Is It Safe Yet?

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

At 18, Nadine married 29-year-old Mark*, another Palestinian-American Muslim, Jerusalem-born and fluent in five languages. In 1985, they moved to the suburbs of St. Louis. A few years ago, they took all four of their kids to spend the summer in a Palestinian village near Ramallah, and the family drove all over Israel. "Oh Mom," blurted Sam, the second-eldest, "why are the Arab parts so dirty, why are Arabs dirty?" Nadine was stricken, but Mark eased the car to a stop, saying, "There's a shopkeeper -- why don't we ask him?"

The man explained readily: "Even though we are part of Israel, we have to get a permit [often costing thousands of dollars] to paint or repair, even to plant a flower." Sam's eyes widened. They drove on, through Arab areas so poorly lit no tourists would venture there, to a historic mosque that had been allowed to rot. The boys begged to return and study, as their mom had. "We thought, 'They are working on a peace solution; the time will come," she says wryly. "And here we are."

Her private peace was shattered on Sept. 11 as she drove one of her children to school. "I had the radio on when the first plane crashed into the tower, and I closed my eyes and thought, 'Oh please, please let it be an accident.' I got home and called to my husband, and he came running and said the same exact words." Her laugh is high and thin, full of tears. "You have to understand how insecure we are!"

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."

Mark stayed home from work that day, and they sat frozen in front of CNN. When firemen started into the tower, Nadine screamed at the TV, "Just get them out, don't go in!" When the speculation began, she ran out the door to retrieve her kids from school: "I've never had raw emotions like that, where my body is just moving without me even realizing. But I went to my youngest son's school and asked to talk to the principal. I said, 'This isn't who we are. Muslims are not about this.' She said, 'I know you, I know that,' and I said, 'Yeah, but you really have to know it now, because my kids are here, and I don't want anyone to tell them Islam is ugly.'"

Nadine's next stop was the public high school where Abe, her eldest, has played sports and socialized freely. "We have it all under control; there's nothing to worry about," the principal told her, and she said, "Let me give you a scenario: Somebody pulls a headscarf off one of the girls and makes a remark. The Muslim boys are going to defend her, and you're going to have a brawl on your hands." From then on, the Muslim girls were escorted to class. But when Abe sat in class with two other Arab-American students, a boy and a girl with top grades, it became obvious that the teacher was calling on everyone but them. Finally the girl blurted, "What is it, Mrs. ____? Would you just prefer that we weren't here?'" Abe says the teacher nodded.

Nadine's last stop was the Catholic school where they'd enrolled quiet, thoughtful Sam. "Your son will be safer here than anywhere," insisted the principal, "because we live by faith." Wary of faith's prejudices, Nadine wasn't convinced. But Sam had no problems -- and the principal called four times to make sure.

The first call to their family, though, came early on Sept. 11, while Nadine was fetching the kids. "My husband answered, and he does not cry easily," she says. "But when I came home, he was in tears."

Hedy Epstein, a Jewish Holocaust survivor whose parents were killed at Auschwitz, had called to offer her home in case Mark and Nadine felt unsafe.

Nadine says she's never felt so loved by the people who know her -- yet she spent the first four nights sleepless: "My son had read a book about the Japanese internment, and he kept asking, 'Mom, is that what they're going to do to us?' My husband, really quick, said, 'No, they won't do that.' But it always plays at the back of our minds. When that building [the World Trade Center] came down, I looked at Mark and said, 'You know what's going to happen. They are going to show pictures of Palestinians dancing in the streets.' He said, 'I know. They are out there looking for them now.'"

Nadine first met Epstein and Haijer Ead in June, when they stationed themselves outside U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond's Clayton office as part of a worldwide vigil called for by Women in Black. This group of Palestinian and Jewish women has been holding peace vigils weekly since 1988. Another St. Louis vigil had been planned for mid-September, but it was canceled. When the organizers met Oct. 1 to regroup, the three friends came early to talk.

They make an incongruous group: tiny Hedy, 77 and bristling with energy, born in the Black Forest of Germany; pale, preppy Nadine, her children still school-age; Haijer, olive skin framed by a headscarf, born 46 years ago in what was then Jordan. "My home was occupied by Israel in 1967, when I was 12," she says. "I went for four days to the mountains. Since then, all the people suffer."

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