Rounded up

Nineteen-year-old Nadin Hamoui and her family were arrested and jailed for nine months after 9/11. Their visa had expired, but their real crime was being Syrian.

By Bill Katovsky
April 10, 2006 3:00PM (UTC)
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The roundups and detentions began shortly after 9/11. Using a rigorous and selective enforcement of immigration law, the U.S. government targeted foreign nationals as the cornerstone of its anti-terrorism offensive. The majority of people caught in this dragnet were from Arabic-speaking countries. Many were deported or arrested. Detainees were kept isolated in twenty-three-hour lockdown with limited access to the outside world, making legal representation almost impossible. They were considered guilty of having ties to terrorism until they could prove their innocence. They were denied bail. They were known as "the disappeared."

Attorney General John Ashcroft championed this draconian new policy in an address before the U.S. Conference of Mayors on October 25, 2001: "Our antiterrorism offensive has arrested or detained nearly 1,000 individuals as part of the September 11 terrorism investigation. Those who violated the law remain in custody. Taking suspected terrorists in violation off the streets and keeping them locked up is our clear strategy to prevent terrorism within our borders."


By manipulating immigration law to suit his public-relations agenda, Ashcroft was seeking to reassure Americans that the government was making substantial progress in its fight against terrorism. Each week, the attorney general's office would proudly announce a running tally of arrests and detentions. But this practice stopped after critics started questioning why the Department of Justice refused to release detainee names or the crimes these foreign nationals had allegedly committed. In early 2002, Ashcroft signed into law the Absconder Apprehension Initiative, which concentrated on 2 percent of the 300,000 foreign nationals who were living in the U.S. despite outstanding deportation orders. This new crackdown specifically went after 6,000 people from Arab and Muslim countries.

"All the detainees were presumptively treated as terrorists," writes David Cole in "Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism." "They were denied bond even where the government had no evidence that they posed a danger or flight risk, and held for months while the FBI satisfied itself that they were in fact unconnected to terrorism. Many immigration detainees were initially arrested on no charges at all. The government's policy was to lock up first, ask questions later, and presume that a foreign national was dangerous even where there was no basis for that suspicion."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service managed to bypass public scrutiny because immigration law avoids constitutional safeguards guaranteed to defendants in criminal court. Cases could be heard in secret. Detainees were deprived of due process. The slightest infraction or technical violation, such as overstaying one's visa, could lead to immediate deportation or indefinite incarceration.


And just how successful were the attorney general's anti-terrorism policy measures? How many al-Qaida sleeper cells were uncovered? Were Ashcroft's confident expectations met? The 9/11 Commission found that this immigrant detention policy had failed to nab a single terrorist. "Sadly, this program has been a colossal failure at finding terrorists," writes Cole. "Of the more than 5,000 persons subjected to preventative detention as of May 2003, not one had been charged with any involvement in the crimes of September 11."

It wasn't merely a question of what went wrong along the way that made a mockery of Ashcroft's boast to American mayors that he was "taking suspected terrorists off the streets." The entire program was excessively punitive. It was ethnically discriminatory. And its impact on detainees was severe.

One celebrated case was the Hamoui family in Seattle. The father, Safouh, 52, owned a popular Mediterranean grocery store in Seattle. He had been a pilot in the Syrian Air Force. He came to this country in 1992 seeking political asylum. The early-morning knock on Safouh's front door by INS and FBI agents came on February 22, 2002. With their guns drawn, a swarm of agents arrested Safouh, his wife Hanan, and daughter, Nadin, 19. The family was taken to an INS detention center in downtown Seattle. The two Hamoui women remained in lockdown custody for nine months before being released. Safouh was freed one month later. The Hamouis still live in Seattle, but Safouh was forced to close his grocery store due to the extended business interruption. He now manages a gas station. The family is seeking permanent resident status, which is a necessary step before full U.S. citizenship can be granted.


"A family cannot recover from the trauma of the government's unconstitutional civil jailing of the parents and the beloved second daughter," says Bernice Funk, who became the Hamouis' attorney after they were detained. "Fortunately, the Hamouis are a family of strong faith and keen intelligence, and a love of people -- which is why the local community supported this family. If the family had had competent legal counsel, they would have been granted asylum in 1995 and been spared the pain, suffering, and trauma. When this information was brought to the government in early 2002, the reaction was unreasonable, and the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim prejudice was clear."

Here is Nadin's story in her own words. Her English is lively, spirited, and without any trace of a foreign accent. She sounds like any other twentysomething American with great dreams for the future. Energetic and ambitious, she currently works as a legal secretary at a large national law firm, but plans to enroll in a school for training in diagnostic ultrasound. "I always wanted to be famous," says Nadin. "But not because I was illegally imprisoned. Rather because I am a good dancer. You'll see me in Hollywood some day. That is my hope."


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I was born in Damascus, Syria. I lived there until I was ten. Quite honestly, I don't recall my childhood there at all. I don't know why. I have no idea. There is no reason for this. My mother left Syria with me and my two sisters, who were five and twelve, and my two brothers, who were three and fourteen. We then lived in L.A. with my mom's brother for about six months. We then moved to Seattle to join my father who came to America later.

My mother had to leave Syria because my dad was a pilot and there was an incident. We didn't know of any of these problems while growing up. My dad wanted to keep us from knowing. We didn't hear about it until 2000. I knew he was a pilot. But I didn't know anything more. I just thought he had to stay behind because of his job. He wanted to shelter us from the fear. The Syrian government would torture your children and wife in front of you. It's been martial law there for over 40 years. We were Sunnis and so was the government, but they worked very hard to clear everybody else out -- the Christians, the different political parties.


My dad used to be a pilot in the Syrian Air Force. He held a position of high prominence. Lots of people worked underneath him. If you wanted to be a pilot, my dad was the only person who could let you go through. If my dad didn't approve you, then you couldn't be a pilot. He was very trusted and very respected, for twenty-two years. Then in 1991, he was flying the Syrian vice president to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in a Russian airplane. There was bad weather. A lesser pilot could not have landed the plane at Riyadh. So the plane came down and lost its landing gear. Nobody was hurt. But my dad was falsely accused of trying to assassinate the vice president and people on board, even though he saved everybody.

The Syrian government locked him inside a prison cell for twenty-five days. The guards would bring him food. If they didn't, he would be without food for days. I know that they treated him very badly. He feared for us. I don't even know how he escaped. That is what I really don't care to know about either. He never went into any details with us. But he got out. And he came here to America. For our family, it was a life-or-death situation.

Once we were all in Seattle, we were never treated any differently. We never acted any differently. We were like all the other kids at school. We are Muslim. I didn't wear the head scarf to school. My mom hadn't worn it. She only started wearing it a few years ago.


My mom has Crohn's disease. It starts out with irritable bowel syndrome and can eventually turn into colon cancer. You have to have the affected part of your intestines cut out or you die because everything you eat ends up coming right out. She lost a lot of weight. It was hard on her. She once had a seizure. We took her to the hospital. She was there for about a month. She could have died. Afterward, she starting wearing the scarf.

She's a very strong woman. She is really tough, a courageous woman. I don't even know a lot about her life, but I do know how my mom and dad met. She was sixteen and a half. She was standing at the window; there were some bars on the window. My father was walking with his mom. They still believed in arranged marriages. They saw each other between the bars, and their families made marriage arrangements.

Here in America, my father couldn't get a job as a pilot. So he opened up a grocery store called Seattle Middle Eastern Market. It was the first Middle Eastern market in the greater Seattle area. He was well known. Everybody knew my dad. He was popular. We had a lot of friends. He was also an authorized dealer for the Dish Network, so he provided satellites for everybody.

Even though we lived at the same address for 12 or 13 years, we were still here on a tourist visa. My dad had applied for asylum. We had some bad attorneys working on our immigration application papers. But I didn't know anything about this at the time because my dad still wanted to protect us. Right after September 11, 2001, my dad called one of the attorneys and wanted to know if we should be concerned. The attorney said, "Just keep living your life. Don't let it stop you." We had put all our faith and trust in the lawyers.


Then on January 26, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft signed an executive order. It was called the Absconder Apprehension Initiative. Why would you come up with such a long-ass name? Why couldn't you just make it a name that immigrants would understand?

February 22nd was the day when we were picked up. It was Friday, a religious day. That is when we do prayers. It was also the first day of Eid, which is our high holy day. You're supposed to fast during the day. My mom was up until four o'clock that morning, cooking and making special meals. At six o'clock in the morning, she heard a knock on the door. She woke my dad. They thought they were just friends of my brother or sister. So he went to the door and opened it, and these armed men just rushed him. There were about fifteen of them: three Immigration and Naturalization Service agents and the rest were FBI, police, and United States Marshals.

I was in my bedroom. I didn't know where the noise was coming from or who was in my house or what. I was half-asleep. It's like when you think you're dreaming but really the phone is ringing. So I got up. I was kinda sleepwalking. I was in the hallway, and I hadn't turned on the light. I then went around the corner, and this guy scared the crap outta me. All I see is this gun in my face. I am five foot and weigh ninety pounds. I put my hands up because that's all you know what to do. Not that I've been through the situation before. But you see it on TV. You throw your hands up. He asks, "Who is upstairs?"

My mother was in her bedroom. Not that she didn't want to come out. She just wanted to put on her scarf. And this guy is yelling at me, "What is she doing? Does she have a gun under her pillow?" He then went in there, and he walked her to the closet and watched her put the scarf on. She got really mad at that. He overstepped the boundaries.


My younger sister and brother were left at home with my uncle, while my mom and dad and myself were taken to the INS detention center in downtown Seattle. When we got to INS, they wanted my mom to take her scarf off again. They argued for a long time about the scarf, and she said, "Over my dead body. You will have to kill me first." They said, "I'd rather you cooperate." My dad replied, "Did you hear what she said?" They said, "Yeah, we heard what she said. And the scarf is coming off." I don't know what happened. My mother had a seizure after they stressed her. They finally said, "You can keep your scarf."

Then, because she had her passport in the bank, they took her back there and made her get the passport. We didn't know what we had done wrong. They wanted to put us on an airplane on Monday morning They didn't want to waste any time or money on us. They wanted us gone, back to Syria. They didn't interrogate us. Just my dad about September 11th. We weren't allowed to see him.

My brother Sam was finally able to make a quick phone call to Rita Zawaideh who is president and cofounder of the Arab-American Community Coalition. He briefly explained what was going on. She's very well known in Seattle. She owns a travel agency. She has great parties. Everybody goes to her house on July 4th. She was my dad's customer. My mom used to cater for her parties. Rita then got into contact with attorneys Julia Devin and Bernice Funk.

I was held in a cell with my mother. We were secluded. They didn't want people to know about us. Our front door had a tiny little peephole. I was able to be with her because they knew I'd be taking care of her. That if something were to happen to her, nobody knows her information better than her own daughter. If she were to have a seizure, I had her medical information. I knew all of it.


We didn't see our dad for several weeks. We were the only family in Seattle to be arrested. Everyone else in the INS detention center had already committed a crime. They had been in actual prisons. The INS looked at them and said, "Okay, you already committed a crime. We will kick you out of the country." And so, they were held at the detention center. But there was nobody else like us, who hadn't done anything. It was just so out of nowhere. I truly believe that after September 11th, what triggered it was the fact that my dad was a pilot.

We were kept in our cell for nine months. I cried a lot. My mom didn't stop crying. She prayed a lot. After a couple of months, I was staying up all night. The days were so much longer than the nights. There was nothing to do but stare at the walls. We had no books, no TV. I wanted paper so I could write. They wouldn't give us any. They wouldn't give us a pencil or pen because they thought I was going to stab somebody in the eye. I don't know what they thought. I have no idea what their reasoning was. I have no idea what any of it was about. The guards were trained not to have any kind of emotion. They can't get involved. They can't feel. They can't talk back to you. They'd get fired. They have to follow the rules.

There were Chinese girls locked up next to us. Some of them put paper through the cracks in the door, on the bottom. They showed us through the window how to do origami. The guards finally gave up and allowed us to have paper because they didn't want to fight with us anymore about it.

We had no idea when we were going to get out. We had already watched so many people come and go that it was starting to hurt. I also had kidney stones. It was very painful to pass them -- the closest to giving birth in terms of pain. My mom was also sick a lot. An ambulance came out six times and took her to the hospital. They put her in handcuffs at first. She said, "I'm not going anywhere. I can't go anywhere. I'm not running. I'm not doing anything." They didn't get the concept of Crohn's disease and how bad it could be and that it's stress-related.

My mom had so many fevers. The last one was almost deadly. The officers were crying because my mom stopped breathing. There was nothing anybody could have done. I think they realized that she might never come out alive from jail. They were worried about all the local protests and that we now had great lawyers with Bernice and Julia.

On November 18th, 2002, some officers came in and told us to pack our bags. They were looking at my mom. I'm thinking that they were going to send her out by herself. They said, "You're going outside. You're being released." She asked, "What about Nadin?" They said, "We didn't hear anything about her. We only heard about you." So she started crying. "I'm not going without my daughter," she said. I'm also crying. I said, "Mom, please go. I don't want to watch you die in jail. Get out of here before they change their minds." It was all this huge chaos. About forty-five minutes later, they told me I was also to be released.

The INS people called the press and told them that the mother and her daughter were being released today -- because, honestly, they wanted to look like the good guys. The press was waiting for us in the front of the building. But we were snuck out the back. My brother drove around to the back of the building and picked us up. As soon as we drove around the front, we started honking and the press saw us. We were later interviewed by reporters from NPR, AP, and the local media. My dad was released one month later. The delay was never explained to us.

I still consider America my home. I probably will always feel it. Especially if you are like me, and you can't remember your own country. What would you call home? Don't get me wrong. I still have pride of Syrian heritage and I always will. But I do not belong in Syria. I don't want to go over there. I don't like what they did to my dad. I don't like how they treated him. I don't like how they betrayed him. I don't like how they hurt him. People in Syria, they want to kill you. Are we not supposed to be in America? Do we not belong anywhere? I am proud to be an American. But they wouldn't let me be one.

I was invited to Washington, D.C., by a coalition of community groups including Council on American Islamic Relations, Hate Free Zone, and National Lawyers Guild National Immigration Project. I went with Julia. I spoke at a forum with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill. I got to meet Senator Ted Kennedy. I was in Washington for two days. I was seriously praying to God that I would run into some higher official from the INS or Justice Department and just have him look me in my eye and hear my story -- not read about it or see it on TV or hear it from somebody else.

On my way to Washington, I wrote a poem called "February 22, 2002." Part of it goes:

Is the day I will never forget
Is the day my family and I were degraded and discriminated against
Is the day we were presented with cruelty, suffering, & heartache
Because we happen to speak the same language as the terrorists
Had we really been one of them?
Or had Bush just been really mad at Bin Laden?
I am an Arab and I am Muslim.

Not only were we treated as criminals
But also as people with no principles
Six in the morning and people pounding on the door
I swear my heart could have fallen to the floor
I'd like for one night to sleep in peace and not fear
That somebody's at the door, their guns cocking I hear
I am an Arab and I am Muslim.

Excerpted with permission from "Patriots Act: Voices of Dissent and the Risk of Speaking Out," by Bill Katovsky. The Lyons Press.

Bill Katovsky

Bill Katovsky is the co-author of Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, which won Harvard University's Goldsmith Book Prize.

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