EASY TARGETS: Arab Americans Fight Bias
October 7, 2005
Two Arab American federal workers expose racist harassment and discrimination in the U.S. Department of Justice and Homeland Security.
Hikmat Joe Monsour’s life changed after the 9.11 terrorist attacks.
A correctional officer at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the U.S. Justice Department based in Lee County, Va., Monsour thought he was living the American dream.
An Arab American originally from Lebanon, Monsour occasionally was called upon to translate letters written by Arab inmates and to translate inmate phone calls. He filled what he deems a critical role in the war on terror before and after 9.11.
As one of the few Arab American employees in the department, Monsour said he’d felt some discrimination before 9.11, being non-white in a rural area of the country. After the attacks, he said, the harassment and discrimination intensified.
The number of discrimination charges by Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim nearly doubled during the three years following 9.11, from 892 to 1,778, according to the EEOC.
Government enforcement of civil rights cases during President Bush’s first term, however, dropped from 159 cases in 1999 to 84 cases in 2003.
“Collectively, some violators of the civil rights laws are not being dealt with by the government,” David Burnham, co-author of a Syracuse University study analyzing government staffing, spending and law enforcement, told The Associated Press.
‘I became a criminal, a target’
Immediately after 9.11, Monsour claims several staff members stopped speaking to him.
“On the day , my supervisor asked me to go home. He said it would be better. I refused to go,” Monsour said.
“It was degrading. Suddenly I became a second-class citizen. I became a criminal, a target, a person with no rights for something I had nothing to do with.”
Monsour believes some of the harassment and discrimination was retaliation for public comments he made about the lack of Arabic translators in prisons, implicating those in charge.
Among his claims of racism:
* Supervisors and other employees told him to “go back where you came from” or “go bomb something – your people are good at that.”
* He was taunted with slurs including “camel jockey,” “sand nigger” and “terrorist.”
* He received anti-Muslim and anti-Arab e-mails, as well as a note on his car in the prison parking lot. It read “death to Muslims.”
* He was denied references that would have allowed him to transfer to another facility at least 50 times.
The final straw came in fall 2003 when Monsour claims he suffered a physical attack by another officer during a SWAT team exercise and, later, his office was ransacked without explanation. Vital documents, including records of his complaints to supervisors, were missing as were photos of his family.
‘Upset and bewildered’
Simon Nader also suffered abuse after 9.11.
Two months after the attacks, Nader, who is Arab American, was “yanked out” of his position as port director in Miami, Fla. At the time, his responsibilities included monitoring the port for terrorists for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, before it merged with Homeland Security.
After 9.11, Nader said he was prohibited from attending security meetings, was told not to leave his office and was transferred to a “meaningless position,” beginning a process of demotion.
“Even before 9.11, they were calling me ‘Simon Ali’ and ‘camel jockey,'” Nader said.
Nader filed suit against the government in April 2003, winning $305,000 for racial harassment and discrimination. The jury awarded Nader $5,000 more than the cap, sending a powerful message to the defendant, John Ashcroft, et al.
Today he works a “dead end” desk job, lamenting the damage to his reputation. Nader said colleagues who once trusted him have distanced themselves, reluctant to associate with him.
“The thing that bothers me most is that I was a dedicated and loyal civil servant for 20 years and the government didn’t want me,” said Nader, who documented his harassment by e-mail, memos, personal notes and transcripts of conversations. He had 700 pages of personal notes by the time he went to trial.
“The process upset and bewildered my family,” Nader said. “After a while my kids thought I must have done something wrong – why else would the government go so far?”
A devoted American
Using his training as an equal employment officer, Monsour tried to resolve his situation internally, but to no avail. In June 2004 he filed an employment discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission forcing the Bureau of Prisons to investigate.
According to one of Monsour’s attorneys, Matt Tully, a Bureau of Prisons investigation revealed he’d been the “victim of unlawful discrimination.” But there was no follow-up.
Attorney Jason Ehrenberg said in an e-mail: “As an employer the Bureau of Prisons had a duty under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to investigate Joe’s allegations, and take steps to correct and prevent similar incidents. To date, nothing has been done.”
When contacted by Tolerance.org, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons said he was unable to comment due to an “ongoing investigation of several months.”
Monsour now awaits a hearing date in which the Bureau of Prisons may be forced to implement a judge’s orders. If the BOP refuses, Monsour, like Nader, will take his case to federal court.
Despite the discrimination he’s experienced, Monsour describes himself as a devoted American and pushes for prisons to hire more Arabic-speaking staff to protect the country from terrorists.
“Protecting our way of life and our civil liberties is a must. If this is the price I have to pay to protect this great land then let it be,” Monsour said. “What has happened to me should outrage any American who believes in our system.”
By Camille Jackson
Staff Writer, Tolerance.org