The domestic “war on terror” plays out mostly in ethnic enclaves, such as in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, home to a large Arab-American population. Within days of the 2001 attacks, a sense of crisis had spread through the community. The firebombing of a local mosque had been narrowly averted. Women in hijab were being attacked. Vandals had driven by a local Muslim school and lobbed pork chops at the kids in the yard.
“We found ourselves in the middle of the chaos,” said Ahmad Jaber, a Palestinian-American obstetrician and lodestone of the community. “People were hiding and scared, and we needed to protect them, to show courage and to act as role models.”
But the only social-service organization for Arab-Americans in Bay Ridge, the Arab-American Association of New York, was just getting off the ground when the terrorist attacks happened. Dr. Jaber is one of its founders. “We were pushed to be more active before we were fully prepared,” he acknowledged. Faced with the crisis, the association’s board met weekly to plan strategy, and others pooled resources and talents. An attorney offered legal help, and mental health professionals offered free counseling. When someone donated a couch, a group of people heaved it up the building’s creaky staircase and plopped it on the floor, and the doors of the organization were flung wide open. By December, clients were pouring in. The founders had been aware of the growing need for social services but were shocked to discover how deeply the attacks and their aftermath had scarred the psyche of the community.
Five years later the association has grown into a hub of the neighborhood while laboring under the effects of punitive national security policies. It has helped more than 2,000 people and runs an ESL program, a health program and a youth camp. It mostly serves women and children. While this is true for most social-welfare organizations, the gender divide is especially pronounced here because much of the domestic “war on terror” directly targets men, breaking up families and leaving many children and wives to survive without fathers and husbands.
Among the association’s first clients were September 11 families (several members of Brooklyn’s Arab-American community were killed on that day). It dealt concurrently with the hate crimes that kept women at home and children too frightened to go to school. It organized volunteers as escorts to help people out of their houses. Soon people began reporting that men were disappearing from the community. The association organized visits to detention centers and helped families and lawyers search for vanishing men. (The violent abuse many of them suffered in detention later came to light.) Next came “Special Registration,” another post-September 11 initiative aimed at Arab and Muslim men; it cleared the streets of even more community members.
Dr. Jaber estimates that the various national security initiatives, along with growing fear and racism, are responsible for thinning Bay Ridge’s Arab community by 20 percent since September 11.
“It was devastating to have the community attacked,” says Faozia Aljibawi, a caseworker at the association. But, she says, “September 11 also brought the community together, regardless of religion or national origin.” From the beginning, the association worked closely with Salam Lutheran Church and the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. “We were all being attacked as Arabs,” Aljibawi said. It held legal rights workshops and developed liaisons with other community organizations, interfaith groups and the police. The unity and outreach seemed to be turning an insufferable period into something bearable.
Other results were hidden and less auspicious. Youths came to the association suffering socially and academically. High school teachers were often problems. “One student came to us in tears,” another caseworker said. “She had been asked to write an essay for school about ‘why Arabs hate America.'” Many stopped speaking Arabic in public and tried to pass as Latino.
Informers have also left a corrosive legacy. While the association offers leadership to the community, many people are now afraid to attend public functions or voice political opinions loudly. “We have unity,” Aljibawi sighs, “but no security.”