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Fear haunts our neighbors, the ones who practice Islam

By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001


There will be no school today at the Islamic Academy of Florida. Fear has closed it.

There will be no school today at the Islamic Academy of Florida. Fear has closed it.

The fear has been growing in the quiet spaces of the lives of teachers, parents and children at this small school in Temple Terrace, since Tuesday.

Fifteen-year-old Haya Radwan refused to go to sleep in her own bed that night. She wouldn't leave the living room. She slept on the couch.

"I'm afraid to go in my room," she told her mother. "I'll dream of death."

Whose death, the girl didn't say.

An American's? She is American. She was born in San Diego.

An Arab's? She's one, a second-generation Palestinian.

She wore big wire rim glasses and chunky shoes that made her a couple of inches taller than she is. She carried a dark book bag with straps over her shoulders, and was dressed in the dark school uniform of pants, shirt and long coat that also includes a hijab or head scarf.

The teachers and mothers who gathered on the school's small campus under the trees to say goodbye as school closed early Thursday call dressing like this "going covered."

Their bodies are hidden from the world this way.

Now they feel exposed.

The very way they dress, part of their most basic self expression, makes them a target.

"It's just so recognizable," said teacher Sonia Albustami.

So the women aren't doing the grocery shopping. Their husbands are.

The women love to spend Friday evenings, after prayers at the mosque near the school, at University Square Mall.

Those trips, they'll take another day -- as if another ordinary day will come.

They are afraid of Americans. They know it only takes one, like Timothy McVeigh.

They are afraid of other Arabs. The terrorists did not believe in the same Islam they do. They could not have have. It's impossible.

Over and over, I heard this from the women.

"I tell my children. I say, this is our country," said Fatima Hussein, from Lebanon and now an American citizen. "This is not the work of humans. This is the work of a beast."

And the beast had no regard for the nationality of its victims.

"Many Arabs and many Muslims were there and died," Ghadah Rahman said of the victims at the World Trade Center.

Three of her relatives were nearly among them. Her cousin and his wife were about to enter the complex when the plane smashed into it. Her brother was on his way to work in a brokerage but was still a distance away.

That was close enough for Rahman.

The personal connection was closer for her than it was for many of the non-Arabs prepared to despise Ghadah Rahman simply for being who she is, without any idea of who she is.

She is American.

She is Arab.

She has a heart.

"I feel like I'm walking through a dream," she said.

The Islamic Academy is closed today because attendance was so off Thursday. Nearly two-thirds of the 277 students, as young as 3, were kept home by their parents.

There was extra worry because today is the Muslim holy day. Many people will be at the adjacent mosque for prayers in the early afternoon.

What if something crazy were to happen? What about the children then?

For now, fear has won.

- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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