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American Girl

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Rasha, center, with her friends Gaby, left, and Nicki at a park in Bay Ridge.  

In the living room, she saw her entire family sitting awkwardly on the couch, and she sighed with relief. But then she noticed that her brother Munir’s legs were shackled. Shock turned to confusion as she realized that about fifteen law-enforcement officers—INS officials, U.S. Marshals, and FBI agents—had taken over their residence. The strangers, some with guns, walked through her house as if they owned it. Out the window she saw that it was the lights from their vehicles that had been shining into the living room.

An FBI agent, the apparent leader of the group, stood in front of the family and told them they were being investigated for possible terrorist connections and that they could be deported, possibly in as little as two or three days. At this point, Rasha’s mother became frantic, crying and screaming out questions. But he just reiterated monotonously that everything would be explained to them at Federal Plaza.

This was no accidental arrest. The man seemed to know everything about the family, including the fact that Rasha’s two youngest brothers, both minors, were U.S. citizens. He told Rasha’s father to arrange custody for them. Rasha’s father suggested his brother, who lives in New York, and asked if he could call him and wait until he arrived. That would take too long, the agent said, and instructed him instead to leave the boys with the tenants below. When they were ready to go, the agent turned to the entire family and said, “We’re going to handcuff you now.”

(Later, Rasha learned why her eldest brother had already been shackled. When an agent went to his downstairs bedroom to wake him, Munir was uncooperative. “Why?” he kept asking. “Come on, get up,” the agent said. “Why?” “Just get up,” the man repeated, and Munir asked why again. “Get up!” the agent yelled. “Get up and put your hands together, like the way you pray!” Munir swore at him and told him to get the hell away. “So they shackled him,” Rasha told me, “you know, to tame him.”)

Outside, the official vehicles had closed off the entire street. The agents shepherded the family into a van. The ride to Manhattan’s Federal Plaza was bumpy and disorienting, affording them no view of the road. When the van stopped and the back doors eventually swung open, they were all pulled from the vehicle into the building, led to a room, and then searched and fingerprinted before being dumped in a holding cell.

Eventually, each family member was taken to a separate room for questioning. The interrogators asked Rasha very specific questions: Where was she on X day? When did she go to Y place? As she gave her answers, she realized that they knew what she was going to say. After a few minutes, they even seemed to be feeding her the answers to their questions.

That night, her father led a prayer, and the women covered their hair as best they could. When the authorities came back in the morning, her father pleaded with them. Enough of this, he said. Just deport us. But the FBI man wouldn’t hear it. We are turning you over to the INS, he said. You have to be investigated, and you will be held in detention in the meantime. Another agent told them in more private tones that they should have expected to be arrested at a time like this and that they would have a better life over there. Rasha glared at him. We’re cleaning out the country, he seemed to be saying, and you’re the dirt.

They learned that they’d all be going to a facility in New Jersey, except for Wassim, who was under 18 and thus bound for a juvenile-detention center in Pennsylvania. Being split up was a fresh horror. Through her own waterlogged eyes, Rasha watched her family collapse in tears.

At the jail in Bergen County, Rasha and her mother and sister were strip-searched and photographed before being taken to a filthy and overcrowded holding area. Everybody seemed nasty or catatonic. This is just like prison on television, Rasha thought. A corrections officer opened the door and told them to get inside. The door locked behind them.

After six hours, they were herded into another holding cell, teeming with even more people, where they would stay for two days. Rasha’s mother raged and yelled until she was able to place a call to her brother-in-law about her youngest sons. Rasha, Reem, and their mother were eventually moved again, to a larger wing of the facility, where they were again strip-searched, then given beige jumpsuits and black-and-white Converse-style shoes and assigned to cells. The INS official who had told them at Federal Plaza that they would be deported within days was clearly wrong. When they joined the general population, Rasha realized with dread, they were going to stay for a while.


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