This week's cover story, "Exiles on North Street," introduces Vermonters to some of their newest neighbors: the 50 or so Iraqi refugees who've been resettled in the Burlington area in the last year. Their stories, like those of other recent immigrants who've fled war and bloodshed in their home countries, are tragic and heart-wrenching.
One story not told in this week's article is that of Egyptian-born Ashraf Mohamed, a physical therapy student studying in Burlington who's become the Iraqis' unofficial guide to life in Vermont. I first met Ashraf five years ago while working on a story about how Vermont's Muslim and Arab community was coping with the deplorable discrimination being leveled against them in the post-9/11 climate. At the time, the Migration Policy Institute had just released a report detailing the abhorrent wide-scale roundups, detentions, and interrogations of Muslim and Arab men throughout the United States, most of which were gross violation of their constitutional due-process rights. Though that report reads like a description of a Soviet-era gulag, as we were to discover, those events were just a hint of worse policies to come.
Mohamed 's story was typical: In August 2000, he was stopped in Fort Wayne, Indiana while driving a van for FedEx as an independent contractor. In a case of mistaken identity, Mohamed was accused of stealing a car in Westchester, Pennsylvania, was arrested, detained and held incommunicado for 18 days without access to an attorney, his friends or family members. Mohamed claims he was extradited to Pennsylvania in the middle of the night, shackled in body chains the entire trip. He had no prior criminal record and had never even been arrested.
After arriving in court, everyone realized Mohamed wasn't the right man and he was released. His attorney assured him he had grounds for a lawsuit. But three months after September 11, the attorney called him back to say that he'd dropped the case. The judge wouldn't even consider it. When asked why, his attorney replied, "Because you're Muslim and you're an Arab. And that's the end of the story."