The U.S. Customs Service's November 8 raid on Rainier Valley's Barakat Wire Transfer Service, the Maka Mini-Mart, and two other Somali businesses serves notice for local Arab Americans that the nature of the threat against them has changed. The fear of pickup trucks full of yahoos from Fife coming into Seattle to kick some terrorist butt may have receded since September 11, but now Arab Americans have a new concern: federal agents in black windbreakers armed with the newly legislated Patriot Act, the sweeping anti-terrorism bill that, among other things, lets the government seize the assets of a business without presenting a charge, offering an explanation, or suffering an appeal.

The USA Patriot Act (the name is actually an acronym: the full title is the "Uniting and Strengthening America Act by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism") has been the focal point of concern for Arab Americans since President Bush signed it into law on October 26. The legislation grants unprecedented federal powers in going after "suspected terrorists" and allows numerous exemptions from traditional civil protections. The act is peppered with statements like "the court may admit evidence that is otherwise inadmissible" when prosecuting a suspected terrorist, and detained aliens may be held in federal custody "irrespective of any relief from removal for which the alien may be eligible."

The Arab American Community Coalition, an umbrella group for the Arab community in Western Washington founded after September 11, held a civil rights forum with the ACLU on Thursday evening, November 8, to learn more from local attorneys about the ramifications of the law. Approximately 70 Arab Americans and political activists filled the American Friends Meeting Hall in the University District to listen to details about the newer, longer arm of the law.

Although the meeting had been scheduled before the raid on the Barakat Wire Transfer Service, it couldn't have been more appropriately timed. Indeed, earlier that morning, federal customs agents showed up at the Barakat Wire Transfer Service offices in Rainier Valley and began loading items from the business (and neighboring businesses) into rented trucks. The businesses were owned by Somali Muslims.

Demonstrators picketed in front of the store and in front of INS offices over the next several days, angered at the seeming heavy-handedness of the raid and the lack of explanation about what was happening. Seattle attorney Don Morgan met with the owner of one of the businesses (the Maka Mini Mart) and said the man had been handed a copy of the decree by the agents, but it was "incredibly general." No mention of what was going to happen to the stock of the store that was cleaned out, no mention of why it had been targeted or who the owner could turn to for recourse.

The well-timed meeting with the ACLU that very evening made one thing clear: If someone in a federal agency thinks an Arab business is a legitimate target of the Patriot Act, it's unclear what recourse the business owners would have.

That question is certainly on the mind of Arab American business owner Rita Zawaideh. At the end of the forum, looking over the emptying room, Zawaideh, the coalition spokesperson whose boundless good humor and extensive Rolodex helped make the meeting a success, said the session had only reinforced her fears about the broad powers of the Patriot Act.

As the owner of Travel Express Caravanserai, a travel agency with offices in Wallingford as well as in Syria and Jordan, Zawaideh has reason to be concerned.

Zawaideh, who first came to the U.S. over 30 years ago from Jordan and currently lives in Wallingford, may be at risk because she works with a large number of clients from the Middle East. "If they think one of my clients is involved in something, what will they do to me?" Zawaideh asks.

The primary reason for concern, though, is that in addition to her work as a travel agent, Zawaideh occasionally sends money unofficially through her two overseas offices for clients who want to transfer funds reliably from America to the Middle East. There's nothing illegal in that, but it means that Zawaideh is technically involved in the political word of the week--"hawala"--a suitably exotic term used with increasing frequency by pundits and politicians to describe the purportedly shadowy and ominous way of sending money without using an official bank. Barakat Wire Transfer Service was targeted because it was a hawala. And the November 10 Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted an anonymous law enforcement official as saying that more hawalas will be targeted in Seattle. As for Zawaideh, she says she wouldn't even use the term hawala to describe the transaction: "I very rarely hear the word hawala. It's just something that everybody does in the Middle East and Africa every day. There just aren't banks in many of those places." It's the media, Zawaideh says, that's making the term synonymous with a vast Middle Eastern economic conspiracy.

Another complication that makes Zawaideh worry about becoming an FBI target is post-September 11 paranoia. As an example, Zawaideh describes her recent experience with a disgruntled client from Chicago. The woman was scheduled to go on a trip to Iran through Zawaideh's Travel Express Caravanserai. The trip was canceled in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, but a disagreement with the woman about how to reschedule the trip somehow blossomed into an ugly smear campaign, with the woman sending letters to Zawaideh as well as numerous travel industry trade publications alleging that Zawaideh is a terrorist who is using her travel agency to finance al Qaeda. In a less dangerous season, the accusations would be something to laugh about, but, according to Zawaideh, federal agencies "are just jumping on anything, just to show they're working hard."

With her travel business already down by 90 percent in the wake of September 11, spending time and money contesting accusations would only further drain the business' resources. "Besides," Zawaideh adds, "I frankly don't know that I would get a fair hearing from a judge, given the current climate, if it were to go to court."

As proof of the damage that mere suspicion can do, Zawaideh points to the recent case of a local Arab man who was detained by the INS, without access to a phone, simply because an unhappy ex-girlfriend accused him of being a terrorist. Regional INS spokeswoman Lori Haley couldn't confirm or deny the story.

Last week's meeting of Arab Americans was filled with creepy stories like that, but it was also a solid, if small, first step. Zawaideh stopped to reflect on the significance of the meeting as she cheerfully thanked those who had attended. "If they do come for me," she says, "at least I know I have a lot of friends."

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