In 'Little Apple,' change etches hearts

When the World Trade Center towers crashed to earth last September, the ground beneath this small city in the middle of the American heartland shook like few others. It was as if a big-city relative had just phoned home with terrible family news.

"People here in the middle of Kansas felt it," remembers Jon Wefald, president of the state university here. "They realized - just as if they lived in New York - that America had changed forever, that our way of life would be markedly changed from this day on."

It wasn't just the shared name, decided upon by New York land speculators back in 1855. For a town whose population - 44,831 - equates to a few square blocks in the more well-known Manhattan back East, it has some important windows on the world: Kansas State University, with hundreds of foreign students and professors, and nearby Ft. Riley, many of whose US Army personnel have served abroad or at the Pentagon, where terrorists struck as well.

On the surface, Manhattan hasn't changed much since 9/11. How the K-State Wildcats - both men and women - would do in the Big-12 basketball tournament last week (so-so, as it turned out) was a major concern. A recent front-page headline in the local newspaper read: "KSU seeking buyer for slice of bull barn." A letter to the editor thanks the community for the turnout at the Boy Scout Troop 228 chili feed.

Yet, underneath, there's also evidence that the community has changed in ways both subtle and profound. The palpable fear of those immediate days after 9/11 has waned, replaced by a lingering sense of vulnerability, a spirit of community, a new sense of personal priorities.

"There's an awareness that will always be etched in our hearts," says James Spencer, assistant minister at the Pilgrim Baptist Church here.

* * *

"The Little Apple," Manhattan calls itself. The nickname - trademarked - goes back 25 years to when then-Mayor Terry Glasscock presented New York's Mayor Ed Koch with a photo of Damon Runyon's birthplace. That the writer of the Broadway hit "Guys and Dolls" came from here seemed enough reason for a sister-city relationship.

In many ways, the values upon which this Manhattan was founded are as enduring as the native limestone blocks used to build many homes, public buildings, and churches. At the 121-year-old Pilgrim Baptist Church, the men's choir - six powerful, joyous voices - still sings "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well" as if it had been written just this morning.

It's still a small college town in mid-America, where hot issues are rezoning so Wal-Mart can expand, declining grade-school enrollment, a proposed half-cent sales-tax hike for economic development, and a recycling fee.

It's a fairly conservative, pro-Bush place, typically Midwestern with wide, tree-lined streets and a hillside emblazoned with a big white "KS." But there's no great amount of flag-waving. Over a cappuccino at the Espresso Royale Caffe just off campus, one still can read handouts from the Kansas State Socialists.

"It's a cliché, but it's a really great place to raise a family," says Mayor Bruce Snead, who's paid $100 a month for the job and works full time as an environmental engineer. "You can contribute if you want to. You can make a difference here."

Yet a constant concern remains over vulnerabilities 1,313 miles from ground zero in New York: a nearby nuclear power plant and dam, cropdusters parked at rural airports, and even the possibility of anthrax attacks. A spate of bomb threats - one at the countycourt house, three at the high school - were hoaxes, but troubling nonetheless.

High school students no longer are allowed to sort mail. National Guard troops keep an eye on the small airport. Security at the water and sewer facilities has been beefed up.

At the same time, the community is working hard to acknowledge, value, and protect its diverse population at a time when racial and ethnic profiling in the wake of 9/11 remains a troubling issue nationwide. For starters, there's the reminder that terrorism struck in Oklahoma City, less than 300 miles to the south.

"If you think you see the face of terrorism in someone who wears a turban," Mayor Snead reminds people, "remember the face of Timothy McVeigh, who was a terrorist and looked like us."

Because of the university, there is a Muslim community of 300 here with its own mosque. For the most part, it had remained fairly invisible, but now it's well-known. Instead of responding with fear and suspicion after 9/11, however, the community has rallied with flowers, notes and calls of support, and offers to accompany Muslim women shopping or to the playground with their kids.

"There was a wave of anti-anything Islamic, but it was brief," recalls Walt Braun, an editorial page editor at the Manhattan Mercury. "We know people here. The city engineer is a Muslim, and he's coached every kid in town in soccer."

Still, it's been a confusing, somewhat frightening time for Muslims, particularly because most are students (or family of students) and here for short stays. Even before 9/11, someone might shout an insult at a veiled woman.

* * *

In many ways, A'ishah Islam is a typical American mom. She shepherds her three smallest kids around in a minivan and watches her teenage daughter grow into a young woman studying at KSU. At home she wears jeans, T-shirts, and sweaters. Her speech hints at a Minnesota upbringing.

But before she steps outside the house, she dons the abaya (the long garment that flows to her ankles), the khmir (the head veil that reaches her waist), and the niqats (the veil that reveals only the blue eyes and pale complexion of her Irish heritage).

A'ishah began studying the Koran 20 years ago, finding "a lot of the questions I had in Christianity were answered for me in Islam." Within a few years, she'd changed her name (from Teresa Hardesty), and formally converted to Islam. Not long after, she met and married Tawfik Aboellail, an Egyptian working on his PhD at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D.

They came to Manhattan for his post-doctoral veterinary studies, and all was going well until November, when he learned that his student visa wouldn't be renewed as expected. He had to return to Egypt without his family. A'ishah suspects that the disruption in their lives is the result of Sept. 11.

"I don't blame them, because it was Arab men with irregular visas who perpetrated the crimes of 9/11," she says. "On the other hand, I'm thinking 'racial profiling.' " (Dr. Aboellail expects to hear today from the US Embassy in Cairo if he'll get a green card and be able to return to the US.)

* * *

Every parent and teacher knows that the teen years can be unsettling for everyone within a young person's orbit. Six months after the terrorist attacks on the US homeland, that's truer than ever at Manhattan High School.

At her desk in a small office festooned with school notices and awards, principal Teresa Miller fields questions from teachers, coaches, and staff lined up for a minute with the boss. Her dangley earrings with the school's "Manhattan Indians" logo are a jaunty touch, offsetting the seriousness of what's on her mind: concerns about school security, the few episodes of harassment of Muslim students, the steadiness of the adults she oversees here who have 9/11-related worries of their own.

"People want it to be normal," she says, knowing that "normal" in the school hallways and classrooms may have changed forever. But a "false sense of security" is what concerns her.

"We've wanted to believe that everything's okay, when in fact we're probably just as vulnerable as we were in September," she says. She has personal reasons to be wary. Her husband works at the post office here, and their son is in Army intelligence in South Korea - not far from one of the presidentially-designated members of the "axis of evil."

Still, she sees an opportunity here as well.

"I wanted this to be a teachable moment, too. I've been trying to help people understand the globalness of the world, and Sept. 11 has helped me do that."

* * *

How this American heartland community has addressed its racial, ethnic, and religious diversity in the wake of 9/11 may in the end be a much more lasting legacy than the sorrow, anger, and fear lingering nationwide.

Mohammad Ali Al-Deeb, a Syrian doing doctoral work in entomology here, is one of many Muslim leaders now invited to speak to churches, schools, and civic groups. Talking over a buffet lunch at the Sirloin Stockade, where the Wednesday night all-you-can-eat steak-and-shrimp special goes for $7.99, Mr. Al-Deeb says the opportunity to talk to Manhattanites "is a grace from God."

A slim, bearded man who emanates kindness, his time in the US has had its hardships. He didn't go back home for his father's funeral last year, and he cancelled two scholarly presentations because they would have involved air travel. As a Muslim, he was concerned about being harassed - or even detained.

Yet in his new role as an unofficial ambassador for Islam, he is finding his meetings with community groups gratifying, such as the one at the mosque with Roger Gibson's sixth-grade class from the Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School.

Before the visit, students told Mr. Gibson words or phrases they associated with Islam. The list included "bad," "hate America," "no freedom," "bin Laden." After the meeting, the responses became "one God," "respectful," "generous," and "caring."

The message Al-Deeb delivered to the children and his other audiences was about the fundamentals of one of the world's major monotheistic religions - and that what terrorists do and say is antithetical to those. "I'm devout in the sense that I practice Islam to perfect my life, to be a better researcher, to be a better husband," he says. "Islam makes me more open and humble."

One sixth-grader later wrote to him: "I used to think you were much different from me, but now I know that you are not." Wrote another: "I know now that your faith is a lot like mine."

After a talk he'd given, a woman e-mailed: "Your presentation was a work of grace.... Keep talking. It is your gift for a troubled time."

There have, in fact, been no major incidents directed against Muslims in Manhattan since Sept. 11, and just two of 1,200 foreign students at KSU returned home. (And that's because their parents asked them to.) Part of this may be due to the community's work on multiculturalism and diversity well before the terrorist attacks.

"I think that paid big dividends in the aftermath," says James Coffmann, provost at the university.

Black leaders here affirm that there has been more reaching out between races - significant because just recently, the Ku Klux Klan tried to make inroads in Topeka. Mr. Spencer of the Baptist church, who is also president of the local NAACP, puts it this way: "When you grab hold of somebody's hand, you don't look at the color of the hand."

* * *

A new atmosphere of purposefulness seems to have penetrated civic life here. "It was almost like our students had matured overnight," says Dr. Wefald, KSU's president. "I saw a far more mature, studious mindset from that point [Sept. 11] on."

He predicts that more students will aim for careers in diplomacy, the military, or other public service. For example, KSU is raising $1 million to endow a Middle Eastern studies chair and scholarships to two students from the region. And KSU's introductory course in social work - requiring 30 hours of community service - normally get 40 students. Over 100 signed up this semester.

This concern for the well-being of others is evidenced in a notable increase in charitable giving and activities - small and large.

"I've noticed that a whole lot of people are willing to hammer nails, to pack lunches, to do whatever it takes," says Spencer, the Baptist minister who's on the local Habitat for Humanity board doing low-income housing construction.

"Even some of my military friends at church are asking what we should be doing to build up those countries and support human rights," says campus minister Don Fallon, referring to nations that now present costly military and diplomatic challenges to the United States.

In his work, Mr. Fallon sees more thoughtfulness, tolerance, openness to work on peace-building. "The challenge now is to keep that going," he says.

And like many American cities, Manhattan has had its important symbols of response to the terrorist attacks: more than $500,000 for the victims, much of it raised from the sale of special T-shirts with the KSU logo and US flag; a huge banner signed by thousands of school children in the Little Apple and sent to the Big Apple; the football halftime ceremony honoring New York City policeman Frank McGheeny, who'd adopted the smaller Manhattan as the college town to cheer - even though he'd never been here - long before last year's terrorist attacks.

* * *

Like all Americans, people in Manhattan, Kansas, are concerned about the war in Afghanistan, and the continuing loss of life and suffering there. This colors how they feel about the atmosphere in this small mid-American town where life goes on - in most ways, anyway - pretty much as it always has.

Or as A'ishah Islam puts it: "Things have pretty much gotten back to normal, but it's a new normal .... a new reality." For one thing, she says, the meetings between Muslim and non-Muslim women that continue here "have been a really positive thing that's come out of it."

Others have noticed the changes, too, that so often seem to come from adversity. "Yes, life goes on, but there's more care being taken now - people being more loving, being there for those young people who have questions," says Spencer, the assistant Baptist minister who runs his Sunday evening gospel-music radio show with as much joy and enthusiasm as when he sings with the Pilgrim Baptist men's choir. "A lot of people met each other and formed lasting friendships - I hate to say it - because of a tragedy."

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