Civil Liberties

Refusing to Hate

In Washington State, a Hate Free Zone brings dignity and hope to immigrants under attack.
Asha Mohammad, a 36-year-old mother of three, has lived in West Seattle for a decade. It was here, after all, that Mohammad and her family had found a community of their own, living amongst other Somali Muslim immigrants who relied on each other for support, news and updates from Somalia, and help in adjusting to their newly adopted country. America had promised freedom of religion and freedom of speech--and an opportunity to start again, to heal from still-vivid memories of war and repression.

Things had never been easy. Like so many immigrant communities, the Somali community in Seattle struggled to make ends meet, to try to fit in, to learn the language, and to navigate the bureaucracies of government agencies. But no amount of acculturation could have prepared Mohammad and her family--or the extended Somali community--for the aftermath of September 11th, 2001.

A few days after the violent terrorist attacks on U.S soil, a 16-year-old Somali girl was attacked and stabbed at a gas station in West Seattle. Four days later, six Somali women were fired from their jobs for wearing the hijab. And then, came the raids. INS raids, FBI raids, U.S. Treasury raids, USDA raids. In Seattle, Somali men were dragged into detention, where many still sit and wonder if they'll ever be reunited with their families. Small Somali grocery stores were ransacked, emptied, and shut down on suspicion of money laundering and food stamp mis-handling, only to be reopened months later after successful legal challenges.

The community didn't know what had hit them, or why the attention seemed to have been turned on them. Feeling estranged and frightened from the community around them, Somalis huddled together to try to understand what was happening, feeling more isolated with each passing day.

Unbeknownst to them, their experience was mirrored in immigrant communities across the Puget Sound--and across the nation. Sikhs were assaulted and terrorized. Recent Middle Eastern immigrants had their houses searched in the middle of the night and their family members interrogated and secretly detained.

But for her part, Mohammad got used to being stared at and called names when she walked down the street wearing her traditional hijab. Her attempt to give blood after September 11th was denied after the volunteer looked at her last name. She was sent home feeling waves of shame and confusion. But even this, she thought, she could handle. And then her eight-year-old daughter, riding her bike in West Seattle, was accosted by a 19-year-old man.

"Go back to where you came from," the man yelled at her daughter, after pushing her off her bike.

"Why do you want me to go back to California?," her U.S.-born daughter said in response.

The cruelty of the incident, which left her daughter with a large scar on her face, was almost too much for Mohammad to bear: "My heart just sank," she explains.

Testifying before a commission of elected officials, FBI and INS representatives, and over a thousand attendees at a groundbreaking forum in Seattle this fall, "Justice for All: The Aftermath of September 11th," Mohammad braved her trepidations to explain why she, her family, and all immigrant residents, deserved better.

"We are here in America, our new home," testified Mohammad in front of more than 1,200 attendees. "[S]peeches from a lot of leaders [say] that America is for everybody, that America is for all. But, this is now what we feel. We feel rejected, we experience hatred and violence. [Our] community is desperately seeking peace and safety ... Today, we are here to say, as a community, enough is enough."

From Hate to Hope

The Hate Free Zone (HFZ) Campaign of Washington, brainchild of longtime activist and author Pramila Jayapal, came into being out of the crisis that Seattle's immigrants and refugees found themselves in after 9/11.

As hate crimes and incidents of overt discrimination began to pile up all around the Pacific Northwest, Jayapal turned to other activist, civil liberties, and civil rights organizations to win support for a draft statement that would declare Seattle a "hate-free zone." City council members responded affirmatively, and quickly signed a proclamation condemning racial or religious harassment.

But proclamations, as Jayapal knew, wouldn't be enough to stem the tide of hate crimes and the impact of federal edicts geared toward the new "aliens" in our midst. In quick succession, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Congress passed laws and regulations ostensibly designed to reign in terrorism. The net effect of all the legislation and assorted DOJ edicts--ranging from the USA Patriot Act and the airport-focused "Operation Tarmac" to the INS/DOJ "Alien Absconder Apprehension Initiative"--was the interrogation, secret detention, or deportation of thousands of people, mostly Arab American or Muslim men.

Unifying Washington residents unfairly and disproportionately targeted by government agencies and individual hate-mongers alike seemed to be the most important--and most daunting--task.

But bit by bit, the task was accomplished.

Beginning in November 2001, the HFZ Campaign had already joined forces with dozens of Seattle and Washington-area groups, ranging from the ACLU and the Asian Counseling and Referral Service to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. After securing non-profit status, the HFZ pursued--and received--substantial foundation support, and then set about implementing a multi-pronged strategy to address the wide range of injustices being committed against Washington's ethnic communities.

Jayapal, along with her staff of six and over 75 volunteers, began running a helpline to log calls related to hate crimes, FBI interrogations and detentions, and incidents of discrimination at workplaces. They arranged informational "know your rights" sessions within immigrant communities so that a Somali woman, for instance, would know to ask for a lawyer before being interrogated. They worked hard--often successfully--to mediate in employment discrimination cases and detention cases alike, sometimes helping to win the freedom of innocent men locked up for two, four, even six months.

But most importantly, explains Jayapal, the HFZ Campaign brought immigrants and communities of color together in an unprecedented showing of mutual support and respect. Men and women who had previously felt as if their voices counted for little, if anything, in a 'democratic' society that seemed to prefer their invisibility, were finally speaking out.

"From the beginning, HFZ has been committed to creating opportunities for people to speak about their experiences," says Jayapal. "It is so much more powerful coming from them directly, and they feel so much more powerful for having [spoken]. We want to mobilize communities to realize how much power they have."

"If I was not active and speaking out," Mohammad says of her involvement with the HFZ Campaign, "I would be depressed or hospitalized ... I'm keeping my sanity this way."

Ibrahim al-Husseini, an advisory board member of the HFZ Campaign, echoes the sentiment that the "post-9/11 civil rights" organization has provided a unique and unparalleled opportunity for marginalized communities to come together and build alliances.

"When each community was trying to fend for itself," he says, "the Hate Free Zone Campaign brought them together to understand that they were not experiencing things in isolation."

Immigrants Testify

In the most visible and momentous effort to bring immigrants and people of color together to discuss their experiences, the HFZ Campaign hosted the nation's first public hearing on September 21, 2002, on the post-9/11 backlash.

For over three hours on September 21, 2002, a bipartisan commission of high-ranking officials and a standing-room-only crowd sat and listened to nearly 30 adults and children who were willing to come forward with their stories. The event was hosted along with nearly 100 faith-based, peace and justice, labor, and community groups, and was simultaneously translated into Punjabi, Somali, and Cambodian to accommodate the large number of immigrants in attendance.

Jaspreet, a five-year-old Sikh, told his story this way: "One day, I am going to school, walking on my street and one guy said, 'What is on your head?' I said, 'This is my big hair, and I want to keep my hair on my head.' Then he was walking at me again and he said, 'what are you doing again, I can't hear you!,' then he ride my bike ... Then I was walking to the park and this boy told me, you can't come on our bus ... I wish people would never talk about my hair. I never say bad words to anybody.'"

Sikhs across the nation were heavily targeted in the weeks and months after 9/11, leading to numerous serious assaults and murders. In the first three months, the Sikh Coalition received close to 400 reports of bias incidents. The experience of Sikhs in Washington and in the greater Seattle area, says Sikh Coalition and HFZ Campaign organizer Jasmit Singh, initially left the community feeling traumatized.

"Before September 11th, I was having my own existence," explains Singh. "I was very occupied with my family, and I had no experience in activism. But after September 11th, everything changed. The Sikh community found that we were being targeted. I realized I could actually something about it, or just worry about it. I chose to join the ranks of people trying to do something about it."

The formation of the Sikh Coalition was the first step. Soon, the Coalition went from tracking hate incidents in a database to developing an action plan. Education about who--and what--the Sikh culture and religion stood for was of paramount concern. Before long, the Sikh Coalition had joined the HFZ Campaign, and began--for the first time--to get acquainted with other immigrant communities whose very lives and livelihoods were being jeopardized by the post-9/11 backlash.

The "Justice For All" public hearing, says Singh, was a phenomenal coming together of communities--unlike any other that he's witnessed.

"Listening to the experiences of the Somali community or the Arab American community--or even relating to what happened to Japanese Americans--you realize that you need to get involved and do something to change the way that things are."

But for every person able and willing to testify, note both Singh and Jayapal, many more were too afraid to do so. Others, they add, were locked away in detention, including a 13-year-old Sikh who had finally lashed out against aggressors at his school in Kent, Washington.

The boy, who had been subjected to taunts and physical assaults for months on end, had asked school authorities to intervene. Their response was to remove him from his classroom and place him with a different set of peers. But the harassment continued, explains Singh, until one day, the boy snapped. After warning the teens taunting and throwing things at him, the boy punched one of his aggressors so severely that he fractured his face.

The Sikh child was arrested, charged with felonious assault, and sent to juvenile jail. Under lock and key, he was unable to testify at the public hearing.

"It makes me very mad because the schools should provide a safe environment," says Singh. "We have our work cut out for us."

Arab Americans who came forward to testify at the hearing told equally harrowing tales of harassment.

Samer Hamouni, who escaped to the U.S. in 1992 and received asylum along with his Syrian family, recounted the story of an FBI/INS raid in February this year. At 5 a.m., as Hamouni explained, seven agents stormed into the Hamouni house, detaining both elderly parents and Hamouni's 20-year-old sister.

The experience left the family shattered; seven months after the incident, as Hamouni explained, his mother, father and sister were still in detention. The three have apparently been held under highly questionable charges that the father, who had been a pilot in Syria, is somehow involved in terrorist activities. Hamouni's mother, who suffers from Crohn's disease, had additionally developed a lump in her breast and, according to Hamouni, her health was deteriorating rapidly.

"I condemn and hold the INS responsible for exceeding the bounds of human dignity and justice with the unlawful and callous detention of my family," testified Hamouni at the hearing. "[P]lease, help me save my family and our dream."

According to Jayapal, testimonies like these clearly indicate the degree to which the post-9/11 backlash has only intensified in the past year. To look at violent hate crimes as the sole indicator of how immigrant communities are faring is a mistake, she adds.

"What you have to look at now, a year later, is this coordinated strategy of the government to erode the constitutional and civil rights that belong to the people of this country," says Jayapal. "It is impossible to see it as anything but a coordinated strategy to take power from these communities."

A climate of fear in East African, Arab American, Muslim, Sikh, and other South Asian communities abounds. And while the HFZ Campaign has already made a tremendous difference in empowering the members of those communities to assert their legal and civil rights, Jayapal says, there is a long road ahead to unravel the "systemic causes of hate and discrimination."

"The problem didn't start or end with September 11th," says Jayapal firmly. "But I don't feel overwhelmed by the prospect of how much work we still have in front of us. On the contrary, I feel encouraged and inspired by what we've already accomplished."


Silja J.A. Talvi is a freelance journalist and winner of the first-place magazine feature writing award from the Western Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.