Deportations & Mosque Closings: The War on Terror's Domestic Toll
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The following is excerpted from the forthcoming Mohamed's Ghosts: A Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland by Stephan Salisbury, published by Nation Books. Copyright © 2010 by the author.
The Abco Body Shop was not really an Abco Body Shop and hadn’t been one for years. It was the home of the Ansaarullah Islamic Society, a small mosque established in January 2002 by Mohamed Ghorab, a mechanical engineer, mediocre businessman, passionate student of Islam, and Egyptian national who had dreamed of starting his own mosque since before he came to the United States from Alexandria in 2000.
The building wasn’t disguised; it wasn’t posing as Abco to obscure some mysterious and sinister agenda. The congregation simply could not afford to remove the old Abco sign post, and besides, they were only tenants and given the huge monthly rental for the property, over $4,000, there always seemed to be more pressing needs. That became increasingly the case as 9/11 receded and the war on terror ground its way across the American battlefield, sowing apprehension daily. By late 2003, more often than not, congregation bail and legal matters needed immediate attention, sucking up the financial resources of everyone connected with the mosque. Why bother with the Abco sign?
The bedraggled house next door served as the imam’s residence. He lived there with his first American wife, or at least they lived there together part of the time. But life between them became difficult, and after their divorce, Mohamed Ghorab lived there with his much-loved second American wife, Meriem Moumen, a Morocco-born U.S. citizen. They settled in, even as the house, with its porous, failing roof and kitchen ceiling, gradually collapsed around them—like much else in their world.
I looked up at the house and tried to imagine Ghorab and Moumen coming out the front door. She is dark and veiled, holding their baby; he wears a white galabiya and whispers something funny in her ear. She laughs as he pulls the door closed. But Ghorab had hardly a chance to begin his ministry and life with Moumen when, in March 2003, he was arrested for his supposedly fraudulent first American marriage. Then, a year after he posted a $50,000 bond, Ghorab was again arrested in the massive May 2004 raid. He was never released after that, never charged with any criminal wrongdoing, kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time, never granted bail. He was simply held, first at York County Prison, south of Harrisburg, where the federal government leases a huge wing to hold immigration violators and terrorism suspects, and then at Pike County Prison, in northeastern Pennsylvania, far from Philadelphia, an untenable drive. He was alone. Meriem was alone.
In November 2005, after enduring one disappointing and incomprehensible hearing after another, after getting repeatedly ineffective and costly legal advice, Ghorab gave up his fight to remain in the United States and was deported to Egypt in December. Moumen went too, taking their American-born eighteen-month-old daughter. But her thirteen-year-old daughter by a previous marriage, also American-born, refused to leave the United States, rending the family like brittle paper and rocking Moumen to her psychic core. Husband or daughter? America or Egypt? Depression or death-in-life? Meriem’s choice. By that time, not surprisingly, the Ansaarullah Islamic Society had closed, unable to pay its bills, unable to retain its congregation, unable to function at all. The mosque shut down, itself a victim and, in the eyes of many, a target of the war on terror. Did Ansaarullah represent anything more than a battered old city corner revived by the devout? Did it embody some kind of inchoate threat, a threat invisible to all but those who knew what no one else seemed to know? What is known and incontrovertible is that months after the mosque was incorporated in January 2002, congregants began to face waves of legal troubles as the federal anti-terror campaign fired up. At least half a dozen members were arrested for purported immigration violations. A half dozen more were detained and released. Still more were questioned. Some were told their immigration problems might disappear if they provided the right kind of information to authorities. They began working with immigration and law enforcement officials, reporting back on the daily life of the mosque. Several congregants found themselves in deportation proceedings, unable to meet bond, unable to help their families, unable even to understand the labyrinthine and increasingly hostile immigration system.