Published March 18, 2003
PATERSON, N.J. – As the threat of imminent war looms over Iraq, Middle Eastern immigrants and Americans of Middle Eastern heritage in this New Jersey town continue to hope that President Bush can somehow steer clear of using military force.
Located just a few miles to the west of New York City, Paterson is home to about 15,000 Arab-Americans — people of Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian, Circassian and Syrian descent who fear oppression in the place they have made their home.
"They're more concerned with this new registration law than war," said immigration attorney Bhanu Goldsmith, who is from India, referring to a new federal law requiring men from countries such as Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Iran to register when they arrive in and leave the United States. "War is like a general concept … they're more worried about themselves than war."
"That's the big news these days — everyone's concerned," said Ty Aydin, a Turkish-Russian man who was born in the United States.
But the crisis in Iraq is touching the lives of many residents of Paterson.
"The view is that the war will cause more terrorism, and the resulting terrorism will cause more problems and oppression for the minority groups here," said Sharref Ali, an American-born Muslim.
He said the community in Paterson is "easy prey" both for hate crimes and for law enforcement officials targeting Arab-Americans in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
It wouldn't be hard for Middle Eastern terrorists to blend in here, and FBI agents are frequently seen walking the streets of Paterson since the terrorist attacks.
"We pretend those days are past, but if our buttons are pushed, we'll probably react the same way," Ali said. "Most of the immigrant community would like to emphasize that they're trying to assimilate into America and they don't want to live in fear."
Many said other world crises — such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear threat in North Korea — merit more attention than Iraq.
"If Saddam Hussein submits himself … will that be the end of our Sept. 11 problem?" asked Goldsmith.
With Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda still at large, "it seems too hard to justify why they're putting so much focus on [Iraq]," Aydin said. "It's not even in our backyard."
"We have to start and finish something — we haven't finished anything yet," said Timucin Karca, who was born in the United States but raised in Turkey.
"For me, the war is not the right answer. Going to war is like a blackout for our eyes," he continued. "What I see in Palestine and Israel happening is more important than Saddam Hussein. There's enough pressure on him [Saddam] already — he's trying to comply."
Others said if a war is going to happen, it should happen soon so that the United States can worry more about itself.
"I think it needs to be done one way or another to refocus on the economy and things inside America — not outside," said Mike Abedrabbo, a Palestinian who works for a limousine service. "Every other word out of Bush's mouth is 'Saddam' — every other word … he needs to act now and finish it. [War is] not good for anybody."
"We need security in our country first, then try to save other countries," Karca said. "Why are we trying to go somewhere else and stop things that haven't happened yet?"
Many Turkish-Americans have had an additional cross to bear.
Turkey has flip-flopped on how much it would support U.S. troops and Washington's war plans despite a U.S. offer of $15 billion in aid.
Turkey's actions are just one sign that "the rest of the world doesn't seem very positive" on the need for war, Aydin said.
"I'm sure they're not helping America because they don't feel secure enough," Karca said. "If we help America deal with Saddam from inside, that country could put more terrorists inside Turkey."
"I feel the same as most — that war isn't necessary," said Sinan Kaluc, who is from Turkey. "Whatever the United Nations says — I guess that's what we should do," adding that the United States should get the support from other countries before using force in Iraq.
Palestinians in Paterson said a war will cause the same kind of human strife in Iraq as the Palestinians are experiencing in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We are in disagreement of any kind of war that will hurt innocent people," Abedrabbo said, adding that a U.S. attack on Iraq would be hard and swift. "It's going to be vicious — it's going to be hard …bombs are going to be dropped ... people are going to die.
Other Palestinians said the U.S. stance against Iraq has ulterior motives.
"It's nothing but oil, it's nothing but money," said Rebhi Abedrabbo, a bakery owner. "I feel like the whole U.S. foreign diplomacy is all wrong … you cannot force democracy on other people."
Murad Abdallah, another Palestinian-American, said many people in the community don't think world leaders are speaking the minds of their governments on Iraq.
"I'm pretty sure they're not supporting the war — just their governments are," he said. "Bush says he wants democracy — but he doesn't even listen to the people."
Most people in Paterson, "they hate the war overseas and the governments that are so enthusiastic to pursue it," Ali said. But "they really came here in search of a better life and they don't want to jeopardize that by being too outspoken."
Francesco Guney, who is Turkish but is in Paterson doing research, helped relief organizations in Kurdistan — the northern part of Iraq — over a year ago and said through a translator that "that area, the neighbors of Iraq, they don't want war."
Guney said the region isn't ready for democracy, and the Kurds are still bitter that the United States didn't help more when Saddam attacked them in the past.
But regardless of whether this community thinks war is justified, they're in agreement that Saddam is no role model.
"Every Muslim community knows what he's doing isn't the right thing," Karca said.
"We do not back what some of these more fanatic so-called Muslim people are doing," such as Saddam and bin Laden, Aydin said. "The Muslim community in general is on the same page as the rest of the world … where right is right and wrong is wrong."