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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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One bus incident, two outlooks
After a controversial Muslim student dropoff, one wants to leave; another, to stay.
By VANESSA GEZARI
Published July 12, 2004
[Times photos: Daniel Wallace ]
Zahra DiyeaaAldeen, 16, right, walks with friend Forkan Hussein, 14, at the Jacksonville apartments where they live. They were among Muslim students ordered off a school bus. Afterward, Zahra started missing school, and her grades dropped.
When this bus thing happened, it made me sure that I can't stay in school in America," says Zahra DiyaaAldeen, an Iraqi.
Karim Ahmadi, 14, quickly put the bus incident out of his mind. "As much as I'm Afghan, I'm American too," he says.
Karim Ahmadi, left, 14, takes on his younger brother Marshal, 12, in a wrestling video game.
JACKSONVILLE - One day last fall, a school bus driver unceremoniously dropped Zahra DiyaaAldeen, Karim Ahmadi and more than 20 other Muslim children, most of them Iraqis and Afghans, on a roadside miles from their homes.
The bus company said the kids were shouting and stamping their feet on board. But 16-year-old Zahra, 14-year-old Karim and others say that they weren't doing anything disruptive and that only Muslim children, many in traditional dress, were forced off the bus. The driver picked out the Muslim students one by one, Zahra says.
"She said, "You, you and you.' She was pushing us from behind."
The children made it home safely. But in a cluster of low-income apartments on Jacksonville's east side, the incident has radically changed some lives and subtly altered others.
The state attorney general's Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation, and some families plan to sue the school system and the bus company for discrimination.
For Zahra, who is Iraqi, the events of that day were a sharp reminder that she's different from American kids. She started skipping school; her grades plummeted, and she considered dropping out.
"When this bus thing happened, it made me sure that I can't stay in school in America," she says. "I was scared to go to school."
For Karim, who survived war in his native Afghanistan, the bus incident was an unwelcome distraction from the new life he and his family are struggling to build here. He quickly put it out of his mind.
"We got a new bus driver," he says. "After that ... it was cool."
Zahra and Karim live near each other, but their lives could hardly be more different. Karim says he might visit Afghanistan someday, but he wants to live in America. Zahra wants to see Iraq so badly she cries herself to sleep thinking about it.
At Zahra's house, she and her sisters speak in low voices. Their mother was so traumatized by the two years she and her family spent in prison in Saddam Hussein's Iraq that she can't work, and Zahra's father stays home with her. Her parents speak little English, and the family subsists mainly on her mother's disability benefits.
Karim's father was killed when a rocket hit his mechanic's shop in Afghanistan; his mother is raising three sons on her own, working two jobs, seven days a week. At home, exhausted, she falls asleep on the couch.
Both Zahra and Karim attend Fort Caroline Middle School. But Karim, who wears jeans and T-shirts, plays easily with other kids, while Zahra, who wears a long black robe over her jeans and a scarf over her hair, is often teased. The kids say Your father is Saddam Hussein, your brother is Saddam Hussein, your brother is Osama bin Laden.
"Sometimes I say, "He's not my father,' " Zahra says. "Sometimes I say, "I hate Saddam Hussein.' I really hate him and I like Bush so much because Bush gave me the dream that no one else could give me, that I can go back to my country. Because if Saddam Hussein were there, how could I go back? He would kill my father."
On the afternoon of Oct. 29, Zahra, Karim and the other children boarded the bus after school as usual. What happened next isn't entirely clear. A spokeswoman for Duval County public schools and a regional manager for First Student, the bus company, declined to comment because of the planned litigation. The kids, their parents and the Council on American-Islamic Relations say that more than two dozen children were forced off the bus simply because they are Muslims.
"We were so quiet. We didn't talk. We were sitting down," Zahra says.
They were dropped about 10 minutes from school, she says. They went back, but the school was closed, so they started walking home. They were hungry and tired because it was Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset. After half an hour, they met a police officer who told them to go back to the school. But they had already been there. They kept walking.
They knocked at one house to use the phone, but a woman closed the door in their faces. Finally, a man let them borrow his cell phone. Karim reached his mother, Shaima, who picked up his brother and four other children. Salwa Saba, a Palestinian-American ESL teacher who knows the Iraqi and Afghan kids from her class at Fort Caroline, happened to drive by and see them. She picked up as many as she could, then called her brother to get the others. "I think the driver was a little frustrated. Kids are kids. But she should expect when you drive a bus, there may be problems," Saba says. "I know our kids are not angels, but you don't throw them in the street."
The next day, a horde of parents went to school to complain. The school district says it started investigating and suspended the driver.
Then on Oct. 31, when Zahra, Karim and the others were waiting in front of the Spirit gas station for their morning bus, they say, a different driver wouldn't let them board. Children and a Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesman said the driver let an American girl onto the bus, but closed the doors on the Muslim kids. The driver waved at them through the glass and drove off.
The school sent another bus later, but most of the Muslim children in Zahra and Karim's neighborhood missed school that day.
There are things Zahra loves about this country.
When she and her family came to America four years ago, they settled in Memphis for a year until some Iraqi friends recommended Jacksonville and the housing complex, where other Iraqis were already living. There are thought to be several hundred Iraqi families in Jacksonville, most of them refugees, as well as about 100 Afghan families.
The DiyaaAldeens visited and decided to move. On the roads between Tennessee and Florida, they caught a glimpse of America.
"America is the most beautiful country I've ever seen in my life," Zahra says. "You can't compare any country with it."
A serious girl with deep brown eyes and milky skin, Zahra wants to be a pediatrician, a nurse or a secretary. She would like to have a college degree, be a U.S. citizen, maybe even join the Army. In seventh grade, she had a 3.21 grade point average: three A's, three B's and comments like "Does commendable work" and "Conduct promotes academic performance."
Last year, her GPA plunged, and she was absent twice as often: 49 times. She was held back in eighth grade, and will have to complete five months of extra study to move on to high school. She has thought about quitting, but her father has encouraged her to stay in school.
She says that if the incident on the bus hadn't happened, she wouldn't have missed so much school or been held back. On that day, Zahra says, "something happened to us, to our feelings."
Things never got back to the way they had been before: "We didn't become like a regular student in the school. We were not normal like anybody else."
The bus incident made Zahra anxious. She was afraid that the driver's cousin or another relative would come after the kids and their families. In the places where Zahra lived before, that's how arguments were settled.
It heightened her sense of vulnerability. She's scared that in high school, the boys will pull off her scarf or try to touch her. Even now, kids yank her scarf, which is wrapped tightly around her head and held in place with a pin. She started covering her head in public when she was 9. If she removes her scarf in the presence of boys or men, she believes she'll go to hell.
At school, when the other girls say she must be bald, she sometimes drags them into the bathroom and removes her scarf. Then they stroke her hair and admire it and say: "Oh, it's so pretty. You look like an American."
Zahra thinks "every minute" about Iraq, a country she has never seen. Her parents are Iraqi, but she was born in Iran. She is, she says, a citizen of nowhere. An American green card is the closest she has come to legally belonging.
She passionately supports the U.S.-led war and the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Her father, who worked as an accountant in Iraq, fled in fear after arguing with a member of Hussein's government. But the kids at Zahra's school don't understand this, and neither do the people who look at her funny in the mall. The day before Zahra's 16th birthday, a little girl called her a terrorist at Family Dollar. She remembers every slight the kids at school have uttered since the United States invaded Iraq last year: It's not your country. You have to go back to your country. Why are you here? We're at war with you.
Karim and Zahra are friends, as much as a girl like Zahra from a conservative family can be friends with a boy her own age. They say "Hi" and "How are you?" Sometimes she helps him with his schoolwork.
Karim is a skinny, gangly kid with crooked teeth and a shy smile. He's the eldest of three boys, the one who stops his smart aleck younger brother from fighting, the one who worries about his mom when she comes home tired. He talks proudly about the days in Afghanistan when his mother was a seamstress, designing and stitching women's clothes by hand. Now she works five days a week at a factory, packing boxes with shampoo, lotion, potato chips - whatever comes down the line. The other two days she's a launderer at a downtown hotel.
When Karim was 8, he went to work weaving carpets, first in Afghanistan and later in Pakistan. His family arrived in the United States about a month before Sept. 11. He doesn't have happy memories of the mud houses and dusty streets of Kabul, where as a child, he saw the city destroyed by civil war. Fighters took up positions in apartment buildings and offices. Thousands of civilians died.
Karim's father, an auto mechanic, was killed when the Taliban took control of the capital in 1996. Karim, his brothers and his mother were left to struggle under a regime that banned women from working. They quickly fled to a refugee camp in Pakistan.
"There was no job for me, no school for the kids, so we left," says Karim's mother, who offers guests slices of white cake topped with red stripes and blue stars.
The Ahmadis have embraced their new life in the United States. They applied for green cards, but haven't received them. Ask Karim why he likes America and the answer is immediate: "Freedom. And there's no fighting here."
Ahmadi says she likes Americans more than Afghans. Ethnic strife tore her country apart; here, she has been able to work and send her children to school. Karim says most people think he and his brothers are Mexican. He can't remember a single comment that made him feel like an outsider.
He supports America's war in Afghanistan. "I think it's good because they want to finish the Taliban, and they want to help Afghanistan to move," he says. "They're trying to stop the fighting."
When Karim and the other kids were kicked off the bus, Ahmadi was upset. But the parents complained, and she's sure it won't happen again. She didn't join the planned lawsuit. She says she doesn't have time.
Karim says getting kicked off the bus was worse for girls like Zahra than it was for him. Many of the girls had never walked the streets by themselves. Karim was angry when it happened, but the feeling didn't last.
"My friends told the principal this is because we're Muslim or Afghan. But after it was finished I didn't even talk about it," Karim says. "I am in (America) and it is my country. Afghan and American are the same for me. As much as I'm Afghan, I'm American too."
Karim hasn't thought about what happened on the bus in months. He has been too busy playing sports, going to day camp and pounding opponents in his wrestling video game, "Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain." On a recent rainy afternoon, Karim and a friend were holed up in his tiny bedroom, practicing their own rendition of a song by the rapper Ludacris.
Across the street, Zahra and her sisters spread an oilcloth on the carpet and laid out plates of olives, pickles and rice.
As they ate, they talked about the parts of America they've seen. Soon after coming here, they crisscrossed the country in an old blue van, visiting Detroit and the Canadian border, Nashville, Texas and Washington, D.C. In Georgia, Zahra and her sisters loved the deep green trees that shaded the roads. But their favorite place was Niagara Falls.
"I liked it," Zahra says, "because I thought, "God made this.' "