Focus of US fear: A legal refugee is recast as enemy
WINNIPEG, MANITOBA — For Cameran Sadeq, a new life was beginning in America, just as his adopted country was falling apart.
In late October last year, he'd gotten married. At a time when most Americans were avoiding travel, he'd ventured here from his Detroit home to wed the woman he'd fallen in love with by a desert well long ago and then lost for eight years.
In early November, he was about to get a truck-driving job in America that would move him beyond the valet's wages he'd lived on for more than a year. While a nation looked warily at crop-dusters and trembled to open the mail, Mr. Sadeq neared the life he'd imagined since he was a 12-year-old playing soccer on the earthen streets of Kurdish Iraq.
Indeed, every day, he was also getting closer to what originally brought him to America: citizenship.
For the safety of that citizenship, he'd left his family in Iraq, and wandered for a decade across the Middle East through a refugee camp in Syria where he'd meet his future bride, to Lebanon and Cyprus, where he lost track of her and eventually to the haven of refugee status in the US.
After a lifetime spent seeking safety, citizenship would ensure that he'd never be sent back to Iraq, where for opposing Saddam Hussein bullets whizzed by his ears like summer flies and his brothers had their bodies wrenched and minds broken by torture.
Last fall, Sadeq wasn't ignorant of what was going on around him. Like the rest of America, he'd seen the names and faces of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers Arab men who, to the suspicious eye of a fearful public, looked like Sadeq, with his dark brow and mustache. Like the rest of America, too, he'd watched in horror as their actions unfolded moved to grief by those widowed and orphaned on that September Tuesday.
Yet, Sadeq refused even to consider that America could cast him as an enemy in its new war on terror. He'd lived with such fear before of the Iraqi Army, of the Syrian police and he'd always gone about his life. That's why he didn't think much about deciding to take a quick driving vacation to Miami with two fellow Iraqi refugees in early November a sunny lark to visit the girlfriend of one of them.
It seemed like an inconsequential leg of his wanderings. But it would be the end of his meticulously planned dreams.
More than Hussein's bullets, more than the threat of torture and death that forced him to flee his homeland, it was what happened in Florida, Sadeq says, that "destroyed my life."
* * *
The three men arrived in the predawn darkness of Nov. 4 at the port of Miami where they were to rendezvous with the girlfriend, a Latvian waitress on a cruise ship. The gates were closed, but they felt no hesitation about approaching a security guard to get in, says Sadeq.
At a time when any potentially unusual activity especially by those who looked like Arabs was seen as a portent of terror, the moment had a suspicious feel: Three dark-skinned men inquiring in broken English about how to enter the port before it opened.
Told the port opened at 8, they said they'd have breakfast and return. But before they made it across the highway connecting the port to the mainland, a police car stopped them. As many as a dozen more followed. The three were handcuffed, searched, and photographed.
Pressed to recollect the moment, Sadeq now responds only with thinly veiled disgust. He told the police what he was doing there, but they obviously didn't trust him: "They said they were waiting for the FBI. I said, 'I don't care if we are waiting for George Bush, I've got nothing to hide.' "
The wait was only just beginning.
* * *
Sadeq was caught in the post-Sept. 11 net that snared up to 1,200 noncitizens with faces and names like his. Taken from their workplaces, vacations, or beds for activities or physical appearances that seemed suspicious, they were held without charge, interrogated by the FBI and immigration authorities without legal counsel, and put through secret court proceedings. Many remain in prison; their names still withheld. Of those freed, many have been deported. Most others refuse to speak to the press embarrassed and worried that any attention will bring trouble from agitated neighbors and federal authorities.
But Sadeq is eager to talk, straining in passionate, halting English to present his case as if for the first time. He recalls dates and phone numbers with astonishing clarity. And he answers all questions, not just out of a Kurdish-villager's courtesy, but with a keen understanding of how things work. This, after all, is a man who told his wife to call the Arabic channel Al Jazeera or the British Broadcasting Corporation if he were mistreated.
Sadeq's story is a window on the most contentious front in America's war on terrorism the national reckoning over the balance between national security and civil liberties.
In answering legal challenges to the secrecy and apparent Muslim-oriented discrimination of the detentions, US Attorney General John Ashcroft has countered: "The Department of Justice is waging a deliberate campaign of arrest and detention to protect American lives.... We believe we have Al Qaeda membership in custody, and we will use every constitutional tool to keep suspected terrorists locked up."
Federal officials refuse to comment on Sadeq's case. But Michael Vastine, Sadeq's Miami lawyer, says: "They were pulled over because they looked like Middle Eastern men. It was clearly on the basis of racial profiling.... The public mind-set was to act now and think later."
It was a mind-set, however, that didn't seem to figure into Sadeq's gauge of the situation as he was arrested. He nearly scoffs at the suggestion he might have been afraid. "I'm not scared," he says of how he felt then and how he still feels; "I did nothing wrong."
It is an attitude that defines him. Sadeq expects people to trust him, because he sees himself as a decent man and demands that respect. So when his new country held him for the next 4 1/2 months in a detention center on the edge of the Everglades, essentially calling him a liar, it left a wound that has yet to heal.
* * *
Sadeq's interrogations involved no bright lights; no threats; no dark, windowless cells; but rather two or three plainclothes officers from the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service sitting in a side office at the Krome Detention Center, asking the same questions over and over. Sadeq tires repeating them now, his matted black hair matching the listlessness of his voice.
"It was [civil], but it was question, question, question about stupid things, like 'Are you a terrorist?' 'Do you know any terrorists?' 'Do you have any connections with terrorists?' They want to know something about bin Laden," says Sadeq, whose Kurdish roots are not with Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, in 1991, he battled in a brief, failed US-encouraged rebellion against Hussein with fellow Kurds who distinct from Arabs, are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East.
Again, officials said they didn't believe his story about why he was in Miami. But today, remembering that moment, he sits up and wags a finger proudly: "I'm not scared if it's F-B-I," dragging out the letters for dramatic effect. "I am clean."
Eventually, the FBI concurred interviewing him only two or three times and clearing him of any terrorist links months before his release.
Sadeq was hardly free to go, though. The FBI investigation had become an immigration case that would carom through the legal system in closed court hearings until March. The suspected terrorist was now seen as a smuggler, trying to help his friend keep the Latvian in the US illegally. With each secret court proceeding, the accusations enraged him. Mr. Vastine recalls having to calm him down: "He couldn't believe that anyone was questioning his integrity. I told him to relax, because in the situation he was in, you can't be perceived as an angry Arab guy."
The detention was beginning to wear. As other detainees played dominoes or basketball, Sadeq sought out guards, asking what was going to happen to him, receiving no answers. Never a religious man before or since, he prayed five times a day in strict accordance with Muslim law. And he thought about his wife and the uncertainty that lay ahead.
"Inside, you get things in your mind, because you don't know what's waiting for you," he says with a gauzy look of contemplation that hints at his interminable days of detention. "It is the government: If the government is going to do something, it is going to do it.... I got scared, but only for my wife."
In the end, explains Vastine, Sadeq was released with his refugee status and right to live and work in the US intact. In exchange, though, the INS demanded he sign a waiver admitting he'd violated immigration rules by helping his friend drive to Miami to try to convince the Latvian girlfriend to break immigration rules. Sadeq signed it one day before a court-imposed deadline. "He wanted to fight and fight until his name was clear," Vastine says. But if he hadn't signed it, "he'd still be in Krome today."
* * *
Sadeq understands even supports to an extent America's actions after Sept. 11. When he thinks of the lives lost, he says "the government is right to bring us to ask questions, because [it] wants to know something about terrorism and wants to protect the country."
But he draws a clear line, not with raised voice, but iron tone: "I didn't do any mistake, and I pay 4 1/2 months of my freedom."
The cost was actually much more than that. The trucking job disappeared. His furniture, clothes, and letters from family in Iraq all stored in the apartment of one of his detained friends were thrown out as the men sat in prison from November to March, unable to pay rent. His 1991 Pontiac Sunbird, parked in Detroit, was impounded; he left it because the fee was double the value of the car itself.
And freedom involved no happy homecoming. In the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, an enclave of Arabic-speaking immigrants, tales like his had become neighborhood horror stories. Although many of his friends helped him by paying for his bus ride from Miami and passing a collection hat at his old valet job, others worried he might bring trouble.
For a month, Sadeq was forced to move from house to house, flitting between friends' couches even sleeping in the office of a produce market for two weeks. He borrowed money for clothes, for bus fare, and eventually for the ticket to his wife's family in Winnipeg, where he arrived with the clothes he was wearing and $10.
He estimates his debt to friends and in-laws is $7,000. For a man who says he learned English so "he wouldn't have to kiss the hand of an interpreter," it gnaws at his thought constantly.
"I am not happy with my life, because I think about how I am going to pay this money back," he says. "I lost my money, I lost my stuff, I lost my friends, I lost my respect, and nobody [in the US government] cared. They say, 'Go back and build your life again,' but it is very hard."
* * *
Here in Winnipeg Sadeq has help rebuilding his life. The refugee has new roots. In a neglected and vandalized complex of the Winnipeg projects, he and his wife, Samira Moustafa, have shaped an oasis of immaculate whitewashed walls, porcelain figurines, dinner tables teetering with food, and a TV with three VCRs.
After a day of talking about debts and doubts, his face brightens when Samira comes into the room.
It's been that way since the first moment he saw her in 1991. Then, sitting on a dusty hillock of his refugee camp in Syria, looking across the border to the hills of Iraq, his thoughts had been filled with cares for his mother. When Hussein's army invaded his hometown, he'd lost her as everyone fled, fearing the gas attacks that had killed thousands of Kurds earlier that year. Yet when he saw Samira step off a bus and walk through the camp's sea of tents, his life changed.
"I know everybody in the camp, but I don't know this girl. I said, 'I want to keep my eyes on her and see where she's going,' " he says, grinning broadly. In the camp, he'd watch her from his perch, then run to meet her at the well. But in his search for security and citizenship to Lebanon, Cyprus, the US he lost her. It wasn't until last fall, after a mutual friend in Detroit reconnected them, that Sadeq visited her in Winnipeg. On the last day of his visit, they married though he would have to return to America and the promise of his new job.
Today they remain clearly very much in love. When Samira is asked a question in English, she and Sadeq look at each other for a silent moment then giggle nervously, much as they might have 10 years ago. "I fell in love with him because he had no faults," she says in Kurdish, and Sadeq translates, chiding her gently for not trying her English more.
Samira is the happiest part of his life now, Sadeq says, and the mooring that got him through Krome. In those days, she says, "I cried a lot." She thought she'd never see him again, she says, when she got his first Sunday phone call from detention a call that would be a weekly ritual over the months. Sadeq is fiercely protective of her and the new life they're settling into. Fearful of involving her in the tumult of his life, he refused to let her be photographed for this article.
He'd like to become a truck driver again, but declines to comment on the record as to how he is currently supporting himself, other than to say that Samira works in a furniture factory and they get help from her family.
Yet those who know Sadeq have no doubts he'll succeed.
Nasser Shajira remembers the night Sadeq spent at his Dearborn apartment after he returned from Miami. Other guests usually left their corner strewn with blankets and Coke cans, but Sadeq had neatly folded all the sheets on the couch by the time Mr. Shajira awoke. It was typical Sadeq. "He is a hard worker ... a good example of someone who wants to succeed," says Shajira, a valet who used to work with Sadeq at a Detroit casino.
Mary Maniaci, a former landlady, recalls the good life Sadeq built in Dearborn contrasted with the visit he paid her after his detention. "It was like he had been to hell and back," says Ms. Maniaci. "He started to get a tear in his eye, and I told him, 'You made it. You got out, and that's more important than anything. Good things happen to good people.' "
When Sadeq hears by phone that Ms. Maniaci sent her love, Sadeq's voice trails off and wavers: "She is a very special person."
Sadeq sometimes glimpses the better future these friends see ahead of him: in the videotaped parade of elaborately festooned, honking cars during his marriage celebration and in the faces of his mother- and sister-in-law, who live in an apartment downstairs and come by often. This is his family now and his home.
He could still legally live in the US.
But he has no intention of ever going back. "[The United States] changed my life. [It] took me to zero. Now, I have to work my way back."