learn. Now I don't have any feeling to learn. I don't think about it anymore, because I don't know what is going to happen." Once he believed his green card would keep him safe, but a few days ago, he talked to a friend who'd called the police about a personal matter: "The police said, 'What do you have?' and when my friend said a green card, they told him, 'If you call one more time, we will send you back to your country.'

"In my country, police don't do things like scare you," Baban says. "Maybe they hit you or beat you or put you in jail, but they don't make you scared. If they send me back to my country, Saddam is going to kill me, so I am scared to death.

"There are places we cannot go now, places I am afraid to go," he continues. "Big malls. Places where there are a lot of people and we don't know them. People used to come every day to Tower Grove Park -- we would talk, barbecue, play soccerball after work until sunset. Now you don't see those people anymore. If someone has surgery, there is no family visit, or they come for a few minutes, in a big group."

One evening, as Baban was waiting for a green light at Grand and Wyoming Street, a group of boys approached his car. He rolled down the window, thinking they needed directions. When he heard "Fuck Islam," he knew better. But he is determined to tolerate any insults or injuries without reporting them. "My situation here is very weak," he explains. "Nobody is going to defend, nobody is going to be on my side."

Baban's wife, Nasrin Baban, is an interpreter at Soldan High School. After the attacks, she says, "the staff there started asking me what religion I am, and I just kept saying, 'I am Kurdish, I am not Arabic.'" Nasrin, too, has family in northern Iraq, and she's worried sick about them. Yet, on Sept. 26, when she heard that terrorists linked to bin Laden had bombed in Kurdistan, she felt a twinge of relief. "Today was my lucky day," she said that evening. "When I went to school, I was announcing, 'He has attacked back home, too. See, he is against us; he is not our group.' I was very comfortable today."

Nadine* was born in Dearborn, Mich., but her father was a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, and when she turned 15, he sent her there to learn the world.

She wailed about leaving her clothes and her friends; she wailed that she didn't know the language and that nobody would like her. A year later, she was writing home in Arabic, begging to stay. When she finally returned to Dearborn, she shamefacedly approached the Arab girls she used to shun as "just off the boat, funny clothes, funny accent." She had some proving to do, though. "You have never seen a war," they said. "You don't know what it's like."

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