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Some Arabs in US Concerned by Government Requests for Interviews

The United States government has requested interviews with thousands of young foreign men, mostly from the Middle East, as part of its terrorism investigation. The government says the interviews are voluntary. Some of the young men say they want to help the United States fight terrorism, but fear they could be deported if they grant an interview.

The Detroit, Michigan suburb of Dearborn is home to about 20,000 Arabs and Arab-Americans. In this community, the federal government has sent letters to about 200 young men asking them to call and arrange an interview with a federal agent. Local lawyer Mohammed Abdrabboh says a few dozen of the young men have called him first. "You would not believe the people that come through my office who are just visibly shaken," he says. "People who do not sleep, students who are going through finals [exams] right now the worst time for them who can not concentrate."

The federal government wants to talk to about 5,000 young men this month. Most of those sought for interviews have been in the United States less than two years, on student, work or business visas. The government says the men it wants to speak to are not terrorism suspects, and the interviews are voluntary. Still, many of the young men do not feel they can say no.

"When a government requests an interview in their neck of the woods, from their part of the world, it is very, very serious," says Mr. Abdrabboh. "Couple that with September 11, the whole world is watching, people who did it [the terrorist attacks] are of Middle East descent, they are just unbelievably panicked."

Among those receiving a letter asking for an interview was a 30-year old Palestinian man from Jordan, who asks VOA not to use his name. "I was surprised when I received the letter, that they want me for the investigation about terrorism and the September 11th attack," he says. "I felt, "what is going on?"

He says he immediately called Mr. Abdrabboh asking for advice. He works as a photographer and has been in the United States for four years. Now he feels if he grants an interview, he could be turned over to immigration officials and deported for a visa violation. "I am ready to cooperate with anyone, anytime, about this type of terrorism. But, I want to be sure I am not going to be deported or something like that," he says.

Federal officials say the focus of the interviews is terrorism. The young men are asked if they have ever been contacted by a terrorist organization, or if they know anyone who has, among other things.

Mr. Abdrabboh says he has sat in on several interviews so far, and the meetings were short, cordial and lacking in any revelations about terrorist activities in Dearborn. "As a matter of fact, they even asked him [one client] if he had been the victim of a hate crime. He [the interviewer] told him, "If so, or if anyone intimidates or harasses you, make sure you call us," he says. "We will get on it quick."

But federal officials say if immigration issues come up and a visa violation is discovered, the man being interviewed could be referred to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The Palestinian photographer says his father just became a U.S. citizen, and he, himself, wants to become a legal U.S. resident. "I have been here a long time," he says. "I consider myself an American. I have a lot of friends. I live here because of freedom, the country is safe. I feel good living in this country."

Mr. Abdrabboh says his client will likely decline the government's request for an interview, though he is not convinced federal officials will stop trying to contact him. "It is a wait-and-see game," he says. "Actions are louder than words. They are saying it is voluntary. In my opinion, from the get-go [beginning] it is not voluntary."

Federal officials hope to have the interviews completed in Michigan and the rest of the country by December 21.