English Feature #7-36666 Broadcast September 2, 2002
Next week will be the one-year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, an event whose aftershocks still reverberate in the United States. Today on New American Voices, Sleiman Kysia, an Arab-American business owner, talks about how the events of 9-11 affected his life.
“It may not have affected me so much as far as what others do, it is what you think and how you feel in relation to what you hear and what policies you see are being carried out – not against you, but against your fellow Arabs, against people who may be innocent or who may not be innocent. The fact is that there is a stigma to being an Arab. So it’s a feeling of being singled out, rejected, left out of the mainstream of American society. And that is an awful feeling.”
Sleiman Kysia is a stocky, gray-haired man with twinkling eyes behind large glasses. He was born in Lebanon, but has lived in this country since 1954. For the last 20 years he has helped his sister Nadia – one of his eight siblings – manage the Mediterranean Bakery, a popular market on the outskirts of Washington that sells specialty food products from the Middle East and all over the world. Soon after the terrorist attacks of last September 11, friends suggested to Mr. Kysia that he put an American flag in the window of his store to express his patriotism, and to ward off the suspicion that was being directed against some Arab-Americans at the time. He rejected the idea.
“To me that is a phony attitude. If I have to put the flag on the window I want to put the flag because I feel for that flag and for that country, not because I am afraid. We have already demonstrated our patriotism and love for America beyond displaying the flag. It is what is in your heart more than what you show to people. It is what you feel more than what you want other people to think of you.”
Mr. Kysia says that his customers at the Mediterranean Bakery – about half of whom are Middle Easterners, the rest Americans and Europeans -- have been supportive and understanding. Business has been good. Customers continue to regularly shop at the market-bakery for homemade pita bread, bottles of specialty sauces, and the family’s famed hummus, or chickpea paste. Just recently the Mediterranean Bakery was showcased on a popular television food program.
Even so, Slemain Kysia is concerned about the stereotyping of Arabs in the aftermath of 9-11. He is especially worried when his two American-born sons travel, because, he says, they “fit the profile” of a potential terrorist with their olive complexion and Arab features. He says that although neither he nor his sons have been subjected to any outright hostility, as an Arab he does not feel as comfortable in this country as he did before.
Sleiman Kysia was 19 when he immigrated to the United States. He says he had little trouble adjusting to life here. Indeed, the only difficulty, he says, was an initial loneliness. In Lebanon, he had felt himself part of the larger community.
“You can walk out of the house and in the yard you see people you know, you greet people, you know people, people know you, you visit without announcing yourself, you just knock on the door and you’re in, visiting. You’re in a group constantly, people come in the evening to your house, you go to people’s homes in the evening, so there’s a social life that’s not only an extended family, but an extended village, more or less, where everyone knew everyone, and felt part of that environment.”
Here, Mr. Kysia says, the style of life was very different.
“In here you are just another person walking down the street, unrecognizable, you don’t know anyone, nobody knows you, you feel insignificant, unimportant, just another person.”
The process of adjustment took about a year, says Mr. Kysia. Then he made new friends and began to feel at home. He enrolled in college, and after graduating spent many years teaching American history in high school. He still considers himself fortunate to be able to live in this country. “
“The freedom that you can have in this country is not available in many countries. You can say what you want to say without fear. You can go anywhere you want to go without fear. You can do the things you want to do without any apprehension of consequences as long as you stay within the law. Just the idea of knowing you are free, it gives you peace of mind. Unfortunately, since 9-11 things have changed a little bit.”
Next week on New American Voices we’ll talk with an immigrant from Turkey who was a manager of the Phoenix Project – the project to rebuild the Pentagon after part of it was destroyed last September 11th.
This story is courtesy of New American Voices intern Meredith Sumpter, a student at the University of Washington, Seattle, who is completing a double degree in International Relations and Business, with a focus on E-commerce.