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Published: 10/7/2001

Arab-Americans hurt in backlash

BY MICHAEL D. SALLAH
BLADE NATIONAL AFFAIRS WRITER
Jaber Alsafi, left, and his father, Aziz Alsafi, right, complain to Imad Hamad, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination panel in Dearborn, about flight tickets stolen while they went through security. Jaber Alsafi, left, and his father, Aziz Alsafi, right, complain to Imad Hamad, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination panel in Dearborn, about flight tickets stolen while they went through security.
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DETROIT - For Ali Almansoop, the end came quickly.

The former restaurant owner was sleeping in his girlfriend's home when he was awakened by a man with a .45-caliber gun.

The intruder began screaming about his hatred of Arabs - the same people who hijacked the jets that killed so many people.

He then pointed the gun at the Yemen-born, U.S. citizen, saying he was going to pay for their crimes.

Though Mr. Almansoop, 45, begged for his life, saying he had nothing to do with the attacks, it didn't matter: He was shot twice in the back as he tried to escape.

To many Arab-American leaders in the Detroit area, the murder two weeks ago was a chilling reminder of the hazards of their lives.

Nearly a month after the suicide hijackings, they say they're still grappling with the backlash spawned by the attacks.

Phone threats, vandalism, and other types of harassment have continued against people of Middle Eastern descent in a crime wave that has never been experienced in metro Detroit, say community leaders.

For a generation, the area has been home to America's largest concentration of people of Arab descent - more than 250,000.

They have worked in the auto factories, served in elected offices, and risen to the top of the corporate world.

But in the last few weeks, “people have been afraid to go outside,” said Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “It's hard for them to get back to their routines.”

His office has received more than 160 complaints about harassment - from women in scarves being spat on to the killing on Sept. 17, he said. More than 500 callers have asked about security and whether it's safe to venture into certain areas.

“We get to a point where we just can't take all the calls, and we have to refer people to our national office,” said Mr. Hamad.

Just as the complaints began to slow in the days after the hijackings, a series of arrests of Arab immigrants on phony passport and other charges in Detroit two weeks ago caused another spike.

The FBI has said the cases against 11 local immigrants and Arab-Americans are not tied to the hijackings. But the headlines over the arrests have fanned the flames, say local leaders.

“People think we have terrorist cells in Detroit,” said Nasser Beydoun, director of the American-Arab Chamber of Commerce.

Numerous people have complained to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination office that they unfairly lost their jobs after Sept. 11.

Nabih Ayad, a Dearborn attorney, said he's preparing to file a class-action suit against a Detroit company on behalf of 24 people who say they've been discriminated against.

“It's very easy for people - in this atmosphere - to just forget about peoples' civil rights,” he said. “That's why you have to challenge people who are doing this. You can't just let it go.”

This doesn't mean the area doesn't draw the kind of people who are being targeted in a nationwide terrorism investigation.

Indeed, the Detroit area has attracted people of many political persuasions.

In the days after the hijackings, investigators traced a trail of movements by a nationwide web of terrorist associates through Detroit. But so far no local arrests have been made of people tied to the attacks.

Local Arab leaders have met with the U.S. attorney's office to pledge their support in finding people who are wanted for questioning, said Mr. Hamad. So far dozens of leads have been passed on to authorities from the Arab community, said Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan.

Mr. Hamad and others say there are people in the Arab community who are more than likely sympathetic to the terrorist causes.

But he said they are so few, “I couldn't even tell you who they are,” he said. “They would be [ostracized] here.”

Since the late 19th century, Arabs have been an integral part of life in Detroit, arriving here to work in the factories.

While observing their ancient traditions, they blended into the ethnic melting pot of the growing city, much like the Poles and the Italians. By 1916, there were 555 Arab immigrants working for the Ford Motor Co.

In the ensuing years, southwest Dearborn - the center of immigrant life - became known as “Arab Village” as it grew within sight of Ford's famous River Rouge plant.

Stores and restaurants with Arabic signs and displays sprouted up on Warren Avenue and other places.

Along with the new immigrants, other auto companies founded by Ford's competitors transformed Detroit.

At first most of the Arabs were Lebanese Christians, but even by 1919 there were enough Muslims to establish a mosque in the suburb of Highland Park - one of the first in the nation.

Beginning in the 1950s, the picture changed dramatically: Muslims and people from other Arab countries, including professional people who found conditions intolerable in their homelands, began migrating to Detroit.

By 1980, one in every four residents in Dearborn could trace his or her roots to an Arab nation.

The area began to attract a new breed in the late 1970s: refugees from war-torn Lebanon. New and more explosive politics began to set the tone for many of the newcomers.

Protests over U.S. policies in Israel, particularly concerning the Palestinian homeland issue, became frequent.

While the newcomers embraced their traditions and politics, they also joined mainstream America and community life: Thousands of Arab-Americans in the area are in law enforcement, the legal profession, and social service agencies, according to local surveys.

At times, Muslim and Arab groups have even joined Jewish organizations in common causes, said Jennifer Doeren, assistant director of the Michigan chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.

But at least one prominent Jewish activist, who asked not to be identified, said working together “can sometimes be difficult. Mostly because of their stance on the Middle East.”

Despite a perception of solidarity, the Arab community is divided over many issues, with third and fourth generations often disagreeing with the recent immigrants over U.S. policies, said community leaders.

Many of the people experiencing discrimination in the wake of the hijackings are Muslims and newcomers, said Mr. Hamad.

Ali Almansoop fell somewhere in between. Born in Yemen, he emigrated to the United States in 1972 and became a U.S. citizen a few years later.

A longtime cook in the Detroit area who once owned a restaurant, he began dating a woman in the suburb of Lincoln Park, reports state.

While in his girlfriend's home, he was startled by an intruder, Brent Seever, who broke into the home about 6:15 a.m.

Prosecutors said Mr. Seever - who once dated the same woman - began ranting about Arabs and how they killed thousands of people.

Mr. Almansoop pleaded with the attacker to leave him alone and said that he was just as upset over the tragedies. But to no avail: He was killed as he ran outside.

While there had been previous acts of harassment after the hijackings, this was the first time someone was killed. The gunman, who was later arrested, told police he shot the victim because he was an Arab.

“He was killed because of who he was,” said his son, Saleh Almansoop.

Fire investigators are trying to determine the cause of a suspicious fire in a dollar store on Detroit's northeast side owned by an Arab-American. And dozens of cases of car vandalism have been reported.

In the wake of the attacks, Mr. Duggan, the Wayne County prosecutor, said he was establishing a Stop Hate Crime program.

“If Americans turn on each other because of these acts, then the terrorists will have won in damaging America's heart,” he said.

In the last few days Mr. Hamad said the complaint line has begun to slow again. “I'm hoping we're getting back to a more normal level,” he said.

But Mr. Beydoun, director of the American-Arab Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn, said he believes it will come and go.

“I'm afraid this is just the beginning,” he said. If Americans die in any future conflicts in the Middle East, “you're going to see it happen again. Wait until they start to bring the body bags home.”

Some observers say the major issues in the ensuing years will be profiling in airports and other public places.

Already people of Middle Eastern descent have been stopped and questioned in Detroit Metro Airport while picking up travelers, according to numerous complaints filed with the Anti-Discrimination Committee offices.

“These are people who are not even getting on planes,” said Mr. Hamad. But in most cases, people are complying with requests by police.

In a poll of Arab-Americans in metro Detroit last week, 61 percent said detailed questions or inspections by police agencies are justified. Twenty-eight percent disagreed, and 11 percent were undecided, according to the Detroit Free Press, which sponsored the poll.

The same survey showed that 40 percent of the respondents said they know someone personally who has experienced an act of bias since Sept. 11. The poll showed that Muslims were twice as likely to say they have been harassed than non-Muslims.

Kary Moss, director of the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said her biggest concern is racial profiling by airport officials and police. “It's happening a lot, and quite frankly, it's very easy to get pulled into a mob mentality,” she said.

When Northwest Airlines officials tossed three Arab-American men off a flight in Minneapolis two weeks ago, “they broke the law,” she said. “These men did nothing wrong.”

She said an anti-terrorism bill in Congress greatly would expand police authority to wiretap suspects and monitor their e-mails, but the proposal to detain suspects for indefinite periods “was too much.

“We don't even understand what broke down in our own intelligence systems, and now we're throwing proposals around that will fix everything?”

Metro Detroit's community leaders are just hoping that life for the region's thousands of Muslims and Arab-Americans returns to normal soon.

On a recent evening on Dearborn's Warren Avenue, where dozens of Middle Eastern bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants line the roadway, few people were strolling along the sidewalks.

“There are a lot of people who are reluctant to go out and socialize,” said Karim Alwari, editor of Arabica magazine. “This is a community of people who used to go out twice a week or more. Now they're staying at home.”



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