A Narrative of Post-9/11 Injustice Edited by Alia Malek
Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice, compiled and edited by Alia Malek. The book collects interviews with victims of civil rights abuses in the wake of 9/11.
Uzma and Anser moved with their three children to the United States from Karachi, Pakistan in 1994. Anser entered the United States on a business visa, started a small trucking company, and stayed after his visa expired. The family lived in Bayonne, New Jersey, and Uzma and Anser’s fourth child was born there in 2000. On October 3, 2001, FBI and INS agents came to Uzma and Anser’s home to question them about two of Uzma’s brothers who were wanted on credit card fraud charges.
The FBI had also received a tip from a transportation company that Anser worked with, saying that he did not want to deliver to Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. Anser was taken into custody and immediately classified by the FBI as being “high interest.” He was taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York, where he spent months in solitary confinement.
Anser’s lawyer was informed by government officials that the FBI agents who searched his home had found a license to carry hazardous materials, box cutters, a flight simulator program, and three Pakistani passports in his name. Anser’s explanation was that his trucking company required him to have the hazardous materials license, and that he used the box cutters for his job. The flight simulator program was a video game used by his children, and of the three passports, two were expired and one was valid.
Anser’s treatment was part of a policy called PENTTBOM. Under this policy, Arab, Muslim, and South Asian males brought to the attention of authorities during the 9/11 terrorism investigation, and who were discovered to be non-citizens who had violated the terms of their visa, were arrested and treated as “of interest” to the government’s terrorism investigation. They were subjected to a blanket “hold-until-cleared” policy. Although they could have been removed promptly from the United States because of their immigration violations, pursuant to this policy they were instead further detained until they were affirmatively cleared of terrorist ties.
In February 2002, with her husband facing deportation, Uzma decided to return to Pakistan with her children. In May of that year, Anser was deported to Pakistan for using a non-authorized social security card.
UZMA: THEY SHOULD HAVE TAKEN ME INSTEAD
On the morning of October 3, 2001, I was lying in bed with my one-year-old sleeping next to me. I wasn’t feeling too well that morning, so I’d told my husband to get the kids ready for school while I slept on. Later, when I awoke, I was amazed to see men in FBI jackets all over my room. One of them was going through my closet.
I ran downstairs with the baby and found about twenty-five people all over my house—they were in the basement and even down our street. They were searching our house, picking up things and throwing them aside, acting crazy. God knows what they were looking for.
One of the agents asked me my name. I replied, “Uzma Naheed.”
He told me, “Look, you already made a mistake. You didn’t tell us your full name.” He said I had only told him my name was Uzma Naheed, when my passport said Uzma Naheed Abbasi.
I didn’t understand, so I asked them what the problem was. I said, “There’s nothing wrong with that, I usually don’t go by Abbasi.” I told them it’s no big deal, that people often refer to themselves by their short names. I asked another agent his name, and he told me his first name, and I said, “See, you didn’t tell me your whole name, did you?”
Then they asked me this and that, about what my husband does and how he lives, I don’t even remember anymore. First they questioned me and then they questioned my husband, but anyway, there was no charge on my husband at all. They charged me with something to do with my brother Ahmer. They had arrested him just a week before. He was an illegal immigrant and had some issue with his credit card, I’m not sure what. They told me they were going to arrest me on his behalf. So I said, “Okay, you do whatever investigation you need to do.”
One of the women there told me to take off my jewelry and get ready to go with them. So I said, “Okay,” I went to the bathroom and took off my jewelry and got ready to leave with them. Just as we were leaving, my little baby started to cry. He cried so much that Anser told the agents that the baby was very attached to me, and that he wouldn’t be able to stay without me. He said, “You can’t take his mama away now,” even though they were only going to take me for a night or so, to question me. Anser said he wouldn’t be able to care for the baby alone, so he told the men to take him instead for questioning, to leave me behind.
They hadn’t found a thing at our house. They only wanted me to go with them because of some trouble with my brother. They had already questioned Anser at the house for almost an hour and a half, and found nothing wrong with his answers.
But they took him away. They should have taken me instead.
At the time I thought, Oh well then, he’ll just go instead of me and they can ask him whatever they need to. But when I looked down from the window, I saw they had handcuffed him.
That surprised me. Why would they need to handcuff him? My children were about to come home from school, and I didn’t want them to see their father that way. Why should they have to remember that image?
When my children came back from school they were surprised to see the house the way it was, with things thrown all over the place. They wanted to know where their papa was. I just told them, “He’s coming.”
When they took my husband away, they’d given me a phone number to call him at, and promised he would be home in a day or two. At the time, I didn’t know anything. I had never lived alone or done anything alone. My poor children were worried too.
I called my mother and my father-in-law in Pakistan right away. I told them some FBI people had come and taken Anser away. Of course, then they became worried too. But I told them, “It’s nothing to worry about, he’ll be back by tomorrow.”
That’s what I had been told, anyway.
All night I called that number they had given me, but nobody answered.
The next morning I became really anxious. I hadn’t had any communication with my husband, and I didn’t know where he was. I only had that one number.
I tried to go about my routine the following day, but I became really frightened, because I still couldn’t get through on that number and my husband still hadn’t called.
On the third day, I ventured out; I went to the city with my children. I told them we would go to a police station there and see if there was any news of their father. But when we got there, I couldn’t even talk. I wasn’t even sure what to ask the police, about where my husband was, why he had been taken away, what was going on. I just didn’t understand where to begin.
Nobody would talk to us. The police just told me that if it was an FBI case, they had nothing to do with it.
I couldn’t stop crying. My children kept saying “Mama, don’t cry, don’t cry, why are you crying?”
I thought it was time to go meet a lawyer. Our community at the time was mostly Jewish. There weren’t many Muslims there. I had nobody I could ask for advice. Our neighbors had become suspicious of us and refused to talk to me. There was just one Egyptian lady, who lived in the apartment below us. She was the one person who was always very nice. Other than that, I had nobody to go to. I had only one brother in America, but he had been arrested too. He didn’t have any real charges against him either; he was just one of those people they picked up on the street randomly in those days and jailed.
I hired a lawyer to find my husband for me. He told me his fee was $300. Two or three days later, I found out through someone else that Anser was at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
I went back to the lawyer and said, “I want my money back, I already know where he is and I was only paying you to find out. I don’t need your information anymore.” I had no money as it was, and I had children at home and no job.
The lawyer said, “Do you think this is a laundromat, where you can demand your cash back?” He hadn’t given me any information, any help; he just took my $300.
I went to another lawyer, one we had hired for my brother. He was in Manhattan and I knew him, he was also Pakistani. I told him I needed his help. So he arranged a lawyer for me, someone who would stay in touch with me and help me out. Through him, I found out Anser had been charged with an expired visa and was due to appear in court in a week or so.
Slowly, people started appearing who could help me. The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) people helped me so much. They would always go with me when we knew Anser had a date in court. They also came to know that I was living alone with my children, with no source of income. I didn’t have much of a bank balance. It wasn’t like Anser and I had saved that much money, so they helped me with financial support.
ANSER: SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
From my house the FBI took me to a place on Varick Street, in Manhattan. There were a lot of people there. On the way, the officers had told me, “We’ll let you go by evening,” since it wasn’t really me they wanted. They kept me all night, though, and in the morning they took me to the Metropolitan Detention Center. They kept me there for seven months.
One of the officers told me I was there because of the World Trade Center attack, but during that whole time, they never once came to me for interrogation.
For four months, I was in solitary confinement. I was kept in a twelve-by-six cell and was video monitored at all times. A urinal and wash basin were in the same cell. I could be seen through a glass window in the door.
There were guards outside my cell. At the beginning, they didn’t let me sleep. If they knew I was falling asleep, they would loudly rattle their keys or bang on the door to keep me awake.
I wasn’t allowed to see anybody else or know who else was there. I wasn’t even allowed to make a sound, let alone talk to people.
On February 6, 2002, I was taken downstairs to general population, where they kept me with other prisoners—murderers, dacoits, etc.
Prisoners there used to be terrified of being kept in solitary confinement, so all the other prisoners, even the huge ones, were afraid of me. They figured I must have done something really bad to have come from solitary confinement.
UZMA: THERE IS NO ANSER MEHMOOD HERE
I went to see Anser after they moved him out of solitary confinement. By that time, I’d got a very good lawyer through ICNA, called Marty Stolar. But now they had put Anser with, oh, such criminal people! People who had murdered others!
Anser was in chains and handcuffs, wearing those orange clothes. He looked so weak. There were video cameras all around us. He asked me if the kids were okay. But truth be told, I was so busy running around after lawyers, I had no time to see what was happening to my children. The poor things would get themselves ready for school, come home themselves, make food and eat themselves, do their homework alone. They even looked after their baby brother. Living alone all those months had been very difficult.
The kids were in public school. My eldest son Umair was in eighth grade, Uzair was in seventh grade, and Harris was in sixth. The other students there really tormented them. They kept telling my kids things like, “You people are terrorists,” because of what had happened to their father. They had a lot of problems in school and got into a lot of fights because other kids were making their lives miserable. They would get upset when people bullied them. They would get angry and tell me that other kids called them names. I told them to forget about it and not go outside too much. But of course they still had to go to school, where kids would keep teasing them.
Even their teachers had become strange with them. They said Umair had mental issues, and for me to send him for counseling. This wasn’t true. He was a very intelligent child, he did really well in school, but the teachers had also come down to petty discrimination. When they made me take him for counseling, I saw that all the other kids there had developmental issues, the kind of kids who can’t hear or speak properly. And there was my son, a smart eighth-grader. But they told me if I didn’t send my son there, they wouldn’t let him stay in school. They even made me pay a fee for the counseling, $150 or $200. I had no money at all, but they harassed me until I paid.
My neighbors discriminated against me a lot. They picked on me in little ways, like demanding that I clear my footpath of snow, little things like that. They knew I was alone with young children and couldn’t always get out and do it immediately, but they would harass me and say, “Come out and do it!”
I tried putting up my home for sale once, but whenever anyone would come to see the house, the neighbors would tell them all about our circumstances before they even had a chance to come in, and then they wouldn’t be interested anymore.
I didn’t have any friends or neighbors that I could count on there. I had always been absorbed in my family and children until then. There were a couple of other Pakistani families who lived some distance from us. They were very good people who helped care for my baby a lot. Sometimes I had to be out all day, and I didn’t want to leave the baby with my kids; they were too young to watch him for so long.
I was out talking a great deal after the FBI took my husband away. I don’t think any other women had come out yet to talk about it. I told everyone, I told the media what had happened, how the government had blamed us without any reason. They’d just started calling us terrorists, when we were just ordinary citizens. The same way everyone saw what had happened, we witnessed it too. The same way everyone grieved for what had happened, we did too. I don’t know how they involved us in their accusations.
My children would go with me and visit Anser. Once we went on Eid. On Eid day, the ICNA people told me that prisoners were allowed to see their relatives for religious holidays. They told us to get ready, that they would come and pick us up. So I got my children dressed nicely and we cooked food to take with us. We thought we’d see him and we’d all eat together there, as a family.
But when we got there, one of the guards said to me “What Anser Mehmood? There is no Anser Mehmood here.”
They often did that with me. I would call them and they would give me a time to visit. It took a long time to get there—I had to take a bus and then a train, and I had to change subways many times. When I got there, they would let everyone meet their relatives, but when my number came, they would say, “There’s nobody here by that name. Go away.” Then I would have to leave.
When I went with my children on Eid, we waited outside in the car for a long time. We kept going in and asking about Anser. Eventually the guards started saying they would let us meet him in an hour, then two hours. We had been there since morning, and then it became evening. The children didn’t eat their food; we kept thinking that we would eat together, with Anser.
Finally, they just told us, “There is no Anser Mehmood here.” It was so cold that day and the baby was with us, but they didn’t even let us come inside. My poor children went home crying. We had spent all of Eid sitting in that car.
I DIDN’T WANT TO RAISE MY CHILDREN WITHOUT A FATHER
Our lawyers told me that the government probably wouldn’t let my husband go, and that even if they did, they would deport him. They gave Anser a choice: fight or leave. He decided not to fight, and to be deported back to Pakistan. All the lawyers told me I should get immigration papers made for myself and my children, so I could stay if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to raise my children there without a father. I decided I couldn’t fight it all alone anymore. I thought it would be best if we went back to Pakistan, so we left, in February 2002. Yesterday was exactly nine years to the day since I came back to Karachi.
Marty had told me that within a week of my return, Anser would be sent back to Pakistan. Instead, it took about three months. The day Anser came home, the whole family went to the airport to pick him up. When he arrived, he was so weak, so weak.
Everyone here was just amazed that a man who couldn’t kill a fly was being kept for terrorism allegations. Anser was known for never so much as raising his voice at anyone.
The truth is, your problems are always your own. Nobody can really share them with you. I suppose having my family around me makes a difference, in that there’s someone to ask after you. But nobody can really help.
My children still haven’t adjusted to life in Pakistan. Their upbringing was all in America, their education was there. Everything here is different. On the one hand, we’re telling them to live one way, but on the other hand, they’ve grown up in a different way. Anser and I knew what we would have to deal with, so we were mentally prepared. Their academics were affected. Their lives had been disrupted. We had a lot of financial problems here as well, and our children saw a lot of hardship. All the dreams I had for them were spoiled.
My children still want to go back to America. It feels like they’ll run away as soon as they get a chance! From what I’ve been hearing since I returned, about families having to go through what we did, facing the kind of injustice that I faced, it’s not a one-off situation. It’s still happening.
ANSER: LIFE IS CARRYING ON
At least the Americans released me. If it had happened in Pakistan—if I had been suspected of blowing up the World Trade Center while I was here—I believe I would not have been released.
I had my home here. My family was here when I came back. There are many changes in Karachi. Now, economically and politically, Pakistan is in a terrible state. If there used to be one person extorting money a few years ago, now there are three. Now even the Sunni Tehreek comes to collect money.
Now I am in my rhythm. Currently we are a little short of funds, but by God’s grace my earth-moving machinery business is in practice. I am fine here. Life is carrying on.
Article Courtesy: Boston Review