September 9, 2011

On 9/11, 'we became the outsiders'

Many who had found refuge in Maine and America remember the day 'all those ghosts came back,' reshaping their world into one of lingering suspicion and even open hostility.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon ruptured the sense of belonging many Muslims in Portland felt before Sept. 11, 2001.

click image to enlarge

Reza Jalali

John Patriquin Staff Photographer

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Jirde Mohamed walks past the front of the Maine Muslims Community Center on Anderson Street in Portland where graffiti had been sprayed shortly after the death of Osama bin Laden in May. "Bin Laden and Islam are different," said Mohamed, a member of the mosque who has lived in Portland 10 years.

Gregory Rec Staff Photographer

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Almost immediately, the country where many had sought refuge from persecution and privation viewed them with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility.

Over the past 10 years, leaders in the community, which has perhaps doubled in size over that span to more than 5,000, have urged members to engage the broader community to integrate and reach out as a way to fight ignorance and prejudice, and to resist the temptation to respond with bitterness.

"If you just live by yourself or be isolated then your neighbor sees you as someone who is just different, but if there is interaction with other people, that's a positive image," said Abdirahman Osman, a Somali Muslim who is president of the Somali Community Resource Center.

Faith groups, government agencies and others also have made overtures to improve understanding and relations with local Muslims.

Conflicts have diminished but tension persists in some quarters. The day Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader and architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, was killed by U.S. forces, somebody painted graffiti on theMaine Muslims Community Center on Anderson Street saying: "Osama today, Islam tomorow (sic)" and "Go Home."

The vandalism was broadly decried by city leaders. Just as local Muslims said the Sept. 11 attacks were contrary to Islam, so too did local officials insist that the hateful writings did not represent the wider community.

Portland has had a small Muslim community for many years, comprised of native-born Americans and immigrants from south Asia and Africa. It grew noticeably following the civil war in Somalia in 1991. By Sept. 11, 2001, Somalis represented the largest group of Muslims in the city, numbering about 2,000.

There were perhaps 5,000 Muslims overall in Maine and they drew little attention, said Reza Jalali, coordinator of multicultural student affairs for the University of Southern Maine.

That obscurity dissolved with the terrorist attacks.

"All of a sudden we became the enemy. We became the outsiders," said Jalali, a Muslim whose family was of Kurdish origin in Iran. "Many of us who came to Maine as refugees, we left that life behind -- people questioning your loyalty to the state, being separated and taken out of lines at the airport."

"We had left that in our past lives and one day all those ghosts came back," he said. "You lose that sense of belonging and not because you've done something."

They felt ostracized when attending their children's soccer games. There were notes on the windshield urging him to leave the country. Some members of the Muslim community adopted western names for their children.

Some Muslims, especially women with head coverings who are easily identified as members of the faith, endured what Osman describes as "hard looks."

Some in the city did reach out. Jalali was asked to speak to business groups and border patrol agents who wanted to learn about Islam. He also would speak with Muslims, especially recent arrivals, about how to interact with authorities. And he urged them to set a good example.

"Whether we like it or not, we represent this religion of 1.4 billion people," he said. "I am taking better care of our lawn where we live. I want our house to look beautiful. I want to paint it," he said.

"They're not going to say 'that Muslim. They live like pigs.' I have to be a model citizen."

Mohamud Barre, a Somali who came to the United States in 1995, was working in the Oxford Street shelter in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks when a homeless man grabbed his identification badge that bore his first name, identified him as Muslim and told him to go home.

(Continued on page 2)

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