American dreamers

The Kesbeh family were called the Palestinian Cleavers when they were deported to Jordan after 9/11. Now living in dire conditions, they are determined to get back to the U.S., the only place they call home.

Published September 10, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

Noor Kesbeh dreams of returning to America every day. A mature 23-year-old, by turns serious and cheerful, she is convinced that she will one day get out of Jordan. She and her family were deported there in 2003, caught up in the anti-Arab tide that swept across the U.S. after 9/11. For a decade, Noor and her parents, four sisters and two brothers, had been living in a modest house in Houston. Their father, Sharif, ran a successful wholesale flag business, and the kids were honor students in school. In 1997, they applied for green cards based on their status as Palestinian refugees. But when they were denied them, they remained in the country illegally. Noor went on to graduate from public high school in suburban Alief in west Houston, and enrolled in community college, hoping to study medicine.

Today, Noor and her family live in East Amman, a rundown and dangerous area of the capital, where they are crammed into a two-bedroom apartment. At age 57, Sharif is unable to find work. The family can afford to heat only one room in the winter. The concrete walls and floors aren't insulated, so some of the younger girls suffer from frostbite in the winter. Most of the older children, who have graduated high school, remain out of work, and can't afford to continue their studies. The younger children, whose Arabic was first-grade level when they came to Amman, go to expensive English-language private schools the family struggles to cover with loans.

Yet Noor, the oldest child in the family, is not one to be deterred. Speaking on the phone last week, her voice full of hope, she explains that she is her family's main breadwinner. After working for a year as a secretary in a jewelry factory, where she made about $200 a month, she now holds an administrative job at the American Embassy and earns $700 a month. Her new job, she hopes, will be her stepping stone back to America. "I can later join the U.S. government foreign service, and if I work for 15 years, I can get a green card."

The Kesbehs, as first reported in Salon by Michelle Goldberg, do not fit anybody's idea of terrorists. Sharif Kesbeh was born near Ramallah in the West Bank, but fled with his family during the 1948 war. The six-day war in 1967 caused his family to flee again and settle in Baqaa, a refugee camp north of Amman. Sharif trained as an agricultural engineer in Jordan and later at Texas Tech in Lubbock. In the '80s, he and Asmaa, now his wife, went to Saudi Arabia, where he worked for an American defense contractor and a Saudi prince. But when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the family traveled to the U.S. on a sixth-month tourist visa.

The Kesbehs settled in Houston, where Sharif took over the flag business from his brothers. He sold American, Confederate and even Israeli flags. Sharif's stay was extended into a one-year work permit, which was annually renewed. In 1998, after being denied green cards, a warrant was issued for the deportation of the parents and six of the seven kids. The seventh, Afnan, the youngest daughter, born in the United States, was already a legal citizen.

"After six or seven years working hard to stand on our feet, if we leave the U.S., our family life will be destroyed," Sharif told Salon. "To leave your only source of income, to take the kids from an American school to an Arabic system school, means the destruction of the family." They decided to stay illegally.

The Kesbehs didn't have any problems living under the radar in Houston until after 9/11, when the U.S. Justice Department, headed then by John Ashcroft, launched the Absconder Apprehension Initiative to crack down on the 314,000 immigrants who were under deportation orders, but hadn't left the country. While most of those immigrants were from Latin American countries, the initiative focused on 6,000 immigrants from countries considered al-Qaida strongholds. That focus, eventually, found the Kesbehs.

"On March 2, 2002, we received a phone call that made my wife almost die," Sharif explained. Asmaa's mother, father, younger sister and 3-year-old nephew had been killed in an accident on Jordan's Dead Sea Highway. As word of the deaths spread throughout the Kesbehs' community in Houston, friends rallied to the family's side. The family believes the large gathering of Muslims and Arabs caused the feds to notice them.

On March 29, 2002, eight armed agents burst into the family's home before dawn. Asmaa thought they were being robbed. The officers left Noor at home to look after the two youngest daughters. The other two girls, their mother and the younger son, Muhannad, were taken in, fingerprinted and released on probation pending deportation, while Sharif and his eldest son, Alaa, were held in jail six months.

In Houston, their plight became a cause célèbre. Consumer advocate Marvin Zindler, one of the city's best-known news personalities, took up their cause after Noor called him asking for help. The Houston Chronicle profiled "the Palestinian Cleavers." Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee publicly voiced her support for the family. "The family had nothing but patriotism, respect and love for their adoptive country; they were victims of our tragic incident of 9/11," she says.

In the House of Representatives, Jackson Lee introduced a resolution that would have granted the family legal residency. Sen. Edward Kennedy used his influence to have Alaa and Sharif released, while the legislation was under consideration. But the bill foundered, failing to find support in the Senate. A year after the raid on their home, the family was ordered to surrender for deportation. The night before, as the Kesbehs frantically packed their possessions, supporters rallied on their front lawn. One held a sign that read: "Houston Loves the Kesbeh Family." At the last minute, Alaa fled to stay with a friend, becoming a fugitive. A year later, he'd been captured, and was finally sent to Amman, too.

When Noor arrived in Amman in 2003, she felt like time had turned back 30 years. The airport was small, its bathrooms filthy, with just a hole in the ground for a toilet. A woman's voice on the intercom implored people not to smoke, an admonishment that was roundly ignored, even at 2 a.m.

For weeks, as she sat in the fluorescent-lit apartment, on a street riddled with potholes, Noor couldn't believe her cruel twist of fate. "When I'd wake up in the morning, I would literally still believe that I was in Houston, and that all that had happened to us was a dream," she says. "As soon as I'd heard the call to prayer or the vendors outside, I would realize I am in Jordan and start to cry."

Noor, then 20, was technically a Jordanian citizen, but had never been to the country before. In Jordan, she couldn't afford to continue her studies. At the factory where she worked, which manufactured gold jewelry, she was horrified to see men lose fingers in machines. The workplace offered no healthcare. But she felt greater danger in her own neighborhood, a poor and conservative part of town that was a settlement for Palestinian refugees. Girls and young women can't leave home without a male chaperone after 7 p.m., lest they cast doubt on their morals and bring shame upon the families. Noor's sister, Sandos, who didn't get off work at her job at a cosmetics counter until 10 p.m., was beaten by a male cousin for coming home too late.

With Noor supporting the family, they're forced to conserve every penny. Friends from Houston had raised $4,000 for the Kesbehs, which they used to buy beds, blankets and a computer. Alaa, now 22, has a job at an airport kiosk selling snacks and gifts, which pays 120 JDs per month, about $170. Noor says that's about average for a Jordanian with no college degree. Half of Alaa's money goes to transportation; the family doesn't have a car, and taxis have raised prices since the war in Iraq has caused local fuel prices to skyrocket. Alaa is saving the rest of his salary in hopes of going abroad to college, which Noor notes at this rate could take him a decade.

This June, Noor's brother Muhannad, 18, graduated from an English-language high school in Amman, and applied to college in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. "If he can get accepted, and go there, that would be a good step for us," says Noor. "We can afford to send one person to college and pay off one semester of their schooling. Then, they will have to work and pay for the rest."

Noor's sisters, Sandos, 22, and Hadeel, 19, have been in and out of work. They'll take a position for a few months at a cosmetics or a clothing store, and then quit, frustrated by the high cost of transportation, which eats up as much as 70 percent of their salary. Then, Noor says, there's the nepotism and sexual harassment to contend with. "Sometimes the boss is perverted," she says. "They don't have any laws regarding sexual harassment here." Finally, there's the fact that simply working too late at night can provoke her male cousins.

Noor is trying to get her siblings jobs at the American Embassy, where, as a procurement officer, she buys computers, food and anything else for both American and foreign-service workers. The relatively high-paying job carries social clout, if not actual political influence. "Basically everyone here wants to go to America," Noor explains. "So as soon as they find out you're at the embassy, they respect you and try to invite you to their house, bribe you and see if you can get them a visa."

Noor landed the prime position through a chance encounter at Clay Oven Pizza, located near the American Embassy. At the pizzeria, she and Sandos struck up a conversation with two embassy workers, who were startled by how well they spoke English. The workers were shocked to learn that Noor worked at a gold factory for such a meager wage. She'd applied to work at the embassy before but received no response. With help from one of the embassy workers, she got an interview, but failed the security check because of her deportation. With the persuasion of her advocate, the security office decided to give her a try.

Noor says her colleagues at the embassy are mostly supportive when they hear her story. Some find it ironic or funny that the U.S. government, which went to great lengths to deport Noor's family during the crackdown on terrorism, has now given Noor a job. Noor has even had her photo taken with Condoleezza Rice, when the secretary of state visited Jordan. A few of her co-workers, though, think that as a lawbreaker, Noor should not be working there.

When the Kesbehs were first ushered through the airport, bound for Jordan, they were forced to sign waivers that forbade them from returning to the U.S. for 10 years. The U.S. attorney general could agree to throw out those waivers. But Rep. Jackson Lee, who failed to prevent the Kesbehs from being deported, recently visited the family on her way to Iraq, and told them that they'd have a better chance for amnesty under a new president.

"They left the country with a positive record, except for the fact that they were out of status," says Jackson Lee. She adds that the Kesbehs, who "are hard-working, tax-paying individuals," could well gain U.S. citizenship "if they had a chance to present their case to a more reasonable administration and Congress."

Dahlia Hashad of Amnesty International explains that the Bush administration has not stopped pursuing Arabs for deportation. "The targeting of Muslims and Arabs definitely hasn't ended under this administration," Hashad says. "Since 9/11, what we've seen are not big sweeps, but targeting individuals. They still go in and spy on everyone in the mosques, take individuals and deport them if they can. They just do it quietly. They don't hold a big press conference about doing it."

Today, Noor has made friends at the embassy and among the vendors she's encountered on the job. Yet she still feels like a stranger in Jordanian society. After all, she says, "I lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 years and I lived in Texas for another 10. I don't know how the people are here. I don't know the society or the culture. I'm really Americanized in the way that I think and act."

For fun, Noor reads books, such as the "The Da Vinci Code," which was sent to her by a friend in the U.S., whom she's never met, but who heard her story on the radio. She's gone for coffee at the Starbucks in Amman, but a regular cup goes for 5 JDs -- about $7 -- so it's a luxury she can rarely afford. She never goes shopping, still wearing the Old Navy and Gap clothes that she brought from Houston. She wonders how she'll make do when they fade or fray. Sometimes Noor does go to see a movie or goes bowling with friends, but usually that's possible because they're paying.

It's not just the family's grim financial situation that makes Noor feel constrained. The cultural restrictions on women are a shock to a young woman who came of age in the U.S., free to do as she pleased. She lives in fear of nosy neighbors, including her own cousins who live downstairs, who will "hurt us physically if we don't abide by the stupid rules of the neighborhood."

Noor says there have been six honor killings of young women in her neighborhood in the past year, which were never investigated. An infraction as simple as a girl looking out her window at a guy can cause her to be murdered by her own family members, Noor says. And, in Jordan, an unmarried woman of 25 is considered an old maid.

Despite all the financial barriers -- the cost of plane tickets and fees -- Noor refuses to let her optimism die about her family one day immigrating to Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. or Australia, before eventually returning to the U.S. "I really think that we are a model family, and any country would be proud to have us," she says.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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