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New York Arabic Community Mourning Losses In Attack - 2001-09-21

The terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Towers had a special impact on the city's Arabic community, which suffered losses in the disaster and threats from people who blame them for what happened. The patriotic fervor of Arab Americans remains strong.

The moment the twin towers fell, the effects were felt on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue. Thousands of people fled the dust and debris in lower Manhattan and ran across the famed Brooklyn Bridge. They arrived in one of the city's oldest Arab-American communities and were met by shocked residents like Dennis Halaby, who operates a Middle Eastern bakery here.

"They were coming over the bridge to get into Brooklyn and they were all just full of white soot and smoke," he said. "Then you could see the anger and intensity because right away when it happened, of course, they thought it was Arab-related. So, they started saying 'Go back to your country' and they were very, very angry and, you know, I cared for them. I offered them water."

Mr. Halaby says he tried to understand the anger of those who survived the tragedy and he has not let that diminish his own sense of sorrow and outrage over what happened. Every day since the tragedy, he has delivered fresh-baked breads to the relief workers near the scene.

New York's Arab community also lost loved ones in the attack. One Catholic church here, Our Lady of Lebanon, lost six parishioners, five in the World Trade Center collapse and one in the Pennsylvania airplane crash. Muslim people also lost family members. Ammar, 16, who is of Yemeni descent, lost a cousin.

"After what happened, in two days his family told me. They [the terrorists] killed innocent people, you know," he said.

He says a friend of his family is also among the missing. Ammar says most non-Arab people in the neighborhood have been supportive. One customer at the store where he works even gave him a rose as a symbol of peace and tolerance.

Nearby, at the Oriental Market, Anas Mustafah worries that the acts of terrorists using Islam as their banner could cause many Americans to mistakenly blame the religion for what happened.

"The Islamic faith does not tell you to go harm innocent lives," he said. "It is forbidden. It is forbidden to commit suicide. Islam is not a very radical religion. No, it is a peaceful religion."

He says the terrorists killed not only Americans, but people from all over the world who, like him, came here to work together for a better life. "Who is in the tower? It is 99.9 [percent] mixed nationalities in the tower," he said. "There is not a single nationality that you can say they are just Chinese, or just Greeks, it is a mixed melting pot. This is what made this country so great, because you have the entire universe meeting in one place and building it. Every single human helped in the building of the twin towers and the country."

While the Atlantic Avenue area of Brooklyn Heights has been called "Little Arabia," it is really a mixed neighborhood with shops and restaurants run by Mexicans, Chinese and other nationalities. A young mother of two, named Claudine, says she and other people of European ancestry like this diversity and worry that the September 11 tragedy could tear apart the fabric of the community.

"A lot of the business people around here are from various Middle Eastern countries and, to me, they are an essential part of the neighborhood," she said. "This is a very mixed neighborhood and that is one of the reasons I like it. I want to have diversity for my kids. The fallout from this is that it could create divisiveness where we have been a very unified neighborhood."

Claudine and other residents of this area say they will continue to shop in Arab-American stores and eat in Middle Eastern restaurants here, not only because they like the food, but because they want to make a statement. Many people here say they will not allow a terrorist act to cause them to be intolerant or hateful and they will not blame innocent Arab-Americans for what a few evil people have done.