The life of a young Arab in Brooklyn was pretty much normal—until being thrown in jail with her family after 9/11 changed her idea of what it means to live here.
· By Moustafa Bayoumi
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 She’s tough and tender, enraged and exhausted, withdrawn and outgoing, a pessimist brimming with hope.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.
Rasha and Reem shared a cell: two unhappy beds and a stainless-steel toilet. They were given thick, itchy blankets that didn’t seem to bend. It was like sleeping under hairy cardboard. And they began to live, or at least survive, there. Rasha had had setbacks in the past, but she had never felt this sad, this powerless, this misunderstood. She contemplated hurting herself. She considered suicide. For a while, she stopped eating. She would lie on her bed sometimes for two or three days, finally lugging herself out of bed one day when the cell door opened so she could join the others and eat. Like lab rats, she thought.
Rasha’s depression slowly gave way to anger. Why was she here? For what? Because she had overstayed her visa and was now undocumented? She hadn’t committed a crime, and she was being punished for someone else’s acts. For someone else’s crime. She hadn’t been convicted. She had been abducted. This wasn’t justice. It was revenge.
She began to observe the little things the inmates would do to preserve a sense of autonomy. One woman would swipe the pint-size milk cartons from her meals and store them in the toilet because they stayed colder that way. Her mother slowly begin to mingle with the other inmates, and Rasha was becoming closer to her sister. The two girls held each other’s sanity like a locket, and Rasha felt the life breathing back into her. She and Reem began cracking all kinds of jokes about prison life (jokes that Rasha has since blocked out). They resolved never to wear Converse shoes again.
Over time, they met the rest of the inmates: Pakistani women, Arab women, and other Muslims detained under similar circumstances; Russians and Israelis, usually there for immigration reasons; a smaller group of Asians and a much larger population of Latinas and African-American women held mostly on drug-related charges. Everyone was incarcerated together.
If the holding area reminded Rasha of TV prison, the prison wing was different. On TV, inmates are constantly in your face, goading you into fights, organizing into gangs, carving out turf. But the women at Bergen were kind to one another. Treated by the system like beasts, they cultivated their humanity.
The corrections officers, on the other hand, were ignorant and abusive. They yelled at you. They ignored you. They terrified you. Here the gods were the beasts.
We’re cleaning out the country, the FBI agent seemed to be saying, and you’re the dirt.
Reem soon developed a horrible rash all over her body from those blankets. One night, when everyone was asleep, Reem couldn’t take the itch and pain any longer, and she began knocking on the glass. Two officers were talking on the other side, and Reem began pleading with them to come out. The officers could hear her, but she couldn’t hear them. She kept knocking, louder and louder. “Come here!” she yelled. She opened her jumpsuit to show her rash to the female officers. One officer leaned over and pressed a button. “I’m in the middle of a conversation,” she lectured. “You wait till I’m done.” But Reem just wouldn’t stop banging. She was sobbing. Seeing her older sister desperate for some kind of medical attention, Rasha began crying, too. The officer finally came out to see Reem and began yelling at her. “What the hell is your problem?” she shouted.
After three weeks in New Jersey, they were transferred to the Metropolitan Detention Center in the shadow of the Gowanus Expressway in Brooklyn. Rasha’s brother and father went to the same place, but in the male wing.
MDC was much cleaner than the New Jersey jail and arranged more like a dormitory than lab-rat cages. A simple common kitchen made it easier to commune with others. Maybe life was getting better. But just as at Bergen, time at MDC dragged on, and Rasha began to feel that they were never going to get out, that she wasn’t going to see her friends again, that she was not going to graduate college, get married, and move on to the next phases of her life.
What saved both her and her sister from madness was a feeling of responsibility for their mother. The living arrangements allowed the daughters to look out for her. This usually meant standing up for her to the corrections officers, who often responded to her imperfect English with impatient contempt. The conflict came to a head one day when Rasha’s mother asked a corrections counselor to call her son in Pennsylvania.
Rasha didn’t like this counselor. Some days he would look at you with these large, gentle cat eyes, listen to your problems, and help out in any way he could. But most of the time, he was just lecturing and disrespectful. He didn’t know why the inmates were there, and he didn’t care.
Rasha’s mother had the right to call her son regularly, and she always counted down the days until she could hear his voice again. But for reasons that were unclear to Rasha, on this day the counselor brusquely denied the request. Rasha’s mother walked out of his office in tears. Her daughters asked why she was crying, and then returned with her to the counselor’s room. Eventually he relented. But Rasha could feel the acid bubbling in her stomach because of this man who made her mother cry for no reason.
They could receive mail at MDC, and after about a month, Rasha got her first letter from Gaby. She read it over a hundred times, even though she knew it by heart after seventeen readings. Gaby sent more letters, along with pictures of them from high school. Rasha still has all the letters. They gave her “a feeling that I’m being remembered. You can imagine—well, no, you probably can’t imagine—but it was a feeling that somebody knows I’m here.”
Then, as abruptly as they were taken, Rasha and her family were released. One morning in early May, Rasha heard her name called by one of the corrections officers, then her mother’s, and then her sister’s. They were told to collect their belongings. They were free to go. Skeptical but hopeful, Rasha gathered her letters. Once she walked through the metal gate of the women’s section with her mother and sister and saw her father and brother waiting for them, she thought, Oh my God, it really is true. We’re finally out!
The entire family was set free at the same time, including Wassim, who came home from Pennsylvania that day. An immigration official was present at their release. He looked over their file and remarked to Rasha’s father, “You know, you have grounds for a residency petition here.” No one knew how to balance gratitude with resentment.
As soon as they were beyond MDC, Rasha fell to the ground and kissed the pavement. She looked up. She hadn’t seen sky for almost three months. It was the same sky, and it looked gloriously familiar.
They entered their own house like strangers. Everything was just as they had left it, except for the moldy food in the fridge and the dust all over the furniture. Rasha felt numb and dislocated. It was hard to believe that the nightmare was over. She watched Munir disappear downstairs and heard him calling his friends, and then she too began plotting how she would surprise Gaby and Nicky and the rest of her friends. Surprising them became the only thing to look forward to at that moment. She didn’t want to think about the past, only the future.
The family had a quiet night. Rasha’s mother cooked a simple meal. Over the meal, Rasha and her siblings exchanged a few stories about their experiences, but her parents were mostly quiet.
The next morning Gaby ran into some of Munir’s friends on her way to college, and they told her that Rasha’s family was finally home. “You’re lying,” she told them. “You’re lying!” No, it’s true, they said. She blew off her first class and made a beeline for the house, with a pit stop at a corner store for a gift: a potted plant she tucked under her arm.
The sound of the doorbell was bizarre to Rasha. In her pajamas, she opened the door, and standing there behind a pot full of leaves and flowers was Gaby, already crying hysterically. As soon as she saw Gaby, Rasha burst into tears. “Oh, man!” Rasha stomped her foot. “The surprise is ruined!”
“I’m sorry,” Gaby said, sniffling. “I didn’t call first! I’m so sorry!”
“Get in here,” Rasha reprimanded, but the two girls stayed where they were. They just couldn’t stop hugging and crying.
Rasha’s parents sold the house. They were behind on the payments, and Rasha’s mother was convinced that the place was cursed anyway. Rasha also had to deal with the row of F’s on her transcript, having disappeared from the world for three months. She calmly explained her situation to her dean, who listened sympathetically but then asked if she could provide some documentation to prove what she’d just told him. “What kind of sick person would tell you that she’d spent three months in jail to get excused from her grades?” she asked.
“You’d be surprised,” he said.
Right after her release, Rasha felt freer than she ever had in her life. Normal things like riding the subway had never before been so exciting to her. But everywhere around her was the constant talk of 9/11. She bit her tongue repeatedly, wanting to scream at people, “You don’t know what you’re talking about unless you’ve been in a situation like the one I’ve been in!”
No one in her family spoke openly about what they’d been through; Munir in particular seemed deeply injured. After the euphoria of being released, he retreated into silence. Neither he nor their father told the women very much about MDC’s male wing, where later the government’s own internal auditor would expose violent abuses against some of the post–September 11 detainees.
Rasha put her energies into her future. She started thinking about all the lawyers and activists who had helped them. Her growing interest in international relations and human rights eventually led to an internship with a U.N.-affiliated organization concerned with Middle East peace. She was also nominated by her university to be a delegate scholar at an international conference on diplomacy—a huge honor that she had to turn down. Rasha was still undocumented, so she could not leave the country.
Rasha was one of the lucky ones. The family had an attorney, friends and relatives, and a growing chorus of advocates demanding their release. That wasn’t the case with most of the post–September 11 detainees. Hundreds were arbitrarily arrested in the first months after the attacks. One man, a Palestinian legal permanent resident, was stopped for driving four miles over the speed limit in North Carolina and spent four months in jail.
Around the same time that Rasha was freed, in May 2002, Amnesty International released a report that charged the U.S. government with violating “certain basic rights guaranteed under international law. These include the right to humane treatment, as well as rights which are essential to protection from arbitrary detention.” The next year, the Office of the Inspector General of the Justice Department released a report confirming many of Amnesty International’s charges, as well as other allegations of abuse at MDC. Rasha wouldn’t tell me if any physical abuse had befallen her eldest brother or father, just that they were mostly silent about their experiences after the family was reunited. But by the time they were detained, most of the first wave of people who were arrested had already been deported. We may never know how many were arrested. On November 5, 2001, the Justice Department announced 1,182 had been arrested, then stopped providing a tally. The average length of detention for post–September 11 detainees was 80 days, about the length of time Rasha spent in Bergen and MDC.
The first weekend after getting out, Rasha went with her girlfriends to Times Square to celebrate her release. They went for dinner at Chili’s. Gaby was there, and Nicky too, and a couple of Rasha’s other close friends. They sat a big table, and Rasha savored the luxury of ordering food from a menu.
Halfway through dinner, Rasha got up to go to the bathroom. Coming back to her table, she froze in shock. It was him. All the restaurants in New York City, and he’s at this one. There, at another big table, was the counselor from MDC, the very same man who constantly talked down to her and her sister. The man who’d made her mother cry.
Rasha stood there and waited. She knew what she had to do, but he was with his family and she didn’t want his children around. A couple of minutes later, she tapped his back with her finger. “Hi,” she said. Her voice was ball-bearing steady.
He turned around. “Hi,” he replied. But there wasn’t a hint in his voice that he knew who Rasha was.
“You don’t recognize me?” All the scenes when he’d yelled at her, when he’d made her cry, when he’d made her mother cry, flashed in her mind. His expression didn’t change. “Remember?” she said, her voice rising. “MDC? You don’t remember me?”
And suddenly she realized, Of course he doesn’t remember me. I’m not in a beige jumpsuit.
But then he responded. “Ah, wow,” he said. “See? You cleaned up your act.”
Rasha stared into his eyes, then scolded him for his callousness and how he “needed to learn a thing or two about respecting others.” She could feel her chest rising the whole time. She ended by telling him, “You are a fucking asshole, and you will always be a fucking asshole.” And then twirled deliberately and walked back to her table with a stiff spine and an anxious but triumphant smile growing on her face.
She ran the last steps and was out of breath when she got to her friends. She told them what had happened. She couldn’t wait to tell her parents. It didn’t change anything, but that didn’t matter. Confronting your jailer. On this side of freedom. Such a satisfying moment.