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Aftershock: He leaves his adopted country after ugly encounters

Monday, October 01, 2001

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ten days ago, two strangers approached Mohammed Alhaleal in the Eat'n Park parking lot on Banksville Road.

Mohammed Alhaleal gets help from friend Melissa Balog while repacking his luggage after it was X-rayed and searched at Pittsburgh International Airport yesterday. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"This is my car," yelled one man, pointing at Alhaleal's car.

"What are you talking about?" Alhaleal said.

"Do you listen you [------] Arab?" the man asked.

"You know what? I don't think there's a need for this," Alhaleal replied. "We're all American."

A second man approached from behind and poked Alhaleal in the eye. More shaken than seriously injured, Alhaleal got into his car, complete with American flag stickers on the rear window and bumper, and drove away. He never notified police. He said he wasn't certain how they would respond to his complaint.

A week earlier, he said, three men had approached him and a friend as they sat in a car in the Strip District and spat at them, saying: "Why don't you go back home?"

Now, he has.

The past few weeks, Alhaleal, 38, has felt like a stranger in a very familiar land. He was born in Saudi Arabia but has lived in the United States for 21 years -- the last four in Pittsburgh.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he hasn't gone into his office and has tried to maintain a low profile. He no longer meets friends for coffee at Eat'n Park. He doesn't even like driving alone.

How Lives Have Changed

One in an occasional series on how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have affected ordinary Americans.

Previous Installments

A volunteer confronts the pain at WTC

US Airways' mechanic escapes 'certain' layoff, but reprieve only prolongs uncertainty


"People walking up to you and attacking you and assaulting you because of your dark skin?" Alhaleal said. "I never thought I would fear for my safety."

His relatives in Saudi Arabia begged him to come home.

"My mom is scared for me to be here," he said. "They get CNN down there and see exactly what's going on."

So, he has gone home for several weeks. Before heading to the airport yesterday, he stuffed three oversized suitcases full of presents for his mother and 12 siblings and did battle with one cracked and travel-worn hard-shell tan suitcase that kept popping open.

He also worried about being hassled as he traveled. He understood the need for increased airport security but didn't want to be singled out. Alhaleal called the airline to find out what he could and couldn't carry on board. He also called the U.S. Immigration Office to make sure he wouldn't have trouble returning.

Since Sept. 11, more than 25 people who are or were perceived to be Arab/Muslim have been removed from airplanes in the United States because pilots or passengers haven't felt comfortable flying with them, said Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C.

More than 320 confirmed violent acts have been committed against Arab/Muslim people nationwide since Sept. 11, including four murders. Another five murders are under investigation. Ibish said the FBI also is looking into 90 incidents that could result in federal charges. It's unknown how many incidents have gone unreported, like Alhaleal's.

"How can we all be equal if people get kicked out of airplanes because of their dark skin or someone doesn't feel comfortable traveling with them?" Alhaleal said. "That is worse than somebody putting their finger in your eye."

He arrived at the airport a little under two hours before his plane departed. As he stood in line at the check-in counter, he contemplated how to cut the rope he had bought at the last minute and planned to wrap around the hard-shell suitcase. No one had brought scissors or a knife. He ended up borrowing a nail file from a woman in line.

Alhaleal and his friends loaded his big bags onto a cart and wheeled them down to an X-ray machine. The hard-shell suitcase and one of the other large bags were selected for closer inspection but passed muster. He said his good-byes and made it through the metal detectors, but security stopped him to check his carry-on bags. He was waiting for the shuttle just 35 minutes before his flight departed on the first leg of a 30-hour-plus journey home.

And he'll be back. Alhaleal loves this country. He has lived most of his life here. He was married and divorced here. He has earned two associate's degrees, two bachelor's degrees and is four hours short of a master's degree -- all here.

Some of what he has seen of his beloved United States of America these past few weeks, however, has him fearing the country is moving backward. He is proud of his religion and his name and has been angered to hear some people use the term "Mohammedism" as a synonym for terrorism.

"It's not Mohammedism," he said. "Did someone say McVeighism?"

Osama bin Laden doesn't represent Saudi Arabia or all Arabs or all Muslims any more than Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh represented all white Americans, Alhaleal said.

What happened Sept. 11 is an affront to good people everywhere. He is as outraged as most Americans about the attacks.

"This is just bad. You watch TV. You hope every day they catch somebody, but to be honest with you, if this Osama bin Laden did this, why?" he said. "How could a true Muslim take a plane and dive it into a building? They're using [Islam] as a cover-up. They're just criminals, period, and we should go after them."

Though not a U.S. citizen, Alhaleal does have permanent residency status. He's president and chief executive officer of a utilities marketing company and travels extensively for work. His business has slowed for now. Plans to open another business are on hold. For the time being, he has obtained a sales job with a security corporation.

And despite all that has happened, he looks forward to returning to the United States.

"It's my life," he said. "It's everything I got."

Alhaleal simply asks all Americans to think before they act and to try to understand that his ship just got here a little later than theirs, but we're all in the same boat now.

"I'm hurt very, very, very badly because it's a tragedy for everybody," Alhaleal said. "Second, I am embarrassed because the finger is pointed to people of my kind, and third, I'm scared for my life."

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