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American Girl

The life of a young Arab in Brooklyn was pretty much normal—until being thrown in jail with her family after 9/11 changed her idea of what it means to live here.

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Rasha photographed at home in Bay Ridge.  

Rasha is a petite five foot four. She walks with a feather step and looks at you with penetrating obsidian eyes. Her lips are often lightly glossed in pink, and her serious brown hair is commonly tied in a librarian’s bun. She’s fine-boned, with features as brittle and hard as porcelain: If you drop her, she’ll break, but she’ll cut you, too. She’s tough and tender, enraged and exhausted, withdrawn and outgoing, a pessimist brimming with hope.

She has lived in the United States for more than eighteen years, almost all of them in Brooklyn. Rasha was born in 1983, in Damascus, Syria, but when she was 5 years old, her family was granted a tourist visa to the United States, and they moved from the Fertile Crescent to Avenue U in Gravesend. At the time, Syria under Hafez al-Assad was anything but fertile. Bombings against the regime were frequent, as were mass arrests and torture, culminating in the 1982 massacre of thousands in the city of Hama.

As soon as the family arrived in the United States, Rasha’s father applied for residency. He also began working at a discount clothing store on 14th Street in Manhattan, eventually becoming a partner.

Rasha’s mother taught her how to be a proper Arab Muslim girl in the United States. As her parents were not particularly religious, the lessons revolved less around theology than values: honesty, compassion, and protection of her honor. She had three siblings—Reem, an older sister; Munir, an older brother; and Wassim, a younger brother. None of them was much of a model for Rasha. Reem was five years older, a large differential at that age. The two girls fought often.

The family stayed in the New York area until 1996, still without having adjusted their immigration status. The residency application had been unsuccessful, but Rasha’s father had hired a lawyer and was appealing the decision. Meanwhile, her mother had given birth to two more little brothers. Since they were born in Brooklyn, the two infant boys were, unlike the rest of the family, citizens of the United States. But the immigration proceedings were stalled, and Rasha’s father gave up and moved them back to Syria that year.

Rasha had just finished sixth grade, and she found her new environs hard going. She spoke Arabic but could not read and write in the language, so school was difficult. Outside class, she would repeat to her school friends what she heard at home about Syria’s dear president, and their mouths would drop. “You never, ever, ever say anything about the president,” they whispered. She became even more pro-American, seeing with a teenage girl’s perspective the importance of things like freedom of speech and basic human rights. She realized how much she had taken for granted. She missed her American life.

After a couple of months, Rasha’s father received word from his American lawyer that the family finally had an interview scheduled for their green-card application. They were approved for a visa to visit the United States, which felt like a miracle. Back in Brooklyn, Rasha was again happy. This is what she knew. This was home.

James Madison High School was good for Rasha. The redbrick school, set in a prosperous area of Midwood, with its large houses and green lawns, has an elegant exterior even though the windows are caged and you need to pass through a metal detector to get in. It also has a quote from President Madison carved on its edifice. “Education,” it reads, “is the true foundation of civil liberty.”

At Madison, Rasha met her best friends, Gaby and Nicky. Gaby is from Ecuador, Nicky from Azerbaijan. The three of them became inseparable. When they weren’t in school, they were everywhere else—on the subway to Manhattan, at one another’s houses, at the movies, shopping, or eating. By the spring of 2001, when Rasha graduated from Madison, her father had saved enough money to buy a place in Bay Ridge, with its limestone row houses and numerous Arabs. This was the first property the family had owned, and her parents were very proud of the accomplishment. Two Egyptian tenants lived in their basement apartment. Rasha started college in September 2001.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Rasha was sleeping late. Her mother opened her bedroom door and peeked in. “Rasha,” she said. “You can’t go to school. The subway’s not working.” Half-asleep, Rasha raised her head. “Why?” she asked. “Accident,” her mother explained, shrugging her shoulders. “With a plane.” Rasha went back to sleep.

Several months later, in February 2002, in the middle of the night, Rasha was shaken awake by a woman in a uniform who told her to get dressed. Oh my God, Rasha thought, somebody’s died, and she felt her heart drop and crack. She immediately glanced over to her sister. “What the hell’s going on?” she asked, but Reem just looked frightened. Shock and fear paralyzed Rasha, and her knees locked. “Ma’am, just get up,” repeated the female officer. “Get up and get dressed.” Disoriented, Rasha forced herself to slowly rise. She walked downstairs in her pajamas, a few steps behind her sister.


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