by Moustafa Bayoumi
from How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America.
Rasha is a petite five foot four. She walks with a feather step and looks at you with penetrating obsidian eyes. Her lips are often lightly glossed in pink, and her serious brown hair is commonly tied in a librarian’s bun. She’s fine-boned, with features as brittle and hard as porcelain: If you drop her, she’ll break, but she’ll cut you, too. She’s tough and tender, enraged and exhausted, withdrawn and outgoing, a pessimist brimming with hope.
She has lived in the United States for more than eighteen years, almost all of them in Brooklyn. Rasha was born in 1983, in Damascus, Syria, but when she was 5 years old, her family was granted a tourist visa to the United States, and they moved from the Fertile Crescent to Avenue U in Gravesend. At the time, Syria under Hafez al-Assad was anything but fertile. Bombings against the regime were frequent, as were mass arrests and torture, culminating in the 1982 massacre of thousands in the city of Hama.
As soon as the family arrived in the United States, Rasha’s father applied for residency. He also began working at a discount clothing store on 14th Street in Manhattan, eventually becoming a partner.
Rasha’s mother taught her how to be a proper Arab Muslim girl in the United States. As her parents were not particularly religious, the lessons revolved less around theology than values: honesty, compassion, and protection of her honor. She had three siblings—Reem, an older sister; Munir, an older brother; and Wassim, a younger brother. None of them was much of a model for Rasha. Reem was five years older, a large differential at that age. The two girls fought often.
The family stayed in the New York area until 1996, still without having adjusted their immigration status. The residency application had been unsuccessful, but Rasha’s father had hired a lawyer and was appealing the decision. Meanwhile, her mother had given birth to two more little brothers. Since they were born in Brooklyn, the two infant boys were, unlike the rest of the family, citizens of the United States. But the immigration proceedings were stalled, and Rasha’s father gave up and moved them back to Syria that year.
Rasha had just finished sixth grade, and she found her new environs hard going. She spoke Arabic but could not read and write in the language, so school was difficult. Outside class, she would repeat to her school friends what she heard at home about Syria’s dear president, and their mouths would drop. “You never, ever, ever say anything about the president,” they whispered. She became even more pro-American, seeing with a teenage girl’s perspective the importance of things like freedom of speech and basic human rights. She realized how much she had taken for granted. She missed her American life.
After a couple of months, Rasha’s father received word from his American lawyer that the family finally had an interview scheduled for their green-card application. They were approved for a visa to visit the United States, which felt like a miracle. Back in Brooklyn, Rasha was again happy. This is what she knew. This was home.
James Madison High School was good for Rasha. The redbrick school, set in a prosperous area of Midwood, with its large houses and green lawns, has an elegant exterior even though the windows are caged and you need to pass through a metal detector to get in. It also has a quote from President Madison carved on its edifice. “Education,” it reads, “is the true foundation of civil liberty.”
At Madison, Rasha met her best friends, Gaby and Nicky. Gaby is from Ecuador, Nicky from Azerbaijan. The three of them became inseparable. When they weren’t in school, they were everywhere else—on the subway to Manhattan, at one another’s houses, at the movies, shopping, or eating. By the spring of 2001, when Rasha graduated from Madison, her father had saved enough money to buy a place in Bay Ridge, with its limestone row houses and numerous Arabs. This was the first property the family had owned, and her parents were very proud of the accomplishment. Two Egyptian tenants lived in their basement apartment. Rasha started college in September 2001.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Rasha was sleeping late. Her mother opened her bedroom door and peeked in. “Rasha,” she said. “You can’t go to school. The subway’s not working.” Half-asleep, Rasha raised her head. “Why?” she asked. “Accident,” her mother explained, shrugging her shoulders. “With a plane.” Rasha went back to sleep.
Several months later, in February 2002, in the middle of the night, Rasha was shaken awake by a woman in a uniform who told her to get dressed. Oh my God, Rasha thought, somebody’s died, and she felt her heart drop and crack. She immediately glanced over to her sister. “What the hell’s going on?” she asked, but Reem just looked frightened. Shock and fear paralyzed Rasha, and her knees locked. “Ma’am, just get up,” repeated the female officer. “Get up and get dressed.” Disoriented, Rasha forced herself to slowly rise. She walked downstairs in her pajamas, a few steps behind her sister.
In the living room, she saw her entire family sitting awkwardly on the couch, and she sighed with relief. But then she noticed that her brother Munir’s legs were shackled. Shock turned to confusion as she realized that about fifteen law-enforcement officers—INS officials, U.S. Marshals, and FBI agents—had taken over their residence. The strangers, some with guns, walked through her house as if they owned it. Out the window she saw that it was the lights from their vehicles that had been shining into the living room.
An FBI agent, the apparent leader of the group, stood in front of the family and told them they were being investigated for possible terrorist connections and that they could be deported, possibly in as little as two or three days. At this point, Rasha’s mother became frantic, crying and screaming out questions. But he just reiterated monotonously that everything would be explained to them at Federal Plaza.
This was no accidental arrest. The man seemed to know everything about the family, including the fact that Rasha’s two youngest brothers, both minors, were U.S. citizens. He told Rasha’s father to arrange custody for them. Rasha’s father suggested his brother, who lives in New York, and asked if he could call him and wait until he arrived. That would take too long, the agent said, and instructed him instead to leave the boys with the tenants below. When they were ready to go, the agent turned to the entire family and said, “We’re going to handcuff you now.”
(Later, Rasha learned why her eldest brother had already been shackled. When an agent went to his downstairs bedroom to wake him, Munir was uncooperative. “Why?” he kept asking. “Come on, get up,” the agent said. “Why?” “Just get up,” the man repeated, and Munir asked why again. “Get up!” the agent yelled. “Get up and put your hands together, like the way you pray!” Munir swore at him and told him to get the hell away. “So they shackled him,” Rasha told me, “you know, to tame him.”)
Outside, the official vehicles had closed off the entire street. The agents shepherded the family into a van. The ride to Manhattan’s Federal Plaza was bumpy and disorienting, affording them no view of the road. When the van stopped and the back doors eventually swung open, they were all pulled from the vehicle into the building, led to a room, and then searched and fingerprinted before being dumped in a holding cell.
Eventually, each family member was taken to a separate room for questioning. The interrogators asked Rasha very specific questions: Where was she on X day? When did she go to Y place? As she gave her answers, she realized that they knew what she was going to say. After a few minutes, they even seemed to be feeding her the answers to their questions.
That night, her father led a prayer, and the women covered their hair as best they could. When the authorities came back in the morning, her father pleaded with them. Enough of this, he said. Just deport us. But the FBI man wouldn’t hear it. We are turning you over to the INS, he said. You have to be investigated, and you will be held in detention in the meantime. Another agent told them in more private tones that they should have expected to be arrested at a time like this and that they would have a better life over there. Rasha glared at him. We’re cleaning out the country, he seemed to be saying, and you’re the dirt.
They learned that they’d all be going to a facility in New Jersey, except for Wassim, who was under 18 and thus bound for a juvenile-detention center in Pennsylvania. Being split up was a fresh horror. Through her own waterlogged eyes, Rasha watched her family collapse in tears.
At the jail in Bergen County, Rasha and her mother and sister were strip-searched and photographed before being taken to a filthy and overcrowded holding area. Everybody seemed nasty or catatonic. This is just like prison on television, Rasha thought. A corrections officer opened the door and told them to get inside. The door locked behind them.
After six hours, they were herded into another holding cell, teeming with even more people, where they would stay for two days. Rasha’s mother raged and yelled until she was able to place a call to her brother-in-law about her youngest sons. Rasha, Reem, and their mother were eventually moved again, to a larger wing of the facility, where they were again strip-searched, then given beige jumpsuits and black-and-white Converse-style shoes and assigned to cells. The INS official who had told them at Federal Plaza that they would be deported within days was clearly wrong. When they joined the general population, Rasha realized with dread, they were going to stay for a while.