MIRED IN A MAZE
NOTE: This is a short version of the “Illegal Alien” story I posted earlier today. I hope you can circulate it among your friends’ circle. Thank you.
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, and a large number of them were detained and later deported. Lives and dreams were shattered.
In early May, Hassan Mollah went to register at Migration Control. His wife Selina and daughter Najma went along with him. They were scared to leave him alone.
Hassan is a quiet man. He works at Singh’s Bakery ten hours a day, six days a week. “Dave” Singh is running his business for fifteen years since migrating from Punjab. Singh likes Hassan because of the fine British-style pastries he makes. The work hours are long, and the heat from the oven is overpowering. It’s suffocating. But Hassan doesn’t complain.
Singh knows how valuable Hassan is. “Bengali, get your card, man. You got no papers, they kick you out.” Hassan’s tourist visa expired years ago. But he has his reasons not to worry.
“Look, we’re not going to be in Merica for ever,” he tries to impress Selina. “Green Cards cost a lot, you know? You hire a lawyer, and spend five, six thousand… What’s the use? We’ll save up, and go back.”
Hassan has a simple life. He wakes up at five, quietly, eats some leftover rice and vegetables, takes the Q, works for ten hours, and takes the Q back home. He takes a shower, eats rice and a curry, talks to his wife and child a little, and goes to bed.
He grew up in Pabna, a small Bangladesh town. His father Ali was a poor carpenter. Ali’s brother Siraj, however, was a well-to-do restaurant owner in Kenya. Just after Hassan passed high school, Siraj helped Hassan to come to Nairobi to work at his restaurant. In three years, Hassan grew to be a master baker.
He then went back to Bangladesh, married Selina, and brought her over to Kenya. Najma was born the next year. She was a healthy child, but soon, Selina’s fears came true that she was speech-impaired. Doctors said the problem was curable, but that she quickly needed surgery. Siraj advised him to do it in America.
Hassan and Selina got a tourist visa, came to New York, and had the surgery done. It was successful. Najma can speak now, and is doing well in school. The family is happy again in their new community.
Things suddenly changed when about a month ago Hassan got a brief letter from Migration Control. The letter said Hassan was required to “register in person.” Neither Hassan nor Selina knew what to make out of it.
“It doesn’t say anything about you,” a Bengali friend reassured him. “It lists so many countries – Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arab…they’re just trying to find people who don’t have papers. Everything’s changed since 9/11.”
“You got a job, a permanent address, pay your bills, and never got in trouble.” The friend said. “You’re fine.”
It was a cold, drizzly day. At eight, a policeman checked Hassan’s letter, and escorted him away from his family to stand in the spiraling line. Selina and Najma didn’t know what to do next. The officer said they could wait in the coffee shop across the street. They reluctantly left.
At nine, the file of people started trickling into the huge, black building. An officer checked Hassan’s letter and ID once again, and sent him up on the third floor.
There, security officers put on his body an iron bar with a ring, and moved it around, from top to bottom, front and back, side to side. They checked his papers again, looked in his eyes, and guided him through a metal gate to a small waiting room.
Another hour of wait. Two, three hours… His stomach started growling. He felt thirsty.
Around one o’clock, the security officers came back. They took him out to a wooden cubicle. A man in blue uniform 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 away.
“Bangladesh,” Hassan said.
“Your visa expired,” the officer said tersely. “You’re out of status. You’ve got to go back to Bangladesh.”
“Sir, I want to tell…” Hassan was nervous.
“You need to go up on the tenth floor now.” The officer returned his passport and letter, and left.
Hassan didn’t know what to do. The man sounded so unreal. Go back to Bangladesh? There must be something wrong. How can he explain? They don’t want to listen.
A military man with a gun escorted him out. The metal gate, the elevator, and then it slowly went up on the tenth floor. Again, the security, body search, checking papers. Hassan sat on a wooden bench.
On another bench across from him, two men were sitting, but they were handcuffed! Hassan had butterflies in his stomach. He’s never seen handcuffed men so up close!
Hours passed. It was 3 P.M.
At 4, two officers called his name, and took him out to a small room on the other side of the floor. He also took his passport, but didn’t return it. Then, he locked up the door. 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 came from Kenya?” One of the officers asked him.
“Yes.” His mouth was dry.
“Your visa expired five years ago.” The officer said. “How come you’re still here?”
Hassan didn’t know what to say. “My daughter was very sick,” he slowly started to explain.
“Well, you broke the law,” the officer brusquely interrupted. “You’re out of status, an illegal alien.” He now gestured to another man.
The other man came up to him. “Tell me, who’s the man in this picture with a beard?” He showed him a photo. “Isn’t that you?”
Hassan looked at the photo. The man in the picture was not him. He didn’t know who it was.
Hassan made an attempt to speak.
“It’s you alright.” The officer quickly interrupted. “Why did you shave off your beard?”
“Hassan Mollah. You’re 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. The chuckle grew louder.
Hassan felt weak. His feet started shaking. He is a Muslim, but never kept a beard. He doesn’t even go to the mosque. He doesn’t have the time. He works all day.
“You said you came here five years ago. But we know you were here way before. Our records show that you were in Chicago ten years ago doing some real bad stuff…terrorist stuff. Am I incorrect, Mullah? 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. His palms 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 man 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. Everybody left, one by one, leaving him alone, sitting still, in front of the flashing camera. The door closed.
The glare was too much. Hassan felt dizzy.
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. “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 down his eyes. He then wiped it off. No, Selina must never know he cried.
The door cracked open again, and the officers stomped back in. The camera must’ve stopped running a while ago. The men turned on the room lights.
“You can leave now,” one of them said. “But you must come back in two months with a lawyer, to see the judge. Do you understand?” He returned Hassan’s passport.
Hassan walked out of Migration Control. 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.
Note: Names and places used in the story are made-up. It is a fictionalized story based on real people and their real-life experiences.
Brooklyn, New York