Area's Arab-Americans are stunned by outbreak of war, fear for relatives WAR IN THE GULF

January 17, 1991|By Ginger Thompson

In a small one-bedroom apartment in Rockville, a 35-year-old Kuwaiti refugee was eating dinner with his wife and two daughters when a friend called to tell him the news:

"The liberation of Kuwait has begun."

Immediately, the refugee's thoughts turned to the loved ones he left behind when he fled his war-ravaged homeland in October, and wondered if he made the right choice.

It had seemed so clear. He had seen too many innocent people shot down in the streets and he wanted to save the lives of his two daughters, ages 4 and 3 -- even if it meant leaving his parents, his sister and his brother-in-law.

But he never thought there would be a war.

"I always hoped [Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein] would eventually withdraw from Kuwait," said the Kuwaiti, an economic consultant who prefers to be identified only as Abbas. "Now I just hope there will be a 'clean operation' -- one where military targets can be destroyed without too many civilians being killed."

Many other Arab-Americans interviewed throughout the Baltimore-Washington area seem similarly torn by last night's outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf. Most oppose Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But they are nervous about President Bush's attempt to use massive force to drive Iraq from Kuwait, because most have relatives in the region.

"I could get drafted just like other Americans," said Hassan Baroudy, a 21-year-old student at Towson State University who was born in the United States but grew up in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. "But can you imagine me going over there to

fight?"

"I've spent the last few weeks learning my rights and how to become a conscientious objector -- first because I believe in peace, but second because I am an Arab."

"I never thought when I immigrated here [20 years ago] that I'd ever see a war between Arabs and Americans," said Safei El-Deen Hamed, a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland at College Park who came to this country from Egypt. "That's why I'm gloomy."

Mustatha Abdul-Rahim, a Kuwait resident who fled after the invasion, said he shuddered at the sounds of bombs dropping over Baghdad, brought into his living room by an ABC news correspondent.

"My mother and sisters called me 10 days ago," said Mr. Abdul-Rahim, an interior decorator who arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport last October and now lives in Annapolis. "They told me they were fine, but I'm sure they were surrounded by Iraqis, so couldn't tell me what's really happening there."

He added, "I hate this war, especially because I have many relatives over there, but it looks like there was no other way to stop Hussein."

Salah Said, 32, fled from Kuwait to Jordan a few days after Iraq invaded the country Aug. 2. He came to Annapolis two weeks ago to visit his sister, leaving his wife and two children in Jordan.

"I just thought for sure Hussein would withdraw from Kuwait and everything would be solved peacefully," Mr. Said said. "I just never thought he was crazy enough to take on the United States. Now I probably can't even get home to my family."

Other Arab-Americans fear that the loss of American lives in the war could ignite widespread hysteria and lead to verbal or physical attacks against them. Or worse, they fear harassment by police officers on high alert for terrorist activity.

Mr. Baroudy says that for the first time in his life, he looks over his shoulder from time to time as he walks around the Towson campus, and his mother worries if he doesn't call periodically to let her know where he is.

"I've never been discriminated against or anything," he said. "but I've read reports about Arab-Americans in other areas being attacked or about the FBI questioning leaders of the Arab-American community."

Khalil Jahshan, head of the National Association of Arab Americans, said in Washington that he had met with FBI officials and warned them that unnecessary surveillance of Arab-Americans would not be tolerated.

"We would never want to stand in the way of the FBI in doing its job," he said. "But we will not allow them to prey upon the fears of our people by telling them that they are targets of attack, so they will be under surveillance for their own protection."

He also said that many Arab-Americans were disappointed that the Bush administration responded so quickly to the occupation of Kuwait, but has not acted to return the West Bank to the Palestinians.

"This has been the most turbulent and divisive period of Arab-American history," he said. "And the debates are so intense that instead of inciting people to take action, they are becoming apathetic.

"We feel like U.S. policy is inconsistent," he added. "Why has there been such an enthusiastic response to the occupation of Kuwait when for decades the West Bank and Gaza have been occupied by Israel?"

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