War on terror hits home for a South Asian community

Article and Audio Clip by Gina Hotta 2006

Audio Clip: Truth on Trial (downloads 1.2MB mp3 file)

In Berkeley California, Veena Dubal remembers what happened to her friend while walking with him on the University campus.

The friend, a Sikh Indian American, was punched in the nose and pushed down.

“Watch out Osama” the assailant called out.

“There was blood on the ground. And for ten minutes, no one offered him a towel, no one helped,” Dubal says of her friend’s plight.

“And that sort of complacency, on a small scale, is what we see in Lodi only on a larger basis”. For Dubal, “blood is being split metaphorically in the Lodi community.”

It is why Dubal drives ninety minutes from Berkeley to Lodi – a rural town in California’s Sacramento Valley – soon after hearing of the arrests there.

It’s summer in Lodi. In one of Lodi’s older neighborhoods, children play in a park next to a Boys and Girls Club. Warehouses and canneries stand across the street next to railroad tracks.

Hamid Hayat worked at one of these canneries. His father, Umer Hayat, drove an ice cream truck around town.

But on June 3, 2005, the FBI came to Lodi and arrested the Hayats on suspicion of having links to terrorists. Three other men, including two imams – religious leaders in the Lodi Muslim community – were also picked-up.

Dubal drives into Lodi to meet up with attorneys who are helping the Pakistani residents. Her services may be needed as Dubal is studying to be a lawyer.

But upon entering town, “there were blue SUVs circling around the hotel the ACLU was using as its headquarters…trying to make us know that they were watching”, says Dubal. “I had a sense that the city felt besieged.”

The lawyers closely follow the cases.

The FBI says that in Pakistan Hamid Hayat got training to become an Islamic radical while attending religious school and that the imams were involved in anti-American Islamic organizations.

The agency says it has had a years-long investigation into possible connections between the Pakistani Lodi residents and Osama bin Laden’s network.

But the FBI’s choice of an agricultural town helps explain things to Dubal. “I think the biggest reason is because this was in Lodi,” a place that’s a distance away from resources an urban center offers.

Dubal grew-up in Kentucky. Being one of the few Indian American families in her old neighborhood, “I was very aware of being very different”, says Dubal.

Back in Kentucky, the house was toilet papered. The car was egged. Things like this happened on a weekly basis.

Last July 4th, a firecracker went off in their mailbox when her father when to open it.

“My parents almost didn’t tell me about it.” But Dubal was glad they finally did as, “it reminded me that none of these events are isolated.” .

In Lodi, TV crews, journalists, and FBI agents want to speak to members of the Pakistani community. Some people are followed and surveyed.

SUVs with tinted windows are stationed near the park, the Boys and Girls Club and the warehouses. A small, wooden mosque across the street is the center of attention.

Still, after the arrests, Pakistani residents are determined to go on with their daily business. After all, many of them have been in Lodi for since the early 1900’s. Umer and Hamid Hayat are American citizens.

Dubal knows Taj Khan. He’s a member of the Pakistani Lodi community and raised three children in Lodi.

“It came as a shock to us,” says Khan referring to the arrests. “We have good relations with the city and everybody else – sort of a model relationship.”

Khan says one of the detained Imams helped create the inter-faith Celebration Ibrahim, where, “we had 700 people attend – it was an awesome program.”

But Dubal sensed something else was going on with the Pakistani community. “… After getting to speak with them a little longer, I kind of got the sense that they were so scared”.

Dubal goes to the mosque that’s near the Boys and Girls Club. She asks mosque members if they’re OK.

Without looking around, a man tells her, “if you look to your left behind that tree, you’ll see an SUV, if you look to your right you’ll see one, and if you look behind you there’s one.”

“That’s how I found out that the SUVs were FBI,” says Dubal still a bit surprised.

One man talks to her about the FBI interrogations and says, “I don’t care if they ask me questions, but every time they take me away it scares my wife and children.”

That comment rings in Dubal’s mind. She hopes that the legal network started in Lodi will address his concern.

It’s been two weeks since the arrests.

Dubal has returned to Berkeley. But she’s kept up with events surrounding the Lodi cases.

No terrorist charges are filed against the Hayats or the imams. But, the FBI detains the Hayats on charges that they lied about Hamid attending training camps connected to al-Qaida.

The Hayat’s lawyer said a misunderstanding took place when the FBI interrogated them. The Hayats plead not guilty.

The imams Shabbir Ahmed as well as Muhammad Adil Khan and his 19 year-old son are accused of immigration violations. The FBI says one of the imams made anti-US speeches and the other imam is a friend of a Taliban leader.

Dubal is worried.

Moral and material support for the mostly blue-collar Pakistani community isn’t as forthcoming as it should be she thinks.

To help the Lodi community, Dubal and friends begin compiling a list of legal resources.

Dubal has to stay in Berkeley. But she knows of a few things happening to assist the Pakistani Americans.

Back in Lodi, there’s a presentation at the Boys and Girls Club.

A dozen or more women with children gather in a small room.

It’s a Know Your Rights presentation to help the mostly Pakistani immigrant women. Some were at home with only their children when the FBI came to their door for questioning.

A few women from the Latino community are also present. Translations are being provided.

Two men come in – one dressed in a suit holding a microphone and the other with camera equipment. They talk to the panelists from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

“This is a workshop mostly for women,” says a panelist who also explains that the women feel safer this way. “We’ll need to ask them if they think it’s all right if you stay”, says another organizer.

After a few minutes the TV crew leave without interviewing or filming people.

A lawyer in a headscarf, or hijab, explains the importance of the right to legal counsel, “Don’t be afraid and intimidated… your lawyer will make sure that what’s recorded is accurate.”

Another panelist explains what to do in case of an arrest or FBI search. She says to read the warrant to ensure that all information on it is correct.

At this point, a Pakistani woman asks, “what if people can’t read?”

A second or two of silence passes. Then the importance of getting a lawyer is re-stated.

More questions and answers follow and refreshments are provided. It’s a small turnout, but it’s a start in providing resources that are scare in Lodi.

Several weeks have passed since the arrests. But world events still put the spotlight on Lodi.

Horrific bomb blasts have gone off in London. Several British Pakistani men are thought to be responsible.

In the wake of the bombings, Nightline broadcasts their national TV program about the FBI investigation into Lodi’s Pakistani community.

Dubal continues to work on the resource list and follow the Lodi cases.

The Hayats are indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of lying to federal investigators. Denied bail, the Hayats try to raise about 1 million in property value that will release them from jail.

In court, imam Adil Khan and his son agree to be deported rather than fight immigration charges. Khan says that if he could speak in public, he would offer prayers for the victims of the London bombings.

Congress makes permanent most of the security measures of the USA Patriot Act.

Dubal recalls several messages she received.

“I had email from several Pakistani American friends saying they really wanted to go to Lodi but couldn’t because they were really scared.”

Dubal is not Pakistani and does not have a Muslim surname. She thinks that perhaps these factors give her some protection from scrutiny.

She also remembers what happened to her Sikh friend in Berkeley

“For him the worst thing about it wasn’t being knocked down”, says Dubal. It was the sense of isolation and not being offered help.

Finally a woman who Dubal believes was a Latina janitor, “came by, patted him on the shoulder and asked if he was alright. It was the only act of kindness he’d seen the whole time.”

Dubal has a sense of responsibility to, “go and do the work that others can’t do.” She says that the resource list is done and ready for distribution.

(Note: The audio clip is an update of the Hayat’s trial as of Mar. 30, 2006. For more information, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights is a possible resource. Hear Audio Clip: 9-11 Voices to hear recounting of the UC Berkeley incident )

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