Our trip to New Orleans gave us the opportunity to visit a unique American city and to speak to survivors of one of the country’s worst natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina. We heard some great stories of hope from Muslim New Orleanians who provided food and water to those, like Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American, who heroically saved people using their personal boats. But it was also from Zeitoun that we heard a different kind of Hurricane Katrina story that left me aghast and ashamed.
After a day of rescuing people from the crushing floodwaters, including an old woman, Zeitoun, who owns a construction business, returned to his home. Because of his house’s high stilts, he was spared the most devastating of the flood waters. His wife, Kathy, had fled with their family but he had remained in New Orleans. He was in his house with a Syrian friend and a white American client. A boat appeared carrying a group of men in military fatigues with machine guns. Zeitoun isn’t sure if the men were actual military personnel or employees of a company like Blackwater, which was also active in New Orleans at the time.
The men approached Zeitoun and asked him if he needed any help or food supplies. Zeitoun refused, saying that he had everything under control. Then they took a closer look at him. “What are you doing here?” they asked. “This is my home,” Zeitoun replied. Six men then jumped into his home from their boat, and waving their guns at him asked to see his ID. He produced it and the men yelled “get in the boat!” waving their machine guns in his face. They refused to say why he was being taken. Zeitoun asked if he could at least go back inside and get a piece of paper on which he had written his wife’s number. “If you step inside,” said one of the gun toting men, “I’ll shoot you.” He was forced on the boat and watched his house slip further away in the distance.
He arrived on dry land and was immediately handcuffed and thrown in a white van. The men drove him to a New Orleans bus station that had been fashioned into a prison which, according to Zeitoun, “looked exactly like Guantanamo Bay.” There were high security fences and men with machine guns posted at every corner and on the roof. Zeitoun said he realized that if anything happened to him no one would know. He and a few other Muslims who were also in the prison were routinely called “terrorists” and “Taliban” by the guards. He underwent humiliating strip cavity searches and was denied a blanket. For three days he languished in the prison and underwent sleep deprivation, handcuffed upright next to a loud generator. The floor was filthy. He was then transferred by bus to a correctional facility near Baton Rouge staffed by Louisiana State Prison officials and treated, he says, as if he “had killed somebody.” He was taken deep into the recesses of the prison and put in a tiny cell.
Despite the fact that he had excruciatingly painful injuries, he was refused medial attention for a serious cut he had on his foot and was not allowed to make any calls to his family or anyone else. In addition, he almost starved as nearly every meal he was served included pork, which as a Muslim he could not eat, a fact he had disclosed during initial “processing” at the prison.
In the prison he was interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the CIA, who all later admitted they had nothing on him. While in prison he pleaded with DHS officials to let him call his wife. Finally DHS agreed and he was able to speak with his wife, who promptly hired a lawyer. After the government realized their terrorism charges were baseless, they attempted to charge him with looting, and set the bail for $75,000. He was only released—after 23 days—when he was able to put up one of his properties as collateral. The looting charges were eventually dropped. Zeitoun tried to sue over his treatment but the lawsuit was thrown out. He’s currently trying again.
I found Zeitoun’s story shocking. He is an American citizen, just like me. To think that such blatant miscarriages of justice were occurring not just in the immediate aftermath of 9/11—which is bad enough—but four years later is outrageous. Zeitoun told me that the people who arrested him seemed excited that they had found “terrorists”. The only “evidence” they had was a map to the airport on a client of Zeitoun’s who was with him when he was picked up. This is to be expected as the man worked for the airport delivering lost luggage to passengers. One of Zeitoun’s white clients, who actually had stolen a boat, was put on a government plane out of New Orleans and given housing and food for two years.
I think that Zeitoun’s ordeal is reflective of a certain mentality toward Muslims that I hope will change. We’ve heard inspiring stories of compassion and kindness from Muslims describing the non-Muslims they interact with during our travels across America—but we also hear stories like these and struggle to make sense of them. More ominous is the matter of fact way that Zeitoun recounted his story. He was so reserved, he said, because he thought his story was tame compared to accounts other Muslims had given him. “In America every Muslim has no rights. There are too many stories worse than mine.”
The story has been picked up by a few places already. Dave Eggers, the acclaimed writer, editor and publisher, has written about Zeitoun’s story for a chapter of Voices From the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and its Aftermath. Zeitoun’s story is one that we all should hear and think about. And we must do everything in our power to ensure that episodes like this never happen in the United States of America.