Setting the Stage

This project was made possible through the collaboration of three of AFSC’s community-based programs, including our Middle East Peacebuilding Programs in Chicago and Los Angeles, and our Immigrant Rights Program based in Newark, New Jersey. Their work at the community level and the relationships they have built in the process provided the foundation that has allowed the collection and presentation of these testimonies.

Each of the communities involved in this project has a very different history, which in turn has shaped the experience and perspectives shared with us. Chicago, for example, has the nation’s second-largest Arab community (after Detroit). It is, moreover, a heavily immigrant city with a strong tradition of community organizing. Both factors are reflected in the relatively greater organizational development and community involvement within Chicago’s Arab American and Arab immigrant community.

Los Angeles, by contrast, is a notoriously divided city, in which geographic, ethnic, and political fragmentation has made the formation of grounded, community-based alliances extremely difficult. These communities (or at least the segments of them that were accessible to us) represent far less of a grassroots constituency and in some cases are quite affluent economically. Partly as a result, their response to the surge of government repression and harassment after 9/11 has relied more on traditional models of political advocacy, and less on grassroots mobilization.

In the New York City–New Jersey area, finally, AFSC’s involvement grew out of its long-standing work on immigrants’ rights and detention issues. In the wake of 9/11, this area was at the center of the crisis of detention and deportation for Muslim and Arab communities, and although different organizations adopted different strategies and different approaches, that crisis was the focus for all of them.

It is worth noting that the community most heavily affected by detention and deportation in this region has been the Pakistani community, a reality that has not always been reflected in media accounts. The fear sparked in this community by government actions is so great that many Pakistani immigrants have fled to Canada, and some areas, especially in Brooklyn, were notably depopulated at the time of our visit.

In preparing these testimonies, we have made every effort to be faithful to the exact wording of the original interviews. The texts presented here includes only minor changes to improve the flow of the original comments.

Because these conversations focused mainly on longer-term processes of individual and community development, they are still quite relevant to the themes we undertook to explore. Significant changes in the terrain, however, are noted here.

Most painfully, with the ravages of war continuing unchecked throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, the social processes of demonization, discrimination, and repression that gave rise to this exploration continue to unfold. By the same token, however, the determination, creativity, and spirit we have chronicled continue to endure.