Skip to comments.A Separate World (Lackawanna Muslims)
Posted on 09/23/2002 1:00:58 PM PDT by ganesha
A separate world
More than 1,100 people of Yemeni descent live in Lackawanna. Their culture and their faith set them apart from others in the city - and co-existence has had its rough edges.
By SUSAN SCHULMAN, LOU MICHEL and CHARITY VOGEL and JAY REY News Staff Reporters 9/23/2002
A crowd of men, probably a dozen or so, sits on the sidelines, and a few more sit nearby in their cars, rooting for the Lackawanna soccer team and its mostly Arab-American athletes.
No soccer moms in this crowd. Just the guys watching what turns out to be a close game between two strong high school teams.
Girls don't play soccer in this community, and women don't come out to watch the game.
In fact, some people in the neighborhood don't even call the game soccer.
"We call it football," says Hussan Muhsen, 52, of Bauder Street, using the name the sport is called in Yemen and much of the rest of the world.
In the aftermath of the recent arrest of six men in Lackawanna's Yemeni neighborhood, all accused of being trained by the al-Qaida terrorist group, this community closed ranks around its native sons, denying they are terrorists-in-training and declaring them as American as you or your neighbor: People who work. Go to school. Take care of their families. Play soccer.
But while the accused men are native-born Americans, their community is not Norman Rockwell's America. It is not even Buffalo's Polish East Side or Irish South Buffalo.
This is a piece of ethnic America where the Arabic-speaking Al-Jazeera television station is beamed in from Qatar through satellite dishes to Yemenite-American homes; where young children answer "Salaam" when the cell phone rings, while older children travel to the Middle East to meet their future husband or wife; where soccer moms don't seem to exist, and where girls don't get to play soccer - or, as some would say, football.
In some ways, this slice of American life has the feel of Cattaraugus County's Amish community, where men and women dress in traditional clothes and commute by horse and buggy. Or to the Crown Heights section in Brooklyn, where Hasidic men in yarmulkes and women in long dresses don't drive on the Sabbath. They may be American, but they keep much of their traditional ways.
There's one big difference, though. This is the community that helped raise the six arrested men - and two other men still at large - who the FBI claims formed an al-Qaida "sleeper cell," waiting perhaps for orders from Osama bin Laden and others who directed the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
To many Yemenite-Americans - shocked by events unfolding in federal court in recent days, yet increasingly convinced that the government's case is largely the result of overzealousness - this ethnic neighborhood has provided the support first-generation immigrants of all kinds traditionally seek when coming to America.
It's also a community under pressure, as an outside world sometimes looks askance, skeptical of what seems like a community caught in another time, another place.
Ultimately, that outside world lures some of the young people away. But so far, with new people continually moving in and families growing, Lackawanna's Yemeni community has grown in recent decades.
Where steel dominated
In the shadows of the giant steel mills that once dominated Lackawanna's landscape, Yemenites began coming to this community in the 1930s.
Back then, the four-block area now considered the largest Arab-American neighborhood in Western New York was a predominantly Polish-American community.
The neighborhood thrived, recalled Kenny Burse, 44, who said he has spent his entire life on Ingham Avenue.
But the steel plants closed. The neighborhood faltered, housing prices fell. White homeowners left. Blacks and Hispanics from nearby projects moved into what quickly became low-rent flats. Yemenites, meanwhile, kept coming, staying with family members and working in the Ford plant and others or finding work, sometimes opening their own businesses.
Today, while this fading steel city of 19,000 continues losing population, its Arab-American community has surged 175 percent in the past decade alone, according to census estimates.
An estimated 1,111 Arab-Americans now live in Lackawanna, with more than two-thirds concentrated within the immediate streets surrounding the mosque at the end of Wilkesbarre Avenue, according to census data.
And while vastly different cultures have lived here side by side for years, it's not one big happy family.
Resentment toward the Arab-Americans from the black community bubbles just below the surface, as the African-Americans express resentment over living in rented flats while Arab-Americans own their own homes and businesses.
"You see how many American flags are out don't you? Not one," Dennis Brown, 40, who lives in the neighborhood, said of his Arab-American neighbors. "If you're an American citizen so much, where's your American flags?"
"They're so worried about the safety of their kids, what about the safety of my kids?" said Brenda Brown, 43, Dennis' sister, who also lives in the neighborhood. "We're the ones in danger."
Such comments are upsetting in the Yemeni community. Although sparse, a few American flags can be spotted, and many residents talk with pride about their U.S. citizenship.
"I do everything for the U.S.," said Ali Said, 77, wearing an American United flag pin as he walks down Ingham Avenue.
"Look," Said says proudly, as he opens his wallet to show off his 1981 citizenship card.
Still, even those in the black community who speak with friendliness toward their Yemenite-American neighbors say the two groups are cordial but don't socialize.
"If you know them, they'll laugh and joke with you," said one 37-year-old African-American male. "If they don't, they'll stick to themselves."
In some ways, given cultural differences, the separateness seems inevitable.
Dealing with marriage
Most Yemenite-American youths here do not date. Marriages are arranged, sometimes with people in Yemen, although prospective brides and grooms can refuse an arrangement as well as request one.
"Usually now with this generation, they see someone they like, they go to the house, they try to make an arrangement," said America Ali, 30, a Wilkesbarre Avenue resident whose name was chosen because her Yemen-born mother obtained a U.S. visa the same day America was born.
There are exceptions. One of the suspects, Yasein A. Taher, for example, married a non-Arab who was his high school sweetheart, and they moved to Hamburg.
Ali, who did follow her culture's custom, returned to Yemen when she was 15 to meet the man she would marry when she was 20.
Like most women in her community, Ali stays home caring for her children rather than working outside the home. Many of the Yemenite-American families in her community have as many as six or seven children, said Ali, who has two.
"It's a blessing to have a lot of children. However much is written for you to have, you will have," she said.
Also like Ali, many of the women dress in traditional Muslim clothing, a long dress covering her neck and arms and hanging down to her sandals, as well as a long head scarf.
"It's just like a nun. Just to look holy," she said. "We believe every part of a woman's body is an attraction to men. This way, you don't see the beauty of your hair, there's no makeup."
"Your beauty is only for your husband," she said.
Many men, meanwhile, work in factories or own their own businesses, supporting their immediate and sometimes extended families and frequently sending money back to needy relatives in Yemen.
Some men have trouble finding jobs in today's economy, although a growing number of the younger generation are attending college and say they are moving up financially. Still, the median household income in the surrounding neighborhood is $23,242, according to census data. That's less than the median household income of $29,354 in all of Lackawanna.
With families doubling up in the sometimes big houses on these streets, the money seems to be enough for what people in this community need. And given a community philosophy that all Yemenite-Americans are brothers, they often help each other when money is needed, as when many in the community last week agreed to mortgage their homes to raise bail money for the six suspects in custody.
In the past, they joined forces to pay for a new wing for their mosque.
Family also helped some of the men raise the money last year to travel to Pakistan for the religious pilgrimage that ultimately led to the charges they now face in federal court.
Religion is central
With the Lackawanna mosque being the center of the Yemenite-American community, religion is a large factor in the people's lives.
Still, given the time and money involved, when the men expressed interest in going to an Islamic conference in Pakistan last year, it was unusual.
One of the men, Sahim Alwan, 29, is a respected leader at the Lackawanna mosque and works as a counselor in Medina.
The other arrested men - Taher, 24; Shafal A. Mosed, 24; Yahya A. Goba, 25; Faysal H. Galab, 26; and Mukhtar al-Bakri, 22 - generally have been struggling financially, trying to support themselves and their families as telemarketers, delivery men and warehouse workers, according to friends and family.
What's more, it was only in recent years that some of these six got heavily involved in religion, according to friends and family.
"They barely speak Arabic, these boys. In religious terms, they are virgins," said America Ali, who said she is friends with several of the six men. "There are religious schools in Amherst and Buffalo, too. If my husband told me he wanted to go (overseas) to learn Islam, I'd tell him - given our financial situation - wouldn't it be best to go to one here? These boys are so broke, they can't even afford terrorism."
Friends and family said they don't know the cost of the entire overseas trip. With round-trip plane fare to Pakistan $1,000 or more, some of the men borrowed from their friends and families. In other cases, even family didn't know where the money came from.
"I don't know how he got the money," Ahmed al-Bakri said of his brother, Mukhta, who most recently had a job as a delivery and warehouse worker.
In court documents, federal authorities charged the six men were influenced by Kamal Derwish, the alleged ring leader who law enforcement said recruited the six to go to Pakistan and then to an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan. Derwish is still being sought.
But friends of the six arrested suspects said it was actually a tragedy that got them involved in religion a few years ago, when a friend drowned while vacationing in Michigan.
"One of their friends passed away three years ago, and they realized life is serious. It's no joke. Anyone can go," said Mohamed Ali, 22. "Everyone started to settle down, shaping up, getting married, having kids."
"These guys used to go out with girls and drink beer," added Ahmed Saleh, 19. "They had problems. They realized what they were doing was wrong. They changed."
They became devout Muslims who taught younger people about the religion, the friends said.
"Those guys were like our teachers," said Mahran Omar, 20. "They went over to Pakistan to learn more about Islam, to be educated."
"If I would be walking along the street, one of them would stop his car and call to me, "Let's go to the mosque and pray,' " said Abduah Ahemo, 19. "Let's do the right thing instead of the wrong thing."
When the men returned from overseas, Omar said, they did not speak well of the experience.
"They didn't like it over there. They said it was too crazy to stay. That's why they came back."
Fadhl Mosed, an uncle of Shafal Mosed, said his nephew returned from Pakistan grateful to call America his home.
"He cut off his beard when he came back. He didn't like the people over there. People were out in the streets hungry," the uncle said.
America Ali said Mosed was supposed to stay for four months but came back early.
"I saw him on the street and I was like, "What are you doing back here already?' He said to me, "I missed my pizza, my football, my wife and my son.' And he hated the weather there," she said.
Friends and family also said none of the young men was political and that none was espousing any anti-American sentiments when he returned home.
Issues with Bush
Many in the Yemeni community, when asked, say they aren't happy with U.S. policy on issues affecting some Muslim countries. Several said the Bush administration is too pro-Israel and being too stubborn in its dealings with Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Also, several in the community said one of the reasons they watch Al-Jazeera, the Arab television station, is "to get news from back home."
"The U.S. news doesn't go into detail with Israel and Palestine. Sometimes ABC, NBC and CBS tend to be on the Israeli side," said Sahem Elbaneh, the younger brother of one of the suspects.
Others say they like Al-Jazeera for the entertainment and music shows.
"We watch the movies and TV shows that are in Arabic," said Mohmed Ahmed, 17.
And some said any disagreements they have with American foreign policy don't change their overall view on America.
"As Arab-Americans, we consider the United States as a mother," said Ahmed Jamil, standing outside the Lackawanna mosque. "You may disagree with her sometimes, but you fight to the death to protect her."
Added Muhsen, the Bauder Street resident who watches the Lackawanna soccer team: "I don't enjoy seeing Israelis or Palestinians killed. We pray for peace."
Muhsen, like many in the Yemeni neighborhood, also said he hopes the larger community understands the six men are "innocent until proven guilty." If the men did something wrong, they should be held accountable, he said.
But the whole Yemenite-American community of Lackawanna should not be blamed, he said.
That's a view held by many in the Western New York's Muslim community, both in Lackawanna and the rest of the area.
It's a community estimated to be anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people and includes American converts to the faith as well as people from around the world, including Iraq, China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Kashmir in India.
This larger Muslim community has been working hard in recent years to build bridges in Western New York and to be accepted and understood by non-Muslims, according to Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the local American Muslim Council.
If the accusation against the Lackawanna men are true - and two of the suspects have told FBI agents that they were at the al-Qaida camp - then that is "unacceptable" to the Muslim community of Western New York, Qazi said.
Harm has been caused
Already, these allegations have hurt the progress that was occurring in building bridges among communities, Qazi said.
Meanwhile, back on the soccer field, one place where people of all faiths and backgrounds are often able to build bridges easier than in public, the Lackawanna and Maryvale high school teams seemed focused on only one thing during the recent game: winning.
As it turned out, the game was a 1-1 tie.
Some 30 parents, soccer moms and dads, sat on the visitors side cheering for the Maryvale team.
The Lackawanna team had a big cheering section also. About a dozen Yemenite-American men huddled together supporting the team, while other men in the community - even those without children of their own - stopped by to watch the game for a while.
There were no girls or women in the crowd. Yemeni girls, by tradition, don't play soccer, and mothers don't have time to show up for games, although they are welcome, said Abdul Salam Noman, the Lackawanna High School varsity soccer coach who also heads the Lackawanna Yemen Soccer Club.
"Each family has many kids, and it's a lot for the women to drag them to the soccer field to watch a game," Noman said. "It's not that we don't want them there."
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
Hmmm. Do I detect a bit of this going on?
< snip >
"I have learned that, for this reason, it is very common practice for Muslims, especially leaders, to lie about the war against non-Muslims. These lies come in many forms such as denying that Islam is a war against non-Muslims, that the Koran teaches salvation through fighting and killing non-Muslims, feigning sympathy for the US concerning 9/11, or Muslim countries denying that they have military intentions against Israel, the US, or other non-Muslim countries."
< snip >
"In summary, Al-taqiyya and dissimulation mean that no non-Muslim can believe anything told to them by any Muslim especially if it has to do with the Koran's perpetual Jihad against all non-Muslims. For that Muslim to lie to you is for that Muslim to do a good work towards earning salvation."
Walking throught the town (which I frequently did) you could point out the houses rented or belonging to Muslim familes. Now, the Germans don't do much right but they do keep their homes and gardens immaculate. I literally have seen women out on their stoops washing the steps with bleach water and a brush. The homes the Muslim families lived in were TRASHED! Just completely uncared for and dirty. Junk and trash everywhere.
I suspect that that's a cover story, and that the trips were really paid for by Saudi money.
One time my neighbor informed me that I shouldn't allow my daughter to play with them and gave me a big lesson on how they were all there to collect welfare. But then again, on another day her husband told me (in all seriousness, mind you) that I should have moved to Achim (the next town over) because that is were all the immigrants live. I didn't have the heart to tell him that not in his wildest dreams would I migrate to that god foresaken he$$-hole.
OK, so here are the men all watching the soccer game while the moms are home with the other kids. Does it not enter the mind of any of these men to relieve poor mom a bit by bringing along one or two of the other kids? Does it never enter their minds that maybe they could stay home with the kids every other week and let mom go see her darling play? Why, of course it doesn't! They are MEN.. their wives are merely their servents.
Same in my neighborhood. The Arabs who live here in Brooklyn are FILTHY despite the fact that many drive SUVs and BMW's. They make a good living from cash businesses, yet still do not know that the half-eaten Gyro belongs in the TRASH, not in the street.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.