Mired in a Miserable Maze
Note: I had a chance to work for years with the lead characters in the following story. The story is adapted based on real-life advocacy work and interviews with lead characters; the incidents cited in the story are a little fictionalized and dramatized, but are all based on real-life experiences as cited by lead characters. Names of people and places used are not real. I also express gratitude to New York Times, New York Daily News, Queens Chronicle, India Abroad, News India-Times and other media for their precious coverage of a few of such stories — stories that were commonplace in post-9/11 America. The injustice and suffering have continued ever since.
[I shall post more such stories in the coming days. Thanks for your thoughts and comments.]
In the first week of May, Hassan Mollah went to register at the Special Security, New York Migration Control. His wife Selina and their only child, first-grader Najma, went with him. They were scared to leave him alone.
“Why can’t Abbu tell them we don’t feel like going today?” Najma grumbled. She wasn’t happy to wake up atfive thirtyin the morning.
“He must go,” Selina helped her with some quick cereal. “It’s important for him. Now, get ready. Abbu doesn’t want to be late.”
Hassan is a quiet man. He works at Dave’s Bakery ten hours a day, six days a week. The owner is Davinder Singh. Dave is running his business for fifteen years since migrating fromPunjab,Indiawith a Green Card. He is aU.S.citizen now, and sponsoring employees like Hassan to get their legal status. Dave likes Hassan because of the fine British-style pastries he makes. The other reason is Hassan speaks with him in broken Hindi. Hassan doesn’t speak fluent English. But neither does Dave. He feels more comfortable in Hindi.
Co-workers call Hassan Mollah the master baker. Making cakes, pastries and bread is something Hassan knows. He also bakes croissants that the customers like a lot. The work hours are long, and the heat from the oven is overpowering. In the winter, it’s even worse because the windows are all shut tight, there’s little ventilation, and you’re breathing in the hot air coming out straight from the kiln. It’s suffocating. It dries your mouth. New employees feel dizzy. Some can’t take it, some pass out, and one fine morning, they stop showing up. But Hassan is never absent. He doesn’t complain either. He’s not the complaining type. In fact, he doesn’t talk much at all. Instead, he helps young apprentices to learn the craft.
Dave knows how valuable Hassan is. “Bengali, get your card, man. You got no papers, they kick you out.” Dave has warned him a number of times.
Hassan’s tourist visa expired four years ago. It never occurred to him that not having a valid immigration status inU.S.could be a big problem. He has his reasons not to worry.
“We’re not going to be in ‘merica for ever,” he tries to impress an unconvinced Selina. “Green Cards cost a lot, do you know? First you hire a lawyer, and then he charges you five thousand, six thousand…do you know that? What’s the use? We’ll save up, and go back home.” So Hassan put off his immigration papers year after year. It was only when Dave finally told him that without papers, he couldn’t keep his employees anymore, and that he’d help him find a lawyer, Hassan agreed.
Hassan has a simple life, like the K-Mart wall clock they have in their one-roomBrooklynapartment. He wakes up at four thirty in the morning, quietly, without disturbing his sleeping family, eats some leftover rice and vegetables, leaves home at five, takes the Q, works for ten hours, and takes the Q back home at eight thirty at night. He’s just too exhausted at that time. After taking a shower, he sits at the table with Najma to eat whatever Selina puts on his plate, maybe some rice and fish curry, he says a few words to the family, and then retires to bed at ten. Monday to Saturday, this is his life. He’s been following this routine for almost five years now, since the day he started working at Dave’s.
“Najma has a new teacher, you know?” Selina tries to strike up a conversation at the dinner table, with a small chuckle. “Why don’t you tell Abbu, Naj?”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot,” Najma looks up at her father. “We have a new English teacher. She’s nice.”
“What’s her name?” Hassan asks, wearily. He is holding a Bangla weekly paper in his left hand, trying to read it, between eating his rice. “Be good to her.”
For six days a week, the family gets to see him for only a couple of hours. On Sunday, Hassan sleeps through most of the morning. Then he takes a shower, and has lunch with Selina and Najma. In the evening, they either go to visit some friends or the friends come over to visit them. Hassan cooks dinner – mostly rice, dal, chicken curry, cauliflower and potatoes, maybe some chutney. He likes to do it.
Hassan learned the craft of baking from his uncle Siraj, who had a trendy restaurant inNairobi,Kenya. Hassan grew up in a northernBangladeshtown in the district of Pabna. His father Rahmat Ali was a carpenter, but didn’t make much. Rahmat also worked as a part-time share-cropper at a neighbor’s rice farm, and even with the supplemental income, it was hard for him to make ends meet. His health wasn’t permitting either. Hassan was the oldest of their two brothers and a sister, and therefore, it was on him to do something about it. Uncle Siraj kept in touch with the family, and sent money from time to time. Just after Hassan passed high school, Siraj asked him to come toNairobito work at his restaurant. It was sort of meant to be that way. Hassan spent five years inEast Africa, helped out Siraj, and the restaurant flourished. By that time, he grew to be an expert baker and semi-expert cook, and made enough money to send some back to his father every few months.
He then went back to Pabna, married Selina (his parents had already found the suitable match from a nearby village), and brought her over toKenya. Najma was born the next year in aNairobihospital. She was a healthy child, but in a year or so, Selina’s growing fears came true that she couldn’t speak; it was only a garbled sound she could churn out. Doctors said there was a problem with her voice box, and it was curable, but that she needed surgery as soon as possible to fix it. Siraj advised him not to have the operation inKenya, but rather, come toAmerica, and get it done here. It was a very difficult decision. Finally, Selina agreed, as they didn’t want to take any chances with their only child. But it was hard for her. She’d already found quite a few good friends there. They were happy living in their new society, away fromBangladesh. If it were not for Najma, they would never leaveNairobi.
Hassan and Selina got a tourist visa, came toNew York, and had the surgery done within a couple of months. It was successful. Najma can speak now, and is doing well at school. The family is well-accepted, again, into their new community. Najma’s Bengali friends and their mothers often come over to their apartment after school, and spend some time together. Chatting and gossiping with her Bengali neighbors, over some tea and samosa, makes her forget about the stable, happy life she once had, first inBangladesh, and then inNairobi.
Things suddenly changed when about a month ago, Hassan got a letter from the immigration department. The letter said Hassan was required to come to Special Security, and register himself. It was a brief letter.
Neither Hassan nor Selina knew what to make out of it. Hassan called a couple of friends. But the friends couldn’t help much either. Quader, Mojammel or Swapan never received such a letter, or heard about it.
Quader came over on Sunday, and read the letter out loud. Selina invited the family over for lunch.
“It doesn’t say anything about you,” Quader reassured Hassan. “It lists so many countries –Bangladesh,Pakistan, Mishar, Saudi Arab…I think they’re just trying to find out more about foreigners from these countries who don’t have papers. It’s changed a lot since 9/11, you know.”
“Can you put him in touch with the man who did your Green Card, Bhabi?” Selina, with some hesitation, asked Quader’s wife Mumtaz. The Quader family got their permanent resident status five years ago, with help from a Bengali immigration lawyer.
“Who, Shah Alam Bhai?” Quader replied, with a reassuring tone. “No problem, Bhabi. I’ll call him tomorrow. I know him for many years. We’re both fromDhakaUniversity.”
Mumtaz thought of something else. “Maybe, then Shah Alam Bhai can come with you too when you go see them,” she said to Hassan, nodding at Selina. “They won’t cause you much trouble if you have a lawyer with you.”
So, Hassan made an appointment with Attorney Shah Alam, and saw him the next week. He showed him the letter, and talked about his immigration problem. He also reminded him that it was Quader who referred him.
“Selina is very nervous about it,” Hassan implored. “She said you must come with me.” Hassan was more worried about the possibility of a long, English conversation at the immigration office.
Shah Alam promised he’d accompany him to Special Security.
“I know what’s going on,” Alam sounded confident. “What they’re doing now is finding out who’s living where and doing what. It’s the terrorists they’re after. People like you and I – they just want to check out, that’s all.”
“You have a steady job, a permanent address, you pay your bills, and you never had any criminal activity. So you’re fine.” Alam said. “Don’t worry. They’ll give you time to get your papers done.” He made copies of all the documents Hassan had – his passport, visa, even Najma’s medical papers.
Dave promised he’d do his part to help. “I’ll talk to my lawyers. They’ll get your application ready,” he put his hand on Hassan’s back, and patted firmly. “Daro mat, Bengali,” was his comforting words, as usual, in Hindi.
It was a cold, drizzly day inNew York. Najma wore a green, hooded jacket, and Selina helped her to cover up her head. Ateight o’clock, a Special Security policeman checked Hassan’s letter, and escorted him away from his family to stand in the line. The line had already spiraled. Selina and Najma didn’t know what to do next. They stood separately for a while, and kept talking to Hassan before the officer asked them to leave. Hassan told them to go back home, but Selina refused. The officer said they could wait inside one of the coffee shops across the street.
“We’ll be waiting there. Where’s Shah Alam Bhai?” Selina wondered about the lawyer.
“He’ll come later and wait for me inside,” Hassan said. “Lawyers don’t have to stand in line. They have their passes to get in,” Hassan wasn’t sure about the last part of his statement, but it was enough to calm a worried wife. After all, Shah Alam did say he’d wait inside.
The line snaked longer and longer, and more security policemen came out of the building to control the crowd. There were a few more women and children who accompanied their men. They were all quickly separated by the cops. A child started crying. Now a policewoman came out, and asked the wives to leave the area immediately. Selina held Najma’s hand, wrapped the polyester scarf around her head, and walked off to the other side of the street. A small group of women went away together, and entered a donut shop. Lifting her hood up, Najma looked back a number of times, and waved at her father.
Hassan unzipped his green jacket, touched the letter in his shirt pocket, and zipped it back up. The letter was not wet. He then tried to count the number of people in the line. Sixty, seventy…must be close to a hundred. But he doesn’t know any one of these people. Only a couple of them look like they’re Bengalis. Hassan couldn’t tell where the others were from.
There are ten or twelve men in front of him. How long will it take to be done? Two hours, three hours, maybe four? Hassan did a little arithmetic. Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes for each person, times ten, makes it about three hours. He’d be happy to see Shah Alam inside.
At nine, there was a small, collective mutter coming from the back of the line. The doors opened. The file of people started trickling into the huge, black building, one person at a time. The shiny, silvery iron gate opened ajar, an officer checked his letter and ID once again, and let him in. He said he’d need to go up on the third floor.
Hassan looked around. He was just a little wet. The hall was big and empty, except for a few wandering policemen in a blue dress and hat. There were elevator lobbies on all sides. A small group of men wearing an orange uniform sat on a wooden bench next to a wall. This building must then be a courthouse too where they brought in prisoners, Hassan thought. He looked around one more time, took one of the elevators, and went up.
On the third floor, he had to go through a body search. It was two policemen that did it. One officer put on his body an iron bar with a ring, and moved it around, from top to bottom, front and back, side to side. The other officer checked his papers one more time, looked at him in his eyes, guided him through a metal gate to a small room, and left. Two of the men from the line out on the street were also waiting here. Hassan smiled at them. He had a question to ask.
“Do you know where the lawyers wait?” Hassan thought this was the best time to find out where to meet Shah Alam.
But the men couldn’t help.
“We don’t have a lawyer,” one of them replied. “Don’t know.”
“Maybe, they’re upstairs,” the other man said. “If they’re not done with you here, you’ll go up on the tenth floor.”
Hassan was getting more confused about the process. He looked at his wristwatch. It’s ten thirty now. He’s already spent an hour and a half here, and it seems it’s going to be a lot longer. Hassan didn’t know what to expect now. The men looked equally unsure. They spoke English differently, and Hassan didn’t know what else to say. It’s so strange that Shah Alam didn’t show up. Or, maybe, he’s waiting for him on the tenth floor? But there’s no one around that he could ask. It’s so quiet here.
What’s Selina and Naj doing now, he wondered. Maybe, they went home. They should go home.
The two officers came back just beforenoon. “Haji, Abu-Bakker…” it was the two men they were calling. An officer with a round, metal hat and a big gun hanging on his back came in. They took the men away. Hassan was about to ask them about the lawyers, but didn’t. He’s the only one now left in the room.
Another hour went by. Hassan’s stomach started growling. He felt thirsty. Every day, he eats his lunch at this time on a half-hour break. Looks like there will be no lunch today. At least if he could get a drink of water.
A little afterone o’clock, the two officers came back. They took him out to another room on the third floor. This room is even smaller, like a wooden cubicle. A blue-uniformed officer with glasses came in, and sat in the only chair, in front of a computer. He checked his letter and passport. “Do you speak English? Where are you from?” He looked at his computer screen, and not at Hassan who was standing only a few feet across from him, inside the cubicle.
“Bangladesh,” Hassan replied nervously. This is the time he wish lawyer Alam were present.
“Your visa expired,” the officer said tersely. “You’re out of status. You’ve got to go back toBangladesh,” he declared.
“Sir, I want to tell…,” Hassan gathered his thoughts, and tried to speak.
“You need to go on the tenth floor now. You’ll go with the security.” The officer gave him back his passport and letter, and quickly left the room.
Hassan didn’t know what to do. The man sounded so strange, so unreal. Go back toBangladesh? There must be something wrong. They should talk to him, they should talk to Shah Alam. Alam has his papers. He can explain what his circumstances are. But Alam hasn’t come. How can he explain, and to whom? They don’t want to listen.
The two officers and a military man with a gun accompanied him out of third floor. Again, the metal gate, the elevator lobby, the elevator, and then it slowly arrived on the tenth floor. Again, the security checked his papers, and took him into a waiting room, much larger than the one on third floor. Hassan joined a group of men sitting on a wooden bench. On another bench across from them, two other men were sitting, but they were handcuffed. Hassan had butterflies in his stomach. He’s never seen handcuffed men so up close. They looked so sad!
There’s no way to know what’s going on. The two handcuffed men sat there, looking down. The other men in the room did not speak either. It’s so silent. Everyone looks so depressed, so tired. Hassan is tired too. He’s so thirsty. He looked at his watch, again, and then again, just to make sure. It’s3 P.M.now.
But something new is going on. Someone’s screaming in another room. Is it the room next to theirs? Two rooms, three rooms down? The man shouting must be an officer, because he’s speaking American. Hassan didn’t understand what the man said. Then he heard another voice. It’s a voice… no, it’s a subdued cry. Someone is crying. Someone’s crying in fear. “Aaah, aaah, aaah, no, no, no…” the man cried out, repeatedly. What are they doing to him? Are they beating him? Why?
A young man, a boy, sitting next to him made a strange, low grunt. Then he slipped off the bench, and dropped on the floor, with a thud. He fainted, and a few men in the room shrieked, and gathered around to help him. A uniformed man quickly entered. He looked at the man on the floor, left briefly, and came back with another armed man. Together, they lifted the unconscious boy, and carried him away.
Over the next hour, two men were called out of the room. They never came back. Then, it was Hassan’s turn. An officer with a gun called out his name, and escorted him to a small room on the other side of the floor. Here, three uniformed policemen took his passport, but didn’t return it. Then, they locked up the door, and started questioning him. This room was almost dark. There was a camera mounted on a stand in the center of the room, and an intense white light was coming out of it. The officers asked him to sit in a chair facing straight to the light off the camera. Hassan realized there were a few other men in the room, but in the darkness, he couldn’t see their faces. He felt uncomfortable with the glare of the camera light.
“Mr. Mollah, you’re fromBangladesh?” One of the officers asked him.
“Yes.” His mouth was dry.
“How long have you been in theU.S.?” The officer asked.
“Five years, Sir,” Hassan replied.
“Five years, yes. You came toNew YorkfromAfrica.” The officer repeated.
“But yourU.S.visa expired long time ago,” he said. “How come you’re still here?”
Hassan didn’t know what to say. “My daughter was very sick,” he slowly started to explain.
“So, you broke the law,” the officer brusquely interrupted. “You’re out of status, an illegal alien.” He now gestured to another officer.
The other man came up to him. “Now who’s this bearded man in this picture?” The second officer showed him a photo. He held up the picture and showed it to the others. “Isn’t that you?” He asked.
Hassan looked at the photo. The man in the picture was not him. He didn’t know who it was.
“No…no,” Hassan made an attempt to speak.
“It’s you alright. Why did you shave off your beard?” The officer quickly interrupted him. “You’re a Mullah, right?…a Mullah? Ain’t Mullahs supposed to wear a beard? How come you don’t have one?” The man chuckled. The other men in the room chuckled too. “So, you’re an Islam preacher?” He asked. “Which mosque? InBrooklyn? Is it the Coney Island Mosque? Tell me, Mullah.” The chuckle grew louder.
Hassan wasn’t laughing. He felt weak. He felt sick. The man in the picture was not him, but they were not going to believe him. He is a Muslim too, but never kept a beard. His last name had nothing to do with being a preacher. He doesn’t even go to the mosque. He doesn’t have the time. He works all day.
His feet started shaking. But he knew he couldn’t faint now.
“Sir,” Hassan said, with a feeble, trembling voice. “It is not my picture. I do not know.”
“But we know it’s you, Mullah.” The security officer drowned out Hassan’s voice, with a scream. “You said you came here five years ago. But we know you were here way before. Our records show that you were inChicagoten years ago doing some real bad stuff…terrorist stuff. Am I incorrect, Mullah? Do you know we’ll throw you in jail for lying? Do you know what else we can do to you? You’ll be sorry you’d lied to us,” the man kept shouting.
Hassan didn’t hear or understand most of what the officer said. He was now dizzy. His palms and forehead were sweaty. His throat and mouth were dry. He grabbed the seat of his chair with his right hand.
“We’re gonna take your pictures, a lot of pictures,” the third officer said. He turned on the camera. It began clicking and bursting strong flashes of light on him, and it made a whizzing sound, every time it flashed. The camera went on flashing. All the men in the room then left, one by one, including the officers, leaving him alone, sitting still, in front of the camera. The door was shut behind him.
The glare was too much. Hassan closed his eyes, and sat. He felt like he was about to pass out.
Sitting in the chair in the darkness, in front of a flashing, noisy machine, with bright, fluorescent light coming straight on his face, Hassan thought about Selina, about Najma. Are they still waiting outside? They must’ve gone home. What if he can’t go back tonight? Are they going to handcuff him too? What if they throw him in jail, like the policeman said? And why was that man crying in the other room? Were they torturing him? Are they going to torture him too? His father would die of shame if he knew about it. Hassan doesn’t even know how the inside of a jail looks. He’d heard they beat the prisoners, burn them with cigarettes, and slap them. What do they feed the prisoners? He can’t eat anything but food they cook at home. He doesn’t eat outside, not even at the bakery. He carries his own lunch to work. Najma has never slept alone with her mother. She sleeps between them – her mother and him. She can’t sleep without holding his thumb in her fist, even now. Najma couldn’t speak normally…but now she can. She’s only six. What’ll happen to them if they put him in jail?
What has he done? Nothing, no crimes, never. He could’ve gotten his Green Card long ago if he tried. He’d never thought it would be like this, ever. He’s not a terrorist. He’s worked so hard all these years…inNairobi, inNew York, in Pabna…is this really happening to him? Maybe, it’s just a bad dream. But Shah Alam didn’t come to help him. He could’ve explained his situation…why didn’t he come? He said he would.
For an instant, Hassan thought he was still in Bangladesh. It’s mid-summer there. In Pabna, each year around this time, poets and singers take out a street march. Children from schools march on the street, sing, take a pledge about saving the language of Bangla, and peace in the world. “amar bhasha, tomar bhasha, mayer Bhasha, Bangla Bhasha…my language, your language, our mother’s Bengali language…” juddho chai na, Shaanti chai…No war, we want peace…” Bengalis are peaceful people. He’s not a criminal; his father taught him about peace. Why are they not listening to him?
If Selina had only known what they were doing to him now…
Tears trickled out of his eyes. He then wiped it off. No, Selina must never know he cried.
The door cracked open again, and two of the officers stomped back in. The camera must’ve stopped running a while ago, but Hassan didn’t notice. The men turned on the room lights.
“You can go now,” one of them said. “But you must come back here in two months with a lawyer, to see the judge. Do you understand?” He stamped Hassan’s passport, and returned it.
Hassan walked out of the Special Security. It was dark. It was cold. The old church bell across the street rang ten times. It was still drizzling. He paused, as if in anticipation. In the dark, he spotted two familiar human figures across the street, walking quickly over to him. Hassan half-waved at them.
Advocacy work of
(1) New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE)
(2) Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)
(1) New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU)
(2) The New York Times
Background: This racially-biased U.S. “Special Registration” of men from Muslim countries (and North Korea) went on for years after 9/11. Many of us — grassroots activists — took a strong position against it. FYI, nearly a hundred thousand Muslim men without valid immigration document voluntarily went through this process hoping for a better future (otherwise, whey would they do it), and approximately fifteen thousand of them were detained and later deported.