D.C. Arab Americans Turn out to Quiz Federal Agents on Rights

D.C. Arab Americans Turn out to Quiz Federal Agents on Rights
By Rebecca Abou-Chedid

A standing room only crowd of concerned Arab Americans and Muslims from the DC metro area met with officials from the Washington, D.C. office of the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) on Wednesday, August 6, 2003 in Annandale, Virginia.  The event, which allowed community members to pose concerns directly to federal law enforcement officials, was the first sponsored by the FBI-Arab American Advisory Committee (in conjunction with the Arab American Institute, Muslim Public Affairs Council, and American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee).  C-Span, Abu Dhabi TV, Al Jazeera, Nile TV, and the Washington Post among others covered this important town hall meeting.

The FBI-Arab American Advisory Committee was formed after September 11 to improve relations between the DC Metro Area’s more than 70,000 Arab Americans and the FBI.  The first of its kind in the nation, the committee serves as an integral link between the Arab American community and the FBI’s Washington Field Office. Committee members, including AAI President, James Zogby, are responsible for bringing the community’s concerns to the FBI’s attention and working to find solutions.  The creation of the Arab American Advisory Committee follows an increase by1,700 percent in reported hate and bias crimes against Arabs, Muslims and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim since the events of September 11.

As the community liaison for the joint committee Abdallah Al-Zuabi, AAI’s National Field Organizer, organized the forum. In his opening remarks, Al-Zuabi said, “After September 11 it became clear to AAI that in order to effectively protect the rights of the innocent, we must build a constructive relationship based on mutual respect and understanding between law enforcement agencies and the Arab and Muslim American communities. As a result of many discussions, which were at times challenging and difficult, the first FBI-Arab American Advisory Committee was formed.  The fact that we are all here today is proof of the commitment both from our community and law enforcement to build a more constructive relationship.” 

Opening the question and answer session, Michael Rolince, acting assistant director of the FBI’s Washington office, noted that the FBI was working hard to improve communication and foster a closer relationship with Arab Americans.  He admitted that, “We cannot come into your communities in the immediate aftermath of an event and ask you to help us.  We need to be in touch on a more regular basis.”  Rolince welcomed feedback from those in attendance. 

Among the concerns articulated by the community was the perception that Arab and Muslim Americans are being singled out by law enforcement for harsher punishment and more stringent investigations than other Americans. 

The FBI was also asked for more information on the seizure of assets from local charitable organizations and on those who have been held in custody for months without charge.  Those in attendance were eager to express their anxieties about the erosion of civil liberties they believe has occurred over the last two years.  Expressing the sentiment felt by many in the room, Ibrahim Hussein of Southeast Washington wore a t-shirt bearing the American flag which read, “I want my country back.” 

The evening took an emotional turn when representatives from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services were addressed.  Many in attendance complained that their family members, and in some cases themselves, had been treated unfairly when applying for citizenship or visas.  Reza Ahmadi, of Fairfax, Virginia, an American of Iranian origin told the story of his father who traveled from Iran to Turkey, hoping to get a visa to visit his son in the United States.  “They didn’t even open his application,” he said.  “They just said no and gave him a stamp.  When he asked if he could return and try again, they said, ‘Yes, but you will have the same thing happen again.’”
Law enforcement officials remained after their respective sessions and spoke one-on-one with audience members.  FBI Agent Rolince solicited volunteers to help expand the agency’s diversity training and BCIS Attorney Lynden Melmed responded to queries concerning the specifics of the immigration and naturalization process as well as the controversial NSEERS program. 

Many who came agreed that the forum was a positive step for building a productive relationship between the community and federal law enforcement.  In his closing remarks, moderator Marwan Burgan, a member of the Virginia Arab American Leadership Council summed up the sentiments.  “We obviously did not have the opportunity to discuss all of our concerns.  But now we know the faces and names of those in charge here.  We can call them if we need to and we can continue to raise our questions.  This is how we must work if we want to protect our rights.”