For Muslim And Arab Immigrants In Pennsylvania, September 11, 2001, Forever Changed Their Lives
(Lancaster) — Like so many around the world, Amer Al Fayadh and his family froze as they watched the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks unfold on live television.
“As I was walking in the kitchen and I saw her kind of staring at a TV. And that’s not something that she does normally,” Al Fayadh said of his mother. “So I was like, ‘What’s happening?’”
Al Fayadh, then 18, was in his home in Baghdad, Iraq. He had just returned from college classes and his mother was watching details of the tragedy on the evening news.
“She told me about what was happening, so I walked into the guest room when I started also watching TV with her for a little bit trying to understand and get a grasp of what’s happening,” he said.
They were dismayed by the carnage.
Al Fayadh doesn’t recall the specifics of then-U.S. President George W. Bush addressing the world in the wake of the attacks.
But Al Fayadh said he realized it was only a matter of time before the aftermath of the attacks reached his front door — even if the terrorists suspected of the attacks had no connection to Iraq.
“What I remember is that it was not good news,” he recalled. “You know, for people in the Middle East, in general.”
Halfway around the world on that day in September, Elsayed Elmarzouky was working in the back of the Queen City Restaurant in Reading.
In an age before constant connectivity, he was oblivious to the horror many of his customers were watching and listening to throughout the day.
“I didn’t know that 9/11 happened in any way, shape or form,” Elmarzouky said. “I didn’t know, because I was so busy working our service and the restaurant.”
The native of Egypt was already a well-known figure in the city and in Berks County, having established the Islamic Center of Reading in the early 1990s. As a foreigner and a Muslim, Elmarzouky and his business soon faced angry, baseless allegations.
One man questioned him about a rumor that he and his Muslim workers celebrated in the back of restaurant, watching the attack on live TV.
“‘Your guys in the kitchen were grabbing and dancing. They said death to America,’” Elmarzouky said, his voice mimicking the accusations.
Within hours of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York falling, the Pentagon being in flames and United Airlines Flight 93 crashing in Somerset County, Elmarzouky found himself having to prove he wasn’t an enemy of the state.
This was a man who served as a chaplain for the Reading Police, a volunteer clergy at the Berks County Prison, and was an American citizen.
“I took him to the kitchen. I said, ‘First of all, these guys here are Mexicans, number one,’” Elmarzouky said. “’Number two, do you see any TV in the kitchen?’”
He had invested decades of work fostering community in the county, creating a house of worship for Muslims all over the region. Now, he felt like he had a target on his back, while facing attacks on his reputation.
“On Wednesday (Sept. 12), people were picketing in front of my restaurants, stopping the people from coming in,” Elmarzouky said. “As if I was a traitor. As if I was part of 9/11.
“The signs said, ‘Don’t support bin Laden,’” he added with a wince.
His experience is an example of the uptick in Islamophobic incidents that spread across the country after the attacks, some of which victimized people who were neither Muslim or Middle Eastern. Sikh, Hindu and other Brown immigrants were targets for harassment, disrespect and sometimes violence.
The 9/11 attacks spurred the Bush Administration’s global military initiative that spread far past the search for the masterminds — Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
The U.S. government also began laying the groundwork to preemptively attack Iraq, claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that it was in America’s interest to prevent the use of those weapons.
In Baghdad, Amer Al Fayadh and his family prepared for what they felt was inevitable. Iraqis like Al Fayadh had lived through conflicts like the Iraq-Iran war and U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm to free Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion.
“We knew what to kind of do like storing water, storing food, making sure you have batteries so you can listen to the news,” he stated matter-of-factly. “You tape the windows, so they don’t shatter. You cover them with blankets, so it doesn’t cut anyone. You tell the kids what to do and where to go and where to hide if you know a bombing is happening nearby.”
Saddam Hussein’s government did not have the support of the Iraqi people, according to Al Fayadh, and the U.S. military quickly toppled the regime.
After an estimated 200,000 civilian deaths, more than 7,000 U.S. military deaths, two million people displaced from their homes, years of occupation and nearly $2 trillion in costs, the U.S. could not provide any evidence of WMDs.
There are still more than 2,000 American service members in Iraq.
The conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq — and later in places Libya, Egypt and Syria — led to an influx of refugees into the United States.
The U.S. is one of the leaders in refugee resettlement, and Pennsylvania is home to a significant number of people who have fled their countries.
More than 35,000 people from all over the world have been resettled to the commonwealth since 2003, according to the Refugee Processing Center — a nationwide organization that tracks refugee migration.
Valentina Ross is the Lancaster office director for Church World Service, a resettlement nonprofit.
“What I see is that really the refugees here enrich the quality of life for everybody in Lancaster,” Ross said.
The city is home to nearly 5,000 resettled refugees, according to the most recent data. Refugees and other immigrants who are looking for a better life have changed the demographics of the city.
Ross said a common attribute of the people she assists is their desire to help immigrants and refugees who follow in their footsteps.
“Since they know how tough it is for newcomers, they want to give back,” Ross said. “Not so much to us, but to others who are coming in from similar situations.”
Which was similar for Amer Al Fayadh.
In the years after the American invasion, Iraq was destabilized. Al Fayadh said the country became fraught with kidnappings, extortion and robberies.
Extremists shut down his teenage younger brother’s school. So, his brother — Abdullah — became a sponsored exchange student in the U.S. and was granted asylum.
After Al Fayadh applied to enter the country and worked with the United Nations’ International Organization of Migration, he joined his brother here in spring 2010. Appealing to federal immigration authorities, the rest of Al Fayadh’s family was granted refuge in the U.S. in the fall of that year.
“We were very fortunate and because this does not happen with a lot of families, my parents were able to make it, all my siblings,” Al Fayadh said. “Two brothers, a sister, a sister-in-law. My brother’s two kids and my parents.They all made it here.”
The family was resettled in Lancaster by Church World Service.
Starting in 2011, Al Fayadh began volunteering with CWS to help Arab speakers and others settle in the state. He eventually became a full-time case worker, working alongside Ross.
“He has a great work ethic. He abides by the rules,” Ross said, speaking fondly of Al Fayadh. “He really wants to do good.”
Al Fayadh has become an entrepreneur — working with immigrants, companies and other entities.
He owns and operates Communication Essentials, LLC, which specializes in translation, interpretation and language training.
Married with four children, he became an American citizen in 2016 — not long after his first son, Sejad, was born.
Amer and his wife, Brandy, said they think it is important for their children to know both of their cultures, American and Iraqi.
Brandy said all of the different families she has met have dispelled even her own misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims. She said she has been surprised by the kindness of Arab men toward children and the immense hospitality of their families.
“That was something that really struck me as a blessing to have an intercultural relationship and just something that really changed the narrative I just automatically believed,” Brandy said. “I found there’s this whole other side to people that I hadn’t known or even thought could be a possibility.”
Al Fayadh’s own perceptions have changed over the past decade, particularly on his place in the world.
He first saw the United States as a stop in his life journey, but it has become so much more for him.
“In the beginning, I thought this would be a ‘transit station,’” Al Fayadh said. “But now, I’m proud to say that I’m an American citizen. I’m proud to say that I call this home.”
Half an hour north from Al Fayadh, Elmarzouky sat on the back porch of his own home in Berks County, enjoying a cigar and semi-retired life. The president of the Islamic Center of Reading reflected on his outreach to help make perceptions of Muslims less exotic, foreign and frightening in the post 9/11 era, such as in the 2016 Interfaith Response to Violence.
“I was always trying to find venues, to invite people to see us and see what we do,” Elmarzouky said. “And to discuss with us, our lives, our faith, our tradition, our culture.”
In the wake of the attacks, Elmarzouky gathered the media, students, neighbors, and local police departments to celebrate Ramadan at the center. He also fended off accusations he had ties to a nefarious Muslim cabal after a surprise campaign visit through Reading from then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008.
He has been a part of coalitions with leaders around Berks, hosted lectures and appeared on television talking about what it means to be Muslim. He is also a trustee of the private Franciscan college, Alvernia University.
Elmarzouky never intended to be a spokesperson of sorts for the Muslim community in the region and does not see it as a privilege, but as a responsibility.
More importantly, he said his work is to improve Berks County as a whole, not just for the Muslims because he loves the country that took him in more than 40 years ago.
“As an immigrant [I] came to this country, empty hands, empty pockets,” Elmarzouky said. “I worked my way up, I believe in [the] American dream, I believe in the land of opportunity.”
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 Al Fayadh, Elmarzouky and millions of other Muslim and Arabs in Pennsylvania and across the country will spend it reflecting how that day forever changed their lives in direct and powerful ways.
They are still finding ways to channel it into something positive for their children and communities—and the generations that will follow.
Anthony Orozco is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.