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June 27, 2011

Outreach fortifies ties with Muslims

By David Hench
dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Abdirahman Osman, chairman of the newly formed Somali Community Resource Center, recently met Todd Defide, the agent in charge of the FBI in Maine.

"This is the first time I shake hands with you guys," Osman recalled saying. He laughed as he said it, and Defide smiled back. But the simple gesture was bursting with significance.

For many in the immigrant Muslim community, whether in Maine or elsewhere in the country, the FBI can be viewed with anxiety, associated with interrogations and detentions.

"The name of 'FBI' is kind of scary," said Mohamud Barre, secretary of the Islamic Society of Maine. "But when we talk to him, he's a nice person," he said of Defide.

Representatives of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice gathered at the Islamic Society of Maine last week for the latest in a series of community roundtables aimed at promoting dialogue and building bridges between federal agencies and local Muslims.

"It's important for us to know what the questions are and move on from there," said U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty II, who lobbied the Department of Homeland Security's community engagement section to conduct outreach efforts in Portland and Lewiston. Similar efforts are under way in 30 other locations across the country.

Even though the number of immigrants from Muslim countries is smaller here than in other urban areas, the proportion, particularly in the city's schools, is significant, he said.

"A lot of it has to do with understanding cultural differences," Delahanty said. "It's really a two-way street. If you don't talk about it, then nobody is going to understand."

Concerns raised last week ranged from being questioned for two to three hours at Logan International Airport when returning from Africa, to why a background check can take 18 months for one person but just two months for someone else.

KNOWING CIVIL RIGHTS PROTECTIONS

Other questions concerned high dropout rates for immigrant high school students and the challenge of finding a job. The possibility of discrimination in hiring was a point of concern for many in the gathering because of their frustration at not being able to find work.

Linda Andrews, senior trial attorney for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, explained to the participants how the federal government works to protect them against discrimination based on race, national origin or refugee status. If a job doesn't require communicating with the public and they meet other qualifications, they can't be denied an interview because of their accent or appearance, she said.

It doesn't guarantee a job, but a fair chance.

She described an incident in her own life when she was asked at a store elsewhere in the country to leave her bag up front, then saw a white woman walking through the store with a large bag of her own. She told the shopkeeper how it was unfair and inappropriate to be singled out because of her race.

Her experience struck a chord Thursday. One of the young men in the crowd responded, "Welcome to Portland."

Barre, who helped organize the meeting, said knowing what various agencies do and who to contact if there are problems can go a long way toward defusing resentment.

"The people now know they have rights and someone we can contact if something happens," he said.

Last week's meeting lasted about 90 minutes and grew from a dozen members of Portland's Muslim community to several dozen by the end of the night, Barre said. It was the third such gathering. A previous meeting two months ago had 100 people in attendance, he said.

HEADING OFF RADICALIZATION

Handouts included a list of contacts for people with problems, as well as some of the educational material that Homeland Security gives to its staff -- for instance, explaining the significance of head coverings for Muslims.

Osman said he was pleased that, despite being a little nervous about meeting with federal authorities, audience members asked good questions.

Defide was received warmly when introduced. He has met several times with elders in the Somali community.

"We are going to enforce the law like we do with any segment of the society, but at the same time we're there to protect their rights and help them understand their rights," Defide said afterward. When discrimination doesn't get reported and addressed, it can fester and build, he said.

The FBI's main focus is protecting young Muslims from being radicalized, he said.

"That's our biggest concern and our fear -- someone coming into Maine and trying to radicalize their people and especially their children," Defide said.

He noted the arrests in Seattle last week of two men planning to attack a military processing center. The two were Americans -- one a convicted felon -- who had converted to a radical form of Islam, according to published reports. Authorities were alerted to the plot by an informant.

"Just like any community," Defide said, "we want to weed out the bad apples and ensure everybody's safety."

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com





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