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Veiled Threats

With help from local volunteers from the National Organization of Women, some local Arab Americans are venturing out of the house for the first time since Sept. 11.

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Sehmina clearly remembers the Sunday afternoon that quickly changed from a relaxed family outing to a complete nightmare.

"My husband and I took the kids to get sno-balls at a place by this park and we were having a great time," she says, sitting on the living room couch in her brick ranch home in Gretna. "Then this guy kept looking at me funny, and I said to Alan [her husband], 'Let's get out of here.' He wanted to know why, but he's not the type to ask lots of questions, so we got the kids and went back to the van."

Before they could reach the safety of their vehicle, the man followed them and blocked Alan's way. The stranger, only inches away from Alan's face, let out a stream of obscenities and ethnic slurs. Alan grew angry but Sehmina calmed him down, telling him not to risk getting hurt. It wasn't clear if the man had a weapon.

"This man talked this way to my husband in front of the children," recalls Sehmina, wiping tears from her eyes. "We couldn't get away. He told my husband that we should go back to our own country, but this is our country!"

That was three years ago. In the wake of last month's terrorist attacks, Sehmina -- who expects to give birth to a baby girl any day now -- has every reason to be concerned about threats to her and her family. She has not left the house unaccompanied since Sept. 11.

Sehmina and Alan (both names have been changed for this story) are Arab Americans. They have lived here for nearly two decades. Their four children, ranging in age from 3 to 12, wear blue jeans, love McDonald's, and are in every other possible way American. So it came as a surprise to their 9-year-old daughter when her classmates badgered her with questions in the emotional days following the attacks.

"They wanted to know why we did this to them," she says.

Increasingly fearful for her family's safety, Sehmina contacted George Andrews, a mental health counselor and organizer with the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee who had addressed her mosque and offered to help. He had realized that local Arab and Muslim women were afraid to go out in public. Someone in Sehmina's position -- pregnant and with young children -- is particularly vulnerable.

"There have been incidents," says Andrews, who is Lebanese-American. "I know of some women who have gone shopping and when they return to their car it's been scratched." He alludes to some physical assaults, such as a man beaten up in Mississippi and treated at Charity Hospital, but declines to offer further details out of concern for these individuals' privacy.

Andrews, who also belongs to the New Orleans chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), asked his members of the group if they would contact local Arabic and Muslim women and offer to visit them in their homes and escort them in public. Victoria Cooke was one of the first to respond.

"I thought that, in an atmosphere where I can't personally clear things out at the World Trade Center, this was something I could do to help," says Cooke, a Ph.D. student in art history currently teaching courses at Tulane University, who is white.

Cooke called Sehmina and visited her for three hours one recent Sunday morning. When she arrived, Alan met her outside the house and engaged in some small talk -- an informal screening process to make sure she indeed had the best intentions -- then led her into the house. As Sehmina opened up to Cooke about her culture, one of her young daughters prepared and served hot tea using fresh mint leaves from the family garden. She then plied their guest with a tray of Sehmina's date-filled cookies.

Sehmina seemed to have an endless number of stories about people who had publicly criticized the way she looked or what she wore. Like many Muslim women, she follows a dress code, known as hijab; the distinctive head scarf or veil is sometimes also referred to as hijab.

Farkhunda Ali, communications director for the American Muslim Council, says the traditional dress code is, ironically, meant for the woman's own protection. "It's so they know they're being approached and appreciated for their inner strength and beauty rather than their physical appearance," she says by phone from her office in Washington, D.C. "It also makes everyone uniform. No one is concerned with looking better than somebody else."

But choosing traditional dress makes Sehmina and, when they want to "dress like Mommy," her daughters, easy targets for those who might wish them harm. Sehmina says once a woman publicly berated her for "forcing" her children to wear traditional Muslim clothing. "What's funny is my daughters were wearing black velvet skirts I bought at Dillard's," says Sehmina with a laugh. Clearly, a sense of humor helps Sehmina get through these days.

"It was good to hear her talk about her experiences," says Cooke, after their first meeting. "She's pretty amazing, she's so strong and very forgiving. She has a complete lack of resentment towards white people as a whole, which is such a contrast to the extremists venting their frustrations on anyone who looks like an Arab."

Andrews says that local Arab Americans, like many ethnic groups, tend to be wary of outsiders. After the events of Sept. 11, the circle has been drawn even tighter. That protectiveness, says Andrews, and the fact that the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is secular, are two obstacles preventing him from reaching and ultimately helping more Arab and Muslim women.

Before initiating this volunteer effort, Andrews did an informal survey of the general needs of the local Arab community. Of the approximately 600 Arab families living in the Greater New Orleans area, he says, only 35 people responded. About eight volunteers, including NOW members, are assisting them. Andrews has since made an effort to talk to each of the local 10 mosques in hopes of persuading more Arab families to welcome help.

Ali of the American Muslim Council says similar volunteer efforts are underway in New York City and Washington, D.C. "This is an opportunity for people who were never interested in Islam or Muslims to ask questions and start an interfaith dialogue," she says. "It makes me feel that in times of tragedy, Americans do know how to come together and create a climate of tolerance."

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