Muslim? We’ll Call You Back

 

By Katerina Zachovalova

 

Since Sept. 11, 32-year-old carpenter Afif leaves his Brooklyn Heights apartment early each morning, but he is not headed for his job. Afif is on a year-long job-hunting expedition. He takes off for Lower Manhattan. That is the way how you do it when you look for a construction job, he said. You start downtown and make your way up as the day runs by. Day after day, Afif follows the same routine, hoping that he will finally land a job.

 

            Afif, who did not want to reveal his last name, is a Muslim from Algeria. He came to the United States five years ago. He said that he never had trouble finding a job before the terrorist attacks. He has been a carpenter ever since he graduated from high school 13 years ago. But his experience does not count anymore. He cannot find a job for more than a year.

 

“Many, many American companies never call me back,” Afif said, “but the thing is they need the guys, they need workers, because you will find the same ad in the newspaper tomorrow.”

 

            Until now, Afif kept his problem to himself. According to Monica Tarazi, the director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee in New York, Muslims are reluctant to report cases of the Sept. 11 backlash workplace discrimination such as on-the-job harassment, name calling, poor evaluations, firings or discharges. Tarazi said they are afraid of a further harassment, job loss or detention.

 

“People feel all alone. They do not trust anybody,” said Afif after the afternoon prayer at the largest mosque in New York City, Masjid Al-Farough, on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.  He is standing in the mosque’s entrance where men gather to chat after the prayers.  He has plenty of time to come to pray here every day. His job-hunting routine is over in early afternoon when the construction-site offices close.  

 

Afif said that he does not want to sue the employers that refuse to hire him. According to Omar Mohammedi, an employment discrimination lawyer, this reluctance is rather common. Mohammedi said even the green-card holders do not want to sue employers who discriminate against them.

 

“Most of these people are immigrant, and they do not know how the system works,” he said, “they think if their name becomes known, there is a risk they will be exposed. They think the government will go after them, and they will be deported as well.” 

 

Mohammedi who currently represents 10 Muslims who say they were discriminated against by employers in the year since the attacks said that he has seen four times as many cases compared to the years before. But he also added that some Muslims are very reluctant to go public. “When I tell them, let’s make it public, they never call me again,” he said.

 

The Muslim community prefers the confidentiality offered by the local grass root groups. “There is a tremendous mistrust of the government within the community,” Tarazi said, “while some agencies like the EEOC have been very supportive of our community, and have been very responsive when we reported cases of discrimination to them, other government agencies have been responsible for racial profiling.”

 

According to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, several hundred people reported Sept. 11 backlash workplace discrimination to them in the first eight weeks after the attacks. In the years before Sept. 11, they used to handle 25 allegations a week. Tarazi said that she is still seeing more cases today than before Sept. 11. On the contrary, only 24 New York City metropolitan area Muslims complained to the responsible federal government agency, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

 

             The New York office of the Commission gained its own experience with fear in the Muslim community when it was organizing an outreach meeting in the SoHo Hotel in March. Lawrence Pincus, the head of the Commission in New York, said that his employees called all the 200 invitees to inform them about what to do if a case od discrimination occurs. According to him, some of them were reluctant to talk to the governmental officials.

 

Pincus said there is no reason to be afraid to file a complaint with the Commission. “We do not ask people their immigration status, or naturalization status. We do not want them to feel that we file reports afterwards. There is nothing like that at all,” he said.

 

But according to Tarazi, the location of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in New York is a problem. After the Commission lost its premises in the Seven World Trade Center on Sept. 11, it moved in with the Immigration and Naturalization Service at 201 Varick St. Tarazi said people might be afraid to go down there because they do not want to end up in an INS office by mistake.

 

According to Pincus, the Commission is planning to move to new premises at 33 Whitehall St. by the end of October. “It is actually not a government building. So those types of fears you could put away for the time being,” he said.

 

But the move will not make Afif to file a complaint with the Commission.  He wants to better his situation on his own. He said he plans to get a degree in construction management, so he can get a license and work by himself. Afif said his friends are helping him out to get by, and his landlord gave him a rent break. “Right now I am in a deep trouble. I do not have money to buy food, to pay rent. I hope that one day it will get better.”