The teenager looked with horror into the mirror. Terrorists had just attacked her country, and she knew she’d be blamed.
She gazed at her dark-brown hair, golden-brown skin and deep brown eyes. What once looked pretty suddenly appeared shameful. She knew she had to do something.
The 15-year-old told her mother she wanted to bleach her hair. Then she had a better idea. She decided to disguise her ethnicity by donning a sari-like dress and placing a dot of makeup on her forehead to look as if she were from India. When that didn’t work, she thought maybe she could pass as a Native American.
Ameera, whose name means princess, and her 18-year-old sister Zayna, whose name means beautiful, told their parents they wanted to change their names to ones that didn’t sound so, so ... Arabic. They said they wanted to blend into the crowd.
“My younger daughter insisted she wanted to look different,” said Dr. Amal David, a woman of Palestinian descent who works as a program supervisor for Detroit Public Schools. “It hurt me. I thought they were proud of their heritage. They used to go to festivals and dance traditional dances. They never told me before this crisis that they wanted to deny their cultural background. This is the first time they said they were ashamed to be Arab.”
Ameera and Zayna aren’t alone.
At a meeting in Dearborn last week called by U.S. Justice Department officials, Arab-American leaders and educators explained that a general feeling of hostility and fear is as great a concern as the threat of racial profiling by government officials.
Despite an outpouring of support for the Arab-American and Muslim community since the Sept. 11 attacks, and despite statements from government and religious leaders condemning racism against either group, the reality on the streets paints a grim picture.
As of last week, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee had filed more than 300 reports with the U.S. Justice Department; they ranged from racial profiling by airline employees to beatings and five killings, two in California, one in Texas, one in Arizona, and one in the Detroit area. Locally, Ali M. Almansoop, 45, an American of Yemeni heritage, was shot in the back in Lincoln Park in what the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office considers a hate crime.
Meanwhile, parents and teachers report that hundreds of Arab-American students here are scared to go to school. Some Muslim women are afraid to leave home or to don a hajib, a scarf worn around the head, fearing verbal abuse or physical attack.
For Dr. Alex Shami, it was a hostile encounter that ended his door-to-door campaign for re-election to Dearborn’s Board of Education.
An assistant principal at Detroit’s Ruddiman Middle School, Shami is the only Arab-American on the Dearborn Board of Education and feels strongly he should stay in the post because more than half the students in the district are of Arabic descent. But he says he was threatened and stared at while knocking on doors after Sept. 11. The final straw came last Saturday, when a woman in the neighborhood where he lives screamed at him, told him to go back to “Arabia,” and slammed shut the door.
“It was the way she slammed the door in my face, like I was a thief or dirt or something. It really upset me.”
Tears came to his eyes. At home, his daughters and wife tried to console him, to no avail. He decided to stop actively campaigning. After spending 26 years in America, doing time in the U.S. Army, educating himself and then working as a public educator and community college professor of psychology, English and Arabic, Shami felt betrayed. “I love this country and have three native children,” Shami explained.
“We have no other home than this country.”
And now, the man who was once a security officer in Lebanon feels scared.
“I’m hesitant to go places. There’s fear. We don’t know who else is out there. Is this the beginning, the middle or the end? What am I going to do here? Are they going to blame it on me? The president said it was a crusade against evil. Am I part of that evil?”
Ismael Ahmed, founder of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) tells of leaving a press conference to show solidarity among Arab-Americans and the NAACP, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, unions and others, when a car full of young men chased his car.
They shouted obscenities, called him a murderer and threatened “we’re going to get you.” After feeling really good about the meeting and then having his heart race with fear, “I realized the potential for good and the potential for evil in the American people,” Ahmed said.
The problem is Americans in general doesn’t understand the Arab-American community, and it’s no longer politically incorrect to express racism against Arab-Americans, said Dr. Anan Ameri, cultural director for ACCESS.
“The challenge facing us, our civil rights, as a community, is that we have to prove we’re innocent in front of the public and in front of officials,” Ameri told Justice Department officials during last week’s meeting. “We are afraid. War brings fear. Our community needs to stand up and fight. We are not criminals. We are not a party to this crime.”
As for David, the young mother is sad. Sad that her daughters are ashamed of their Arabic and Palestinian heritage. Sad that they no longer have the confidence she worked so hard to instill in them. Sad that she thinks America is the greatest country and that she wants to help make it better, but must defend why she even came here.
“They feel terrible about what happened, and they feel ashamed. They feel accused of the crime. I feel terrible they have been robbed of their pride.”Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org