On January 18, CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in CCR’s case, Ziglar v. Abbasi (formerly Turkmen v. Ashcroft). Filed against Bush administration officials for the post-9/11 round ups of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian men and the last case heard under the Obama administration, in Abbasi the Court will decide whether high-level government officials can be sued for implementing clearly unconstitutional policies. Below, an original Turkmen client, Yasser Ebrahim, shares his experience of racial and religious profiling, imprisonment, abuse, and deportation. Yasser and his brother Hany were detained at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, where they were held in harsh and punishing solitary confinement in the Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit.
On Thursday, January 26, Yasser and Hany's letters to each other will be showcased in a moving and hopeful theatrical performance as part of "Letters from Detention," which is being held at the Greene Space in downtown NYC. You can learn more and purchase tickets here.
What are some positive memories of your life in the United States?
I can recall numerous good memories about my life in the US. I miss the freedom, how everything was possible. I can recall the smell of freshness in everything in the morning, the subway, the coffee and the hot bagels. Walking the streets of Manhattan and browsing the shops, just being around Times Square for no reason at all but to hang out. Christmas decorations and how friendly everyone was during this time of the year. The highways cutting into forests full of trees and greenness. SNL, Seinfeld, and Friends.
What were some of your favorite activities or hobbies during that time?
My favorite activities were theatre, working out and keeping up with the latest gadgets and breakthroughs in the tech world. I loved cars and travelling. Spending Saturday nights in Greenwich Village enjoying clubs and people.
What would you want people to know about the hardships you faced while you were in detention?
I want people to know that being detained then is still the most horrible thing that ever happened to me. I have witnessed how bad anyone’s life could get if he was hated by everyone around him for a crime he never had anything to do with. Being tortured and abused and seeing my younger brother going through this every day is an image I still struggle to erase from my memory. Having people hating you not for something you did but for who you are is a damaging feeling; kind of makes you wonder if we all lost our humanity.
How did it feel to be targeted by the U.S. government just because of your background, religion, or the way that you looked?
Shocking and hard to believe. It feels like suddenly everything you believed in and loved America for was a big lie. It is like telling your baby that Santa does not exist or that Santa is really a bad person. Before that I thought that the American constitution was stronger than anything and cannot be violated regardless of the circumstances. Unfortunately back then it sounded reasonable to some government official to twist the constitution a bit just to get results. (And where did that get them, really?).
What was life like when you returned home? What were some of the challenges?
When I returned home I had many problems with the Egyptian State Security, who were not able to understand why I was detained for such a long time without a crime, and they had to question me many times until they rested their case.
On the personal level I was not able to get back to my normal stage for a long time. I could not have a proper conversation with my friends or family members without losing my focus. Everything looked strange to me and oversized, the first time I went out on the street at night was a bit scary experience, with all the cars around and the lights, etc.
I had to see doctors for a while and tried to get the old me back again, a job that was not very easy. It was really difficult to get people to believe you that you are innocent and everything that happened to us was a big mistake.
What is your life like now? Have there been positive developments? Do you still face challenges?
I moved on and joined a UK online startup 10 years ago. They had a new office in Alexandria where I lived. I focused on developing myself and what I can do. Five years ago my company was acquired by Amazon and I have been an Amazon employee since then. I am afraid I might face challenges in my career if I wished to be relocated anywhere else outside Egypt. I did not attempt that yet, but I am afraid that if my name shows up on any old list somewhere, then my whole career would be jeopardized.
Why do you think this lawsuit is important? What would you like to see happen as a result of this lawsuit?
The lawsuit is extremely important as it enforces the everlasting and solid principle of crime and punishment. If certain individuals and government officials think they are untouchable and they can get away with anything, it is only logical to prove them wrong.
It is important to strengthen the principle of freedom in America, those principles that many Americans sacrificed to maintain. This lawsuit is sending a strong message to those who wish to tamper with that.
This lawsuit sends a message to the regular American citizen that if you accept the violation of the rights of a human being just because he is not American, the day will come when you will accept it when it happens to your fellow citizens or to yourself. Only then it will be too late to come back.
I think this lawsuit is very important because I don’t wish to see what happened to me happen again to anyone because they are categorized according to their color, race or religion. Even convicted criminals have rights that have to be respected.
Today, we continue to see anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric. You’ve seen firsthand the very real and harmful effects of those attitudes, policies, and practices. Do you have any advice to give to the U.S. public?
I totally understand why the American people have concerns and fears; it is only human nature. The media have great effect on the majority of people everywhere and not only in America. Some politicians use the media to magnify any threats and concepts just to win. They spread fear and doubt and then come around selling security and stability, and I am not necessarily taking about America alone.
True Muslims and hardworking immigrants are among the hands that built America and made her a great place; they cannot be the enemy today. Oppression and hate are strong motivators that create enemies out of regular and simple people.
I am trying hard not to sound defensive because I really don’t have to. I have been a Muslim all my life and I never felt that my religion praises hate or persecuting others, not in my family, not among my friends, not anywhere around me.
Muslims as humans love America and think it is a lovely place to live. I am talking about how I feel and how everyone I know feels. What the media is selling and what some cowards (pretending to be Muslims) are trying to convince you, is not true. Diversity and equality and law and order are what make America strong; hold on to that.