Feeling caught between grief and fear

Like everyone else, Sam Khdeir feels sympathy and frustration about Tuesday's attacks. But as a Palestinian, he's also concerned about his family's safety.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 17, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Sam Khdeir is a 32-year-old Palestinian born in Jerusalem.

He works in his brother's liquor store in Southeast Baltimore.

And he's scared.

"Like what do you say? I'm shocked," he says, his big liquid eyes shifting slightly off-center. "I'm scared a lot. I think about the kids."

His son is 2, but his brother has five children in school in Baltimore.

"Man, I tell you, I'm scared. I'm scared because in my life I see a lot of crazy people. In this world you have people who think before they do anything, and you have people who don't think. [They] think he want to do things to help himself or help his people but he do it in the wrong way."

The television set in his store, which is frequently tuned to Arabic stations in the Middle East, often to Jordanian soap operas, is focused on the aftermath of the deadly terrorist crashes in New York and Washington.

Khdeir remembers that the immediate response after the Oklahoma City bombing was to blame Arabs and Arab-Americans. He watches a TV report that a mob targeted an Islamic Center in Chicago and that a woman was harassed by "skinheads" who shouted, "We're going to get you ragheads."

His brother, Muhammed, says he had to run from a gang right down the street in Fells Point.

"Every time, every time [people] blame this part or this part," Khdeir says. "Just wait for what the FBI says, or the White House gives us some information. And I wish that the White House takes exactly the right diligence to help the American people judge who did this."

An afternoon drinker comes in and buys two quarts of Milwaukee's Best and a pack of Marlboros. He takes his change from Khdeir, drops into a fighting stance and sprays the store with an imaginary AK-47. "Viva Palesteenia," he yelps, grinning. He lacks a few teeth.

It's a joke, the guy thinks.

Khdeir looks back at the TV.

"I feel like I lose part of my family," he says, watching firemen scramble over heaps of debris in lower Manhattan. "I feel very bad something happen like this. I feel like [this is] a very, very nasty thing."

He catches his breath between every sentence, as if he finds it difficult to talk. He wears a mustache and a small beard. His English is self-constructed.

"I don't think the Palestinian people have big power like this, to make big attacks like this," he says.

Maybe Osama Bin Laden? he's asked.

"Maybe," he says. "But my brains thinks it's a big, big, big thing. Can't understand. One attack, maybe you understand something. But something like big things like this, can't understand.

"I hope all American people think about just what's happening and waits until the FBI gives us all the information."

Khdeir and his brother and their families are pretty well settled into their Southeast Baltimore community. His brother bought the store in 1982. Khdeir started working there in 1995. The Khdeirs are a large extended family with almost 3,000 members in America. They say they first arrived early in the 20th century.

In Israel, members of the clan are active in the Palestinian cause, most recently Hana Abu Khdeir, an American citizen who went to school and college here in Baltimore, now effectively under house arrest in Shu'afat, their native village near Jerusalem.

In Southeast Baltimore, Sam Khdeir says, "We have many friends here. And I feel this is my family around here. All my neighbors like me. I like everybody here. I have a lot of friends.

"I feel very bad, very, very, very bad to see anybody killed, anybody go to the hospital. I wish everybody be safe.

"I grieve for America. I grieve for America," he says. "God help everyone."

He doesn't mind talking about his fears, but he doesn't want his face to appear in the newspaper. He sucks in a big gulp of air.

"I was supposed to go Immigration yesterday to apply for American citizenship," he says. "Now I'm scared, I tell you the truth, to go downtown. I'm scared to talk to anybody. I'm scared a lot. I'm scared to do anything."

He sells a woman an orange soda, and she says, "Have a nice day."

"I came here to America to have security for me and my kids," Khdeir says. "I talked with my wife in the morning after I heard all this: Where we can go in this world to have security. Where?"

He says two women "from the city" came in and asked him about the Khdeir kids in public school. The women had a list of Arabic names.

"She asked me if we need any help, and if we have any people bother us just call 911."

His nephew, Thair, 8, asked him, "Why? Why are these people coming to us? Who wants to hit me? Who wants to do something?"

"I tell him to be careful," he says. "And he talk English. He don't know Arabic. Still I'm scared. Maybe somebody watch me and know I'm Arabic and know he's my nephew and maybe hurt him. I don't need something like that happen. I know this is a hard, hard situation, a hard time for everybody.

"I feel for everybody," he says. "I feel like I lose part from my family. It's very hard to see kids killed."

He worked two years in a hospital in Israel.

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