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American Girl

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No one in her family spoke openly about what they’d been through; Munir in particular seemed deeply injured. After the euphoria of being released, he retreated into silence. Neither he nor their father told the women very much about MDC’s male wing, where later the government’s own internal auditor would expose violent abuses against some of the post–September 11 detainees.

Rasha put her energies into her future. She started thinking about all the lawyers and activists who had helped them. Her growing interest in international relations and human rights eventually led to an internship with a U.N.-affiliated organization concerned with Middle East peace. She was also nominated by her university to be a delegate scholar at an international conference on diplomacy—a huge honor that she had to turn down. Rasha was still undocumented, so she could not leave the country.

Rasha was one of the lucky ones. The family had an attorney, friends and relatives, and a growing chorus of advocates demanding their release. That wasn’t the case with most of the post–September 11 detainees. Hundreds were arbitrarily arrested in the first months after the attacks. One man, a Palestinian legal permanent resident, was stopped for driving four miles over the speed limit in North Carolina and spent four months in jail.

Around the same time that Rasha was freed, in May 2002, Amnesty International released a report that charged the U.S. government with violating “certain basic rights guaranteed under international law. These include the right to humane treatment, as well as rights which are essential to protection from arbitrary detention.” The next year, the Office of the Inspector General of the Justice Department released a report confirming many of Amnesty International’s charges, as well as other allegations of abuse at MDC. Rasha wouldn’t tell me if any physical abuse had befallen her eldest brother or father, just that they were mostly silent about their experiences after the family was reunited. But by the time they were detained, most of the first wave of people who were arrested had already been deported. We may never know how many were arrested. On November 5, 2001, the Justice Department announced 1,182 had been arrested, then stopped providing a tally. The average length of detention for post–September 11 detainees was 80 days, about the length of time Rasha spent in Bergen and MDC.

The first weekend after getting out, Rasha went with her girlfriends to Times Square to celebrate her release. They went for dinner at Chili’s. Gaby was there, and Nicky too, and a couple of Rasha’s other close friends. They sat a big table, and Rasha savored the luxury of ordering food from a menu.

Halfway through dinner, Rasha got up to go to the bathroom. Coming back to her table, she froze in shock. It was him. All the restaurants in New York City, and he’s at this one. There, at another big table, was the counselor from MDC, the very same man who constantly talked down to her and her sister. The man who’d made her mother cry.

Rasha stood there and waited. She knew what she had to do, but he was with his family and she didn’t want his children around. A couple of minutes later, she tapped his back with her finger. “Hi,” she said. Her voice was ball-bearing steady.

He turned around. “Hi,” he replied. But there wasn’t a hint in his voice that he knew who Rasha was.

“You don’t recognize me?” All the scenes when he’d yelled at her, when he’d made her cry, when he’d made her mother cry, flashed in her mind. His expression didn’t change. “Remember?” she said, her voice rising. “MDC? You don’t remember me?”

And suddenly she realized, Of course he doesn’t remember me. I’m not in a beige jumpsuit.

But then he responded. “Ah, wow,” he said. “See? You cleaned up your act.”

Rasha stared into his eyes, then scolded him for his callousness and how he “needed to learn a thing or two about respecting others.” She could feel her chest rising the whole time. She ended by telling him, “You are a fucking asshole, and you will always be a fucking asshole.” And then twirled deliberately and walked back to her table with a stiff spine and an anxious but triumphant smile growing on her face.

She ran the last steps and was out of breath when she got to her friends. She told them what had happened. She couldn’t wait to tell her parents. It didn’t change anything, but that didn’t matter. Confronting your jailer. On this side of freedom. Such a satisfying moment.

From How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, by Moustafa Bayoumi (forthcoming from Penguin Press).


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