Stand beside her

Fearing a post-terrorism backlash, many Muslim and Arab-American women are afraid to leave their homes. Volunteers are helping to make them feel safe.

Published October 22, 2001 7:22PM (EDT)

Neema (not her real name), an Egyptian woman, brought her second-grade daughter to register at an elementary school in the inner-ring suburb of Webster Groves last week. She says that as she pulled into the parking lot, where lots of parents were picking up their kids, two women blocked her with their cars, preventing her from parking. They also blocked her exit, she says, and she had to maneuver in reverse to get away. "And when we were leaving, some of the kids from that school were throwing plastic -- well, thanks, my God, it was plastic bottles."

Though Neema dresses in Western clothes, she has always worn a hijab, the traditional head covering of Muslim women. "I have only put a very small veil on my head. We're required that by the Quran."

But Neema has stopped wearing her veil, and she doesn't drop her daughter off at school. She says she made these decisions partly so she doesn't make others feel uncomfortable -- "just really to give peace and tranquillity for people" -- but she's also scared.

"If I am in my country, and they are saying, 'Americans will bomb my country,' what am I going to do? I will try to do the best I can to avoid the bombing, right? So that's what I'm trying here," she says.

Recently, Neema has had some help in avoiding "the bombing," as she puts it. Local volunteers have come forward to act as escorts for those who have been threatened, or feel threatened, by knee-jerk reactions to their clothing or appearance. Similar ad hoc programs have sprung up, with varying degrees of formality, in several other American cities with large Arab-American and Muslim populations, providing company and a measure of protection in public for those afraid to leave their homes.

Violence and threats against Muslims and Arab-Americans, and those, such as Sikhs and Hindu Indians, who are often mistaken for them, have skyrocketed since the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Within hours of the plane crashes, a mosque in Texas was riddled with bullets. Killings in California, Arizona, Texas and Michigan have been attributed to the backlash. The FBI has opened more than 160 hate crime investigations since the incident. Various Muslim and Arab groups report that anywhere from 300 to 800 anti-Arab or anti-Muslim incidents have come to their attention since the attacks, ranging from verbal abuse to murder.

But, as President Bush noted last week, there's been another side to the situation. "I was struck by this, that in many cities when Christian and Jewish women learned that Muslim women, women of cover, were afraid of going out of their homes alone, that they went shopping with them, that they showed true friendship and support, an act that shows the world the true nature of America," Bush said in a nationally televised speech.

In St. Louis, longtime peace activist Bill Ramsey, who runs the Human Rights Action Service, a network of activists and a political letter-writing service, hastily rounded up nearly 200 volunteers to accompany Muslim and Middle Eastern people, most of them women, who were afraid to go out after the terrorist attacks. He had checked in with Arab-American colleagues and friends in the hours after the disaster to find that many were going to their children's schools to make sure the kids were not being harassed -- and in some cases pulling them out of school -- and making plans to hunker down at home.

Ramsey also learned from the local International Institute, an organization that helps immigrants and refugees settle in St. Louis, that the group just settled more than 100 Afghans in the past six months, and also had a large community of Somalis and a large community of Iraqis that they were concerned about.

Angie O'Gorman, who directs the Immigration Law Project at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, trained the volunteers in techniques of accompaniment developed for Central American refugees in the 1980s.

"It's basically good communication skills and learning how to use your body in ways that are not aggressive, even if you may be feeling angry," O'Gorman says. She says the idea is for the volunteer to place herself in a position to protect the person being threatened without becoming a threat herself.

Once trained, the volunteers were deployed at places like Soulard Market, a downtown farmers market favored by immigrants and refugees, among others, and at a recent international festival. They also made themselves available to accompany women to English lessons and on other daily errands. A day at the park was organized for families who had been too frightened to let their children out of the house.

Neema reports that she's had several offers of help from both Christian and Jewish organizations and individuals, and she's taken up one of them.

"I took only one Christian lady," she says. "She came last Friday and she was very nice." The woman brought her two children with her and the families went out together. "She even asked me can I wear my veil when I'm coming out with her, and I said it's better off I can leave it. That way we will not be bothered."

An immediate problem for the volunteers was that they needed to have a way to be recognizable to the people they're trying to help. Ramsey found the answer to that problem in a closet, where an old banner from a Central American campaign repeated a folk-art representation of a bird numerous times. The banner was chopped up, and each volunteer was given a piece of cloth with a bird on it to wear to Soulard. The bird symbol was also displayed at the International Institute, so it would be recognized, and eventually buttons were made for volunteers to wear. It's become the symbol of the accompaniment project.

At the market, the volunteers simply stroll around, giving people the traditional Muslim "Salaam" greeting, but otherwise leaving them alone unless the other person initiates a conversation. "It's sort of a delicate balance of watching out for people but not giving them the sense that we're stalking them," Ramsey says. "We're not doing this to get all involved and interrupt people's lives with our service. We're supposed to be there just making it easier for them to do what they're doing. We sort of keep our distance."

Immediately following the hijackings, Muslim and Arab customers stayed away from Soulard Market, say several vendors and volunteers. But many people -- regardless of their faith or appearance -- stayed at home in the wake of the trauma. And as "women of cover" have returned to the market, there has been nothing resembling an incident there.

Which is just fine with the volunteers. "Our job is to intervene if something happens, but more immediately our job is just to create environments that people will trust so that they can go about their lives and routines," Ramsey says.

"I think the first day, everybody was scared so the words came out, but I think now everybody's figured out that people who are in America are mostly running away from that stuff," says Sam Rammaha, a Jordanian man interviewed at a crafts booth at the International Folksfest, a festival sponsored by the International Institute at which accompaniment volunteers were present. "I think we're cautious, that we expect [problems], but really it's not what people make it sound like. Most people who are prejudiced, they will just come out anyway, but in general everything is good. Thank God, as they say!"

Sahla Peterman, an Iranian college teacher shooting the breeze in a Persian food stall at the same festival, agrees. "I guess I've lived here long enough, I've been here 26 years," she says, "and you know, sometimes you get this feeling, like, you go to a store or something, that people stare at you, but for the most part people have been very supportive."

Ramsey believes, however, that some ugly incidents are going unreported. "I don't think we're getting the full story on how people are feeling and how much that kind of harassment is going on."

He says that about two weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, he and others met with groups of refugees from Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. "In one or two cases of those meetings, they would start to talk about things that were happening to them, and then they would say something to the effect, 'Well, this is just something we may have to swallow right now because we know this country is going through something it's never gone through before,'" Ramsey says. "So I'm certain that all acts of harassment are not being reported to the police, or even to the International Institute or to us accompanying them. I guess it's hard to get a statistical analysis of what's going on. We have a lot of anecdotal stuff."

It's worth noting that Iranians are not Arab, just as it's worthwhile to know that most Muslims aren't Arab, either. In fact, a huge number of Arab-Americans -- maybe half or more -- are Christians, not Muslims. But these distinctions are lost on most of the American public, especially those who would lump all of the above in with terrorists.

"A number of people are worried about [violence or threats], especially ladies, who are readily recognizable outside as a Muslim if they are covering their head with a scarf," says Muhamed Hasic, a Bosnian who is the imam at the Islamic Center, a mosque in St. Louis. "Also when they go to the store they receive completely different treatment. People look at them strange and all that."

Several women mentioned harassment at supermarkets in the weeks since the terrorist attacks. Neema says she's been followed around her local Schnucks by store employees.

"You find one guy or one woman behind you, watching what are you doing. Are you putting anything on the food? Do you have anything? Do you have any big bags, are you bringing things out of it? Or whatever. That's the main problem now, because of whatever they're saying, the biological weapon or whatever," she says.

Neema says the store employees don't actually ask those questions or say what they're doing, but that that's what she believes they're watching her for.

(Schnucks spokeswoman Lori Willis says she's "floored" by the charge. "This is the first such incident that's been brought to our attention. We'll certainly look into it." She says that Schnucks not only trains its 16,000-plus employees not to discriminate, but also assures them that the company will stand behind them if they feel that customers are mistreating them. "We've always made it very, very clear that no one should be treated unfairly in our stores," she says, "no associate, and no customer for certain. So this would be completely going against all of the Schnucks policies and philosophies with which we do business.")

Another consequence of the current tension, Neema says, is that she feels bound to hide her daughter's identity as an Egyptian-American and a Muslim. She told the school only that her daughter was born in Canada, she says, and "I told her not to speak about religion, not to say anything, not to become identified as a Muslim or anything. You have to be very careful. She was very confused, but I did not know really how to approach her except to just warn her. She kept saying, 'Why?' I told her that it's a bad time now, and she might not make friends if she did. Kind of sad."

Dianne Lee, a community college professor, says that hearing about this sort of thing stirred her political fires and caused her to get involved as an accompaniment volunteer.

"When I started seeing reports in the media about Arab-Americans being singled out and how many American citizens felt like the Arab-Americans, even if they were citizens, should be forced to carry special I.D.," she says, "I just really felt called to take a stand on this one, that this is not OK. We need to stand with people and do everything we can to respect how horrendous what happened on the 11th was, but not allow ourselves to become perpetrators of evil because of it."

Kally Higgins, who works at an advertising agency, got involved after seeing a flier in the Delmar Loop, a shopping area in nearby University City, close to Washington University. She took an Afghan woman and her daughter grocery shopping and found the experience eye-opening.

"They were just wonderful," she says. "This little girl spoke English great. She was 7. So she was kind of the translator. It was really interesting. You know, I see on television how horrible it's been in Afghanistan for these women, and you feel that and try to imagine what it must have been like, and then suddenly I'm sitting there with two women, because she'd invited me into her home and there was another Afghan woman. To sit there and hear their stories of what it was like to be in Kabul and the Taliban taking over, it was pretty amazing."

With the accompaniment project entering its second month, Ramsey and O'Gorman, the volunteer trainer, both say they'd like to evaluate the program by meeting with both volunteers and members of the immigrant community and asking them how it's gone so far and what else can be done.

"I expect that that [the individual accompaniment] is going to increase," O'Gorman says. "As soon as people begin to trust that the folks that we have trained will actually be available and present to them, I think we're going to get a lot more requests from individuals to take kids to school, because a lot of these kids have been pulled out of school."

For the moment, there will be no more volunteer training, mostly because there are so many in place already that it has become hard to keep track of them. So far, they seem to be welcome in the Arab-American and Muslim community, where fear has decreased but not completely evaporated. For all of the good feeling that has been established since the tragedies of Sept. 11, there is still a real danger of ignorance and fear creating dire situations for innocent people.

"I think a very, very high percentage of St. Louisans understand," says Hasic, the imam, referring to the fact that Muslims are not all terrorists, "but unfortunately, still, it doesn't matter how small a percentage: Those people who do not understand, maybe you just walk beside that one.

"One in a million, if you walk beside that one, it doesn't matter, you still could be really harmed."

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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