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.

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.

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.

"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."

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."

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."

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!"

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."

Haijer has listened ruefully to America's new obsession with terrorism, afraid to remind anyone that in her homeland, it's a daily concern. "My cousin's 23-year-old brother was killed just because he tried to help someone injured," she says. "He took him inside his car to try to take him to the hospital, and they shot him. Then they destroyed his house with bombs from U.S.-made Apache helicopters."

Haijer insists she's changed nothing in her own life since Sept. 11 because she has done nothing wrong. "Islam means peace," she emphasizes. "Instead of 'Hi,' we say, 'Salaam alaykum,' 'Peace be upon you.'"

"Do you go out as much?" Nadine interrupts softly.

"Well, no," she admits, then adds in a rush: "Last week I was shopping at Schnucks, and suddenly I heard people around me talking about terrorists and where they came from and the way they wear clothes. I am embarrassed -- I couldn't wait to go out of that store. I used to walk around the block every day, but since then I stopped." She takes a deep breath. "Every time I go out, somebody looks at me different. The first time, I thought I didn't care, but when I went home and started praying, I started to cry."

Hedy nods, thinking of the times she's been vilified by her own people for her support of Palestinian rights. On Sept. 25, after a meeting of the Holocaust Commission, another member looked right through her to address a mutual friend. The next morning, Hedy called her: "She apologized, but then she went into all the things that I have done, the vigil I helped organize, and she said that I am anti-Semitic, that I cause anti-Semitism. She said, 'I know you have the right to say what you want -- but don't.'"

The next Sunday, Hedy went to the Jewish Federation for a screening of a film about a German doctor involved in Nazi experiments during the Holocaust. Afterward, she stood, eager to tell the audience about a phone call she'd received two weeks before from one of a pair of twins experimented on by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. "She told me she had interviewed this other doctor and that at the end of their conversation, she forgave him. She said he was an old man, and she wanted to ease his last days." Hedy's story was met with a wave of fury. "One woman listed all the people she'd lost in the Holocaust and said, 'I will never, ever, ever forget.' Another said, 'Yeah, 6,000 people were lost in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, but we lost 6 million.' A man said he was a veteran of World War II and he wished we'd dropped the atomic bomb on Germany and killed all the Germans. The moderator, who is Jewish and from Germany, said, 'I am glad that this bomb was not dropped, because my wife is a German Christian.' But even that didn't stop them."

"You can imagine what they'd want to do to us," Nadine inserts ruefully.

"I want Israel to exist," continues Hedy, "but not in its current form. I feel in many ways some of the persecutees have become the persecutors." When Jewish friends, terrified of losing the homeland they've created, counter with their own version, she tells them it's revisionist history: "It's Israel right or wrong. They are unquestioning. I'm afraid that perhaps it's a human trait."

"There are a lot of things I'm afraid to question right now," confesses Nadine. "I think whoever did this, we need proof, and I am afraid to say that, because it sounds like I'm harboring the enemy. If I say something like 'Iraqi oppression,' I'm a radical, I'm trying to stand up for Saddam Hussein. If I say we have to ask ourselves why this happened -- it isn't because we have swimming pools and we wear bikinis, it isn't because we're more beautiful; we have to look at our foreign policy -- if I say that, it's going to sound like I'm one of them. And I'm not, and I never will be."

Basia Waite-Wright directs health and mental-health services at the International Institute and conducts in-depth, long-term therapy with survivors of war trauma and persecution. For them, the continuous, graphic, immediate coverage of "America's New War" is merging the terrors of the past with those of the future. "At the beginning," Waite-Wright says, "when the president was saying, 'Don't worry, it's not going to be a war in the conventional sense,' the Bosnians said, 'It's just like it was with us. They were telling us, "Don't worry, it's not going to be a war." Then, once the reports started to come out about the terrorists' being Muslims, that triggered a terrible fear of persecution."

Waite-Wright tried logic with her clients: Yes, incidents had happened already, but it could have been much worse; these were not mass assaults, and this was not an officially sanctioned view. "They agree for a moment," she says, "but then they talk about the times when it was enough just to have a Muslim name or Muslim clothing. They say, 'Will my child be discriminated against? Will I be the first to be laid off from work?'"

One Bosnian woman had just moved into a peaceful new apartment, far from a few Serb neighbors who'd been bothering her. By early September, Waite-Wright says, "she was sleeping better, she had more energy, she was finally starting to plan, to see that maybe there was some hope for the future." She'd ached for some sign of acceptance, and when her new neighbors greeted her warmly, and she found herself having conversations with them, she came to see Waite-Wright, bubbling with the news.

Then came Sept. 11. The woman started having nightmares. She grew afraid to be in her apartment alone. She said the neighbors were turning their faces away from her. "The hope that was just starting has -- it's like a new flower that was just budding, and the frost came, and now it's gone," sighs Waite-Wright. "It's very painful."

She is only listening to all this pain, only watching it. But it crawls onto her skin, climbs into her stomach, weighs down her heart. "Sometimes I cry," she admits. "But I find hope -- maybe it is not a justified hope -- but when I put on the TV or the radio and I hear all these different views, that builds up my hope."

Difference isn't exactly cherished these days, though. "Before," she says, "you were eager and proud to talk about where you came from, and people would be interested and perhaps know something about it or ask some questions. Now, immigrants wish they were not different. The more American somebody looks now, the better, because then you don't bring attention to yourself.

"The refugees all mourn the loss of their feeling of safety," she finishes. "It's like they are grieving that they have lost what they thought they had. We try to focus on the fact that it might be rebuilt again in the future.

"But of course that will depend on what happens."

Editor's note: All names marked with a * are pseudonyms.

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.