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.