Muslim Americans share the pain of having family convicted of supporting terrorism

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When Farhiyo Mohamed’s ­eldest son was convicted on charges of supporting the Islamic State, her world was upended. It wasn’t just that her son was headed to prison; her support system evaporated. Longtime friends in her tightly knit Somali community in Minneapolis stopped visiting, afraid they might be tainted by association.

“You call your friend, and your friend says, ‘Don’t call me because the FBI is following you,’ ” said Mohamed, a 40-year-old mother of five who escaped war in her home country, survived years in a Kenyan refugee camp and immigrated to the United States in 2003.

Her face had been plastered on the local news. One day this summer, during the height of her son’s trial, she was yelled at and called a “Muslim terrorist” during a trip to the post office.

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On a recent weekend in Reisterstown, Md., Mohamed learned she was not alone. About 60 Muslim Americans whose family members had also been convicted of terrorism charges were gathered at a yearly retreat to share their stories. For many of them, the group has become the only support system they have.

In the decade following 9/11, as an increasing number of terrorism prosecutions cropped up around the country, civil liberties lawyers and activists noticed the need to support Muslim families with members who were targets of counterterrorism investigations. They created a group called the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms and, in 2012, held their first conference.

“For a lot of us, it was the very first time we had met,” said Mariam Abu Ali, who maintains the innocence of her brother Ahmed, convicted in 2005 of plotting with al-Qaeda to kill President George W. Bush. “It was a breath of fresh air, a sense of finally finding the support that we had been seeking all along.”

Abu Ali said she had heard of many terrorism cases in Virginia, where she lived at the time, but it wasn’t until the conference that she realized how many others were in her family’s situation.

At the retreat, families participated in moderated discussions on different issues, including the criminal justice system. Many families shared their concern that their husbands and sons were “entrapped” by the government because paid informants were used to build cases against them.

“Are we being treated as equal citizens as Somali Americans?” asked Harun Abdurahman, a senior in high school who was at the retreat with his father, Yusuf Abdullah. His brother, Zacharia Abdurahman, was one of the six men who pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State in the Minneapolis case. Abdurahman said there should be educational programs for young men such as his brother, not prison sentences.

“I come to the conference to listen [to other people],” said Nadia Alessa, whose son Mohamed Alessa was convicted of conspiring to travel to Somalia to join the militant group al-Shabab. She was attending the retreat for the fourth time. “Some hurt more than I do. My son got 22 years, but some have life sentences.”

They also discussed the stigma of terrorism.

“I felt shunned by my Pakistani community,” said Shaheena Siraj, who lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, and whose son Matin was convicted of conspiring to plant explosives in a Manhattan subway station.

“Many of my close friends don’t associate with me anymore,” said Yusuf Abdullah, 50, tall and thin in a purple flannel shirt. After his son’s plea, he said, he felt the community’s support withdraw.

“The word ‘terrorism’ terrifies,” he said, adding that his friends and relatives are afraid of calling him because they don’t want their phone number to show up on law enforcement’s radar.

Nida Baker, daughter of Shukri Baker, who was convicted of providing material support to Hamas, said the stigma has even affected her marriage prospects.

“I’ve had guys who wanted to get to know me better, but they were afraid of the negative association,” she said. “And even if it’s not the guy himself, it might be his parents who are wary.”

Reem Jayyousi was 16 when her father, Kifah Jayyousi, was sentenced to more than 12 years on a charge of providing material support to terrorists. Growing up in Dearborn, Mich., she struggled to understand why her father was behind bars. She never talked to any of her friends from school about this.

“I met other kids at this conference,” said Jayyousi, now 25, still struggling with the depression that began with her father’s conviction, “I am not alone. There are other people like me.”

Her depression worsened as she grew older.

“In college I had a sleeping problem. Either I was depressed and I would sleep days at a time, or I was depressed and I couldn’t sleep at all,” she recalled. “What’s the point of college? My dad went through college, was well-educated and then went to prison for something he didn’t do.”

Back home in Minneapolis, Abdullah said he struggles with sleep sometimes. In just a few days, he will attend his son’s sentencing. Though the alienation hangs heavily over him, Abdullah has come away from the conference feeling a little less isolated.

“It was heartbreaking. We thought we had the worst situation possible, but then I saw what some of the other families were going through,” he said, “I can relate to them more than I can relate to my own community.”
He worries about what’s going to happen in court.

“But I’m happy that my child is here and alive, and not in Syria,” he said. “I’m glad they caught him before he left.”

Source – Washingtonpost

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