TWO EXCERPTS FROM VOICE OF WITNESS books, published by McSweeney’s Press
BY Voice of Witness
Last week, Representative Peter T. King, a conservative Republican from Long Island, convened hearings into what he says is the radicalization of American Muslims and their supposed refusal to cooperate with law enforcement officials. During the hearings, Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, denounced the inquiry and spoke of the heroism of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a paramedic and N.Y.P.D. cadet who died on 9/11 trying to save the lives of others. Salman’s remains were not found until six months after his death. During that time, his reputation was smeared by speculation that he was involved in the attack simply because he was a Muslim. He was declared a hero posthumously.
Salman’s mother, Talat Hamdani, is among the narrators in the forthcoming Voice of Witness book about post-9/11 discrimination. Below is an excerpt of her narrative. Here, she describes the period following 9/11, during which she and her husband searched desperately for their missing son.
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INTERVIEWED IN: Long Island, New York.
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The night before 9/11, Salman was going over his application for medical school. He was in his last year of N.Y.P.D. cadet training. After, he would be able to join the N.Y.P.D. as an officer. He had told me that if he didn’t get accepted into medical schools, he wanted to go into N.Y.P.D. forensics.
I last saw Salman that night at 3 a.m. My husband Saleem wasn’t feeling well. He was all flushed, so he called Salman to take his blood pressure. It was fine, but Salman said, “If you feel bad, if you feel something wrong, just call me again.”
WE JUST WAITED FOR HIM.
On 9/11, I left for work early that morning. I was a full-time teacher at Middle school 72 in Jamaica, Queens. I was in the classroom from about 8 a.m. to 10:20 a.m. When I came out of the classroom, there were teachers huddled up in the hallway outside the assistant principal’s room. At first I thought, Let me go see, maybe the superintendent has come in for an inspection. But then I could sense that something was wrong.
I heard the teachers saying that the Twin Towers had been hit, that one had fallen down and the other one was burning. I called my husband. He was crying profusely, and he said, “You know, Salman is there!” He knew it. I don’t know how, but he knew it.
I was trying to convince him Salman wasn’t down there, that he was at work. He was a DNA lab analyst at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which is at 65th and York Avenue—far away from the World Trade Center. But Saleem believed our son had gone to down to the World Trade Center to help, because he would have seen the Towers burning on his commute to Manhattan. Saleem knew he would have gone down there. That’s all I can say. I said to him, “Don’t worry, he’ll call. He’ll come.”
At school, we carried on teaching. I never thought about what it was all about. During the day, I watched television in the school’s media room with other teachers. I found a seat up front. I sat and I saw what was happening. It was so surreal. I just didn’t know what to believe or what not to believe. One of the teachers said, “It must be some crazy Muslim, you know.” Another teacher who knew I was there nudged her not to say it, and she kept quiet. But then I got up and left.
I got home at around 4:30 p.m. My youngest son, Zeshan, was home. He was trying to reach Salman. We called Salman’s office, we called his cell, but nobody was answering. This whole time I was thinking, Salman is safe.
Still, I called up the police department and the ambulance company to ask if they’d sent him down there as an E.M.T. They said, “No, we did not send him.” There was no contact between the N.Y.P.D. or the E.M.T. company. They had not seen Salman at all that day.
I told Saleem “Don’t worry. He’ll be home.” That night, we just waited for him. Nothing. He didn’t come home.
When the telephone systems were up and running and a call still hadn’t come all night, then we got really worried.
We never discussed the attack. I didn’t think it had anything to do with his disappearance. Wars happen in the world. We were definitely focused on finding Salman.
THAT HE WAS DEAD NEVER CROSSED MY MIND.
My husband was crying very badly, so the next day we went to Salman’s office. They said that he never showed up. The security guard went and got Salman’s cell phone for us. Salman had left it there the night before 9/11. We asked the security guy what to do. He said, “Maybe go down to St. Vincent’s hospital. That’s where they have the injured.”
So we went down to St. Vincent’s and there were long lines and of course we were both crying. We went to see the list of the injured and the dead. Every three or four hours they were generating a list. So, we went through those lists. We spent the whole day looking at the lists, again and again.
I felt very hopeful because Salman’s name was not on any of the lists.
Then on the third day, Thursday, we made a flyer for him. It had his picture and it said, “Missing.” We went to Manhattan again, to the Armory downtown. There were so many people over there. We posted the pictures everywhere, in different places. Everybody else was posting their pictures too.
George Pataki, the governor, was there that day. I got this impression he just wanted to have his picture taken, wanted to be in the limelight. I don’t think it mattered to him how many people died or what the people were going through.
That Salman was dead never crossed my mind. I thought that, on that day, he got down there later because he didn’t go to his office, so most probably he had to walk. He would have gone there to help, definitely. He was that type of a person.
FROM MISSING TO WANTED.
Saleem and I went to Manhattan for twelve days searching for our son.
I had no clue. I was just searching for him. He could have been dead, he could have been injured. We were still hoping to find him on the injured list. They gave out a list of all the hospitals where the patients had been sent. There were like 250 hospitals between the five boroughs and New Jersey. We went to many of them, and I called many of them. No one had his name.
Soon after, two police officers came to our house. They were a female and a male from the N.Y.P.D. Criminal Investigation Bureau.
I said, “What brings you to my house?”
They both looked at each other, and they said, “Oh, we’re just visiting, just paying a visit to all the victims’ families in Queens.”
The female officer was looking around the house very intently. She came into the kitchen, where I had a big collage of pictures on the refrigerator. There was a picture of Zeshan’s graduation, with Salman, Adnaan, Zeshan, and Zeshan’s friend, who was an Afghani. She said, “My husband works at Queens College Housing.” The police had a center over there, where Salman worked. “Can I take his picture? Maybe my husband will recognize Salman.”
I said, “Yeah, take his picture.”
She took the one with the Afghani kid. I never got the picture back, and they never came back.
A few days after the cops came to my home, a regular customer, a Pakistani man who worked at the MTA, came to my husband’s store and said, “They’re asking for your son at the MTA. They’re asking for anyone who knows your son to step forward.” We’d had the store for sixteen years, so Salman had practically grown up in front of him. The man said, “I know him, he’s from a very nice family.” Then he said, “He didn’t die, he’s being detained. You should write a letter.”
And so we did write a letter to Bush saying, if you have our son just tell us. No response came back, so I sent a copy of the letter to everybody, including Senator Charles Schumer.
To keep hope alive, I kept telling myself that Salman did arrive at the WTC after the collapses and he was being detained by the government, the CIA, FBI, whoever it was.
In October, all four of us—my husband and my two sons and I—decided to go to Mecca just to pray, to get some answers. On October 9 they announced on the television, “Come identify your bodies at the medical examiner’s office.” So I said to my husband, “Before we go to Mecca, let’s go and look at all the bodies.”
The Armory had given us a handout with a phone number. So I dialed that number, and I told them, “I want to see the dead bodies.”
This man on the other end, said, “Who are you? Why are you calling here?”
I explained who I was and why I was calling. I said, “I want to know where we go to look at the bodies.”
He gave me an address, and said, “Okay, you can go out there.”
The next day, we headed to Manhattan. We had Salman’s cell phone, which was the only cell phone we had at the time. The man from the medical examiner’s office, or whoever he was, was calling every fifteen minutes, asking “Where are you now? Where are you going?”
Finally, when we arrived there, it wasn’t the dead bodies; it was the Red Cross Center. So there were no bodies to be seen.
Then, for the next 36 hours, we received phone calls from a man who said he was a detective with the N.Y.P.D. He asked questions like, “What was Salman wearing? Who was he going to see? What was he doing that day? Did he have a girlfriend or not? Can we take his computer? Do you know his password?”
I refused to give him Salman’s computer. I said, “Why should I give you his computer? It’s not needed. First tell me where my son is.”
He called again at 11:00 p.m. and finally I yelled at him, “Don’t you dare call here again.”
He stopped calling.
THE MUSLIM ANGLE.
On October 11th, the evening that we were leaving for Mecca, that’s the day when all the press reporters came back to my house. This New York Post guy came in asking questions, like, “What happened? Where would your son be? What are you doing? Your second son Adnaan is the president of the Muslim Student Association (M.S.A). at Binghamton.” That made me think, Oh, so he’s done his homework, and that is what he is looking at, the Muslim angle.
I said, “I don’t trust you. I don’t want to talk to you.” Then the Newsday guy came in, and guys from the New York Times and Daily News. They told me, “There’s a flyer circulating the N.Y.P.D. with your son’s picture on it. It says Wanted! That’s why we’ve come to your house.”
When I heard that, I was shocked. We were shocked. I remember saying, “He’s alive and he’s being detained, and he will come back.” The hope was so intense.
We then went to Mecca. They day after we left, the article hit the newspapers. The New York Post wrote, “Missing or hiding?”
The article said that my family had gone to Mecca, but that people were talking, that a neighbor had said, “We don’t know if we have a terrorist living next door to us.” But I don’t think any of our neighbors would have said that. All this insinuation, this is just a garbage paper. But the Daily News, the New York Times and Newsday all wrote very fair stories, like “The family’s gone to pray.”
When we came back, there was a message on the answering machine from Congressman Ackerman’s office, telling us to contact the office, that he had news of my son.
I called him. What he really wanted was to interrogate us. He asked, “What was your son wearing that day? Where was he going? What would he be doing?”
A few days later, I think the third time that we spoke, he said, “I’ll be very point blank. Do you think your son would be involved in any wrongful activity?”
I said, “No! I know my son.” And that was the end of it.
Then, one very peculiar thing Ackerman made us do, he had us write a letter to Attorney-General John Ashcroft. He said Salman may be with the I.N.S.
We said, “Why?”
He said, “Because he’s not born here.”
“Even if he’s a citizen?”
“The dividing line is whether he was born a citizen or not.”
So we wrote a letter to Ashcroft asking him to tell us if he had our son. Ackerman led us to believe that Salman was detained, so we were hopeful again that he was alive.
I have yet to find out why they would begin to suspect him, as opposed to helping us find him. I think maybe it was the fact that he did not work down there at the World Trade Center, and I called them up the second day asking, “Did you send him down there to help?” Maybe that could be it. There was so much fear and suspicion at that time. And his first name is Mohammad. Maybe that caused it, who knows. But it was wrong, very wrong.
A BAG OF DUST.
I went back to teaching in November. By this time, there was nothing more my family could do to find Salman. We were just thinking that he was alive and he’d come back home one day. Every day we would check the New York Times because they were disclosing the names of the dead and the injured. His name was never there, and I would tell this to the boys. So we were all still hopeful.
Also we had heard on the television about a big dragnet that detained many people. What had happened was there was a committee, a senatorial meeting, and Ashcroft was summoned to it, and he was asked by the senators, “How many people do you have detained?” So the more I heard about what was going on with the government, the more hope I had that my son was detained.
Then, on March 20, 2002, we received the first piece of information about his whereabouts.
We were going to sleep in the living room. Since 9/11, we had been sleeping there because my husband had said, “Salman will come home one day and he doesn’t have a key, so I don’t want the house to be locked.” So he kept the door unlocked all the time and he slept over there in the living room, and of course I had to sleep with him. I couldn’t leave him alone. We used to spread a couple of blankets on the carpet, and then sleep right there.
These tall men in overcoats knocked on our door at 11:30 p.m. that night. They said they were from the precinct. They did not show badges but I let them into my house because they said, “We’ve just identified your son’s remains. This is the medical examiner’s number. You can call them right now and confirm.”
My husband just collapsed to the floor and broke down, poor guy. I told them, “Okay, you’ve done your job—you guys have gotta go now.”
I told Saleem, “Listen, nothing’s going to change anything. Let’s go back to sleep. No need to call anybody. We don’t know who these people were.” I just wanted to calm him down.
Then the next day we went down to the Medical Examiner’s office at Bellevue hospital. A man from the office came, and he said, “They found the lower part of his body.”
I said, “Okay, prove to me that this is my son. I want to have his DNA tested by my own person.”
So he pulled the file towards himself, and he said, “You know, Mrs. Hamdani, go get yourself a lawyer. If someone wants to test it, they have to do it in our presence. Whenever you’re ready, we have the remains.”
My brother, who lives in New York, handled everything. The remains were sent to the funeral home in Queens. They say they gave us his lower body. The medical examiner’s office said they’d given us his lower body. But I’m sure from that big debris that was there at Ground Zero that they didn’t find any bodies; all they gave anybody was a bag of dust. Everybody got dust. Nobody got any body parts. My sister tried to prod the bag; she told me there was just dust in that bag, that there were no bones in there.
I don’t know what to believe or not to believe, honestly. They gave us a pair of jeans and a belt that were found in the debris. They were Salman’s. But the jeans were not burned or anything. They had cut one of the legs to get it off, but there were no bones.
On March 21, we went to California, where my sister lives. I knew there would be a lot of press outside my door again, and I did not want to talk to them. We came back in April, a day before the funeral.
THAT’S HOW I WANT TO GO.
On April 5 2002 we had the funeral. The N.Y.P.D. arranged it, so Salman got an honorable funeral under the American flag. I think after Congressman Ackerman investigated, the suspicions about Salman were put to rest.
The funeral was at the big mosque in Manhattan, on 93rd Street on the east side. I made a collage of his pictures. The N.Y.P.D. had the bagpipe player play the bagpipes, they brought the casket in, they laid it upstairs. There were about a thousand cadets there.
Mayor Bloomberg came, Ackerman came, Commissioner Kelly came.
My family all spoke at the funeral, and the cadets spoke too. Salman got a very honorable funeral. That’s how he wanted to go. He had expressed it at the funeral of a sergeant who had died in ‘99. He’d said then, “Mama, that’s honor. That’s how I want to go.”
You can say it put a closure to all my misgivings, and the cycle of, “Could he have made it? Could he have not made it?” It put everything to rest.
At that point, I took this as a redemption of his dignity. The slander that had been done in his name was taken care of. And he was sent off with honor.
This excerpt will be available in issue 38
of the McSweeney’s Quarterly.
—A groundbreaking collection of oral histories, Patriot Acts tells the stories of men and women who have been needlessly swept up in the War on Terror. In their own words, narrators recount personal experiences of the post-9/11 backlash that have deeply altered their lives and communities. The eighth book in the Voice of Witness series, Patriot Acts illuminates these experiences in a compelling collection of eighteen oral histories from men and women who have found themselves subject to a wide range of human and civil rights abuses—from rendition and torture, to workplace discrimination, bullying, FBI surveillance and harassment. Included in this collection are narratives from:
Adama, a sixteen-year-old Muslim American who was abruptly seized from her home by the FBI on suspicion of being a suicide bomber. Even after her release from detention, she was forced to wear a tracking bracelet for the next three years.
Talat, the mother of 9/11 first responder Salman Hamdani, who went missing after the attacks. As Talat and her husband searched desperately for their son, they were hounded by the media, who portrayed Salman as a possible terrorist in hiding.
Rana, a Sikh man whose brother Balbir was gunned down outside the gas station where he worked. Balbir’s death was the first reported hate murder after 9/11.
Voice of Witness is a nonprofit book series that empowers those most closely affected by contemporary social injustice. Using oral history as a foundation, the series depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them. Voice of Witness was founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen, and is the nonprofit division of McSweeney’s Books.
Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives
They arrive from around the world for countless reasons. Many come simply to make a living. Others are fleeing persecution in their native countries. Millions of immigrants risk deportation and imprisonment by living in the U.S. without legal status. They are living underground, with little protection from exploitation at the hands of human smugglers, employers, or law enforcement. Underground America, the third book in the Voice of Witness series, presents the remarkable oral histories of men and women struggling to carve a life for themselves in the U.S.
Now forty-eight years old, Alejandra first entered the US with her husband at the age of twenty-one. After periods of time in New York and back in El Salvador, she now lives and works in Washington DC as a school counselor. The week we meet, Immigration is raiding buses and workplaces in the area. Our interview in her office is constantly interrupted by calls from scared students, afraid to leave their homes and asking Alejandra’s advice. After her own brushes with both US immigration and the 1980s Salvadoran junta, Alejandra knows what these kids are going through.
The adolescents I counsel are teen mothers, or kids that have got into problems with the court—because of gangs or stealing cars. I would say sixty percent of my caseload, at least, is undocumented. I know first hand what they’re facing because I was undocumented myself when I came here, twenty-one years old, from Usulután, a city on the south-east side of El Salvador, through Guatemala and then Mexico.
I can tell these young moms and dads that having a baby when you are a teenager does not have to be the end of the world. I was one of those teenagers—I was seventeen when I had my son. And then I separated from my kids, I left them at home. When I left her, my daughter was only four months old. she was a baby. And my son was three years. My purpose with my husband was to make a few dollars and go back, buy a house, and live a happy life in El Salvador. But the war was already starting at home.
My husband’s cousin was living in new York and he provided the money for him to come. I was depressed about being in a country that was not my country, separated from my mother, my siblings, my friends, leaving every- thing. But I had one friend in new York who was going to help me to get a job through her contacts, cleaning for some family. one day, she said “oh, there is this lady that needs you to clean her house.” I went.
It was this old lady living by herself in this beautiful apartment on Central Park, very, very old. (Well, I was twenty-one so I would see as people old if they were fifty!) But this lady, she was maybe seventy-five years old. I didn’t speak any English. My friend had already trained me, “This is Windex, look for the picture. Don’t put Windex on the wood because you will mess it up.” Who uses these products? Water and paper – that’s what we used to clean glass! I had to learn to compare the pictures, or call my friend. ”You know, I have to clean this. What do I use?”
A weird thing used to happen there but at the time I couldn’t understand if it was normal: wherever I was cleaning or dusting, this lady would come naked, naked, completely naked to talk to me. I thought maybe it was normal in the us culture, the gringos’ culture. There are some things you don’t know about other cultures. In El Salvador, we heard that people are free here in the us to do whatever they want. so maybe that’s part of her freedom—–walking naked in her house in front of a stranger. Me, I wouldn’t even undress in front of my own mother. After you’re nine years old, you know, you’re for only you. But this old lady, all wrinkled, came into every single room where I was working, naked. I told my friend and she said “That’s weird, I haven’t had that experience.” I said, “I don’t what’s wrong with this lady but she comes everywhere I go.” sometimes I would be cleaning the sink and then the toilet and then she would appear, all naked. To be honest I was afraid of this lady.
One day she gave me a clock to throw away. I didn’t understand. When I first came, I got this little book called Basic English. so ‘put’ I knew, but ‘garbage’ I didn’t. I associated ‘garbage’ with ‘drawer’—in Spanish, a drawer is gaveta. so I put it in the drawer. “No!” she was so mad at me, “Put it in the garbage!” so I put it in another drawer, another gaveta. so funny. Afterwards, I could laugh, but not at the time. she kept screaming at me and at some point she said “stupid!” Estupida in Spanish and ‘stupid’ sound all too similar to me. I said “Wait a minute. I’m not stupid just because I don’t understand her.” I said, “You stupid!” I grabbed my jacket. I said “Bye bye” and I left.
After that, I worked as a housekeeper or doing catering or babysitting. I was a babysitter for a long time in a house where I was cleaning, cooking, running errands, whatever they needed. The lady opened a travel agency in her home. she organized groups of people to go to Africa—–Kenya and all those nice places. And I started to help her with files, collecting passports and stuff for her agency—all during the cleaning hours, so I was paid as a maid. But I always wanted to learn something new.
The lady who sponsored me was a lot nicer. I worked for her three days a week. I would just come in the morning, clean up, do whatever I had to do and then around two o’clock I was able to go home. I was catering on weekends, cooking for another family that lived in South Hampton, in a beautiful mansion in front of the ocean. That’s the kind of job I did in New York.
Once we had been here four years, we couldn’t wait any longer. My son was now seven and a half and my daughter was four and a half and it was getting closer to another Christmas, the fourth Christmas without them. I was working for the family in new York that was sponsoring me for my green card. But my husband and I were desperate. I asked the lawyer, “how long is it going to take?” he said, “It could be six months, it could be two years.” I said forget it. I told my husband that I can’t wait any longer. The war was already on, it was really bad in El Salvador. And my kids were living in Usulután still, which was a city with a lot of conflict.
Every penny we made went for the children and for the house we were buying in El Salvador. My husband and me, we wore used clothes that other people had tossed out. We lived in this tiny, tiny apartment, both of us in one twin bed. I said, “You know what? We’ve saved some money. I’ve got to go back and see if I can bring them here. If I cannot buy a visa for them, I will bring them through Mexico. I already came through Mexico and I know how it is.” In fact, going through Mexico was very dangerous, but that’s how desperate I was.
So I went back and bought a visa for myself and then diplomatic visas, with different names, for the children. of course, with the Salvadoran government at that time, the diplomats were all right wing. My brother was coming too because I could get a visa for him with the same name as my kids, so the three of them could travel together, as a big brother with two younger siblings. And the name on the passport I bought for myself was different. I couldn’t get one with the same name as the children. So, they were officially not my kids when we were on the plane.
Once we arrived in New Orleans, I made it through but they didn’t. They started questioning my brother because he didn’t have a letter from the children’s parents authorizing their coming here, so they were stuck. I didn’t take the next plane to new York, I went back to customs. They kept asking me, “Are they your kids?” I said, “no, I know them. They come from the same hometown and I just feel bad that they couldn’t make it.” But they put me in jail in New Orleans, in the women’s jail. And they took my brother and the kids to a hotel because they were still the responsibility of the airline, that’s what they said. I wouldn’t let them take pictures or fingerprints of myself and I didn’t let them do it to the kids either. “They’re going back, so why do you need fingerprints?” I think it was a crazy busy day or otherwise they would have done it. I argued with them that I was not a criminal. “You stamped my passport and my passport says I have a right to come in. So what are you charging me with?” But they put me in jail anyway.
They searched me. They made me undress and take a shower with this lady right in front of me, which made me feel so uncomfortable. And they put me in a jail with another woman. she was Latino, but I don’t remember talking to her about why she was there. I was so scared, so, so scared. she was on the one side and I was on the other side. We didn’t communicate. Most of the day, I was in court. I didn’t know where they were taking me. All that day and the next, I was being questioned.
I asked where they were going to send my children and they told me they were going to a hotel because they ‘belonged’ to the airline while I was part of the us. The next morning when I saw them, my brother said, “oh, we’re doing just great. We’re in a nice hotel with three meals a day.” And my kids were happy because the officer was really kind. It was getting close to Christmas when we came and he bought a doll for my daughter and a police car for my son—–not something I would buy, but it was kind of him, to make them feel like kids, you know. They were scared, too. My brother kept saying, “Tell them we’ve got to go back. I don’t want to stay here.”
If they were going to go back, I would have to go back with them. so I signed my own deportation back to El Salvador. In two days, we went back. But it was a nightmare over there because the war was going on. The police were waiting for us, the guard, we call them.
When we arrived, somebody said, “Immigrants are here,” loud. This guy came to us and said, “oh, so you are the ones—you came from new orleans?” “Yes we did.” he said, “okay, follow me.” It was the two of us, me and my brother, and the kids. The guard asked me, “Do you have anybody to take your kids?” I said no, thinking that would be a good excuse for them not to keep us any longer at the airport. he said “oh, well. You can leave with your kids and we’ll take him”—my brother. I said “Where?” I knew about all the killing, I knew about all the torturing, I knew everything that was going on in El Salvador. “We’re going to take him to jail.” I said, “If I find somebody to take my kids can I go with him?” “Yeah, you’re supposed to come with us.” I didn’t feel safe to let my brother go by himself. he was eighteen. he was so nervous—crying.
I said, “let me see if I can find somebody here at the airport.” My mother was there and the man who sold us the passports was there, too. But I didn’t want to tell the authorities, “here is the one who sold us the passports.” I went to my mom and I said “Mom, take the kids, we’re going to jail.” she said “What?” I said, “Just follow us, because we’re going in this van.” They put us in the van. They put handcuffs on my brother. The guard told me, “I’m not going to put handcuffs on you but you’re not allowed to talk. Just keep your head down.”
We were whispering all the way to the police station in San Salvador. I told my brother, “Do not say any- thing. You don’t know who sold us the passports. You don’t know anything, period. leave it to me because then we won’t be telling two stories.” I wasn’t going to tell them because my goal was to come back here to the us. The guy who sold me the passports was my hope for getting out of El Salvador again.
So my brother kept saying, “I don’t know anything. she did everything.” And they started pushing me, “Who sold you the passport?” I said, “I only know his first name.” I made up some name. They said, “how do you not know the last name?” The story that I made up was that this school friend of mine got a passport and came to lA and from lA she gave me the number and the name of the person who could help me come to new York. so I knew the number, but I didn’t have it with me. And I told them that I called this guy, the first time, told him that I wanted to leave with my kids and my brother and he met me at the park in san salvador, I just made up a park. We met, we talked and then next time, we met and I gave him half the money. The last time I met him again at the same park, he gave me the passports and I gave him the rest of the money. That was my story. They kept asking me, “Why don’t you tell us who is he? What does he look like?” I described some man. “Because if you tell us, you’re going to get your money back, that’s a lot of money.” I said, “of course. I’m not stupid, if I knew it, I would give it to you so you could get him and get my money back.”
It was getting late, it was dark already by then. This guard took me to a small room, with cork all over the walls, soundproof, no windows. As soon as you walk into this room, you expect something bad to happen. He starts questioning, questioning, questioning. he keeps repeating the same story all over again and over and over and over. He says, “okay, I’m going to send you to jail because you don’t know so we can’t help you.”
I say, “I’m sorry, I appreciate that you really want to help me but that’s all I know.” “Well, before I take you back to your cell, I have to search you—–you have to take off your clothes.”
“I just came from jail in the United States and they searched me. And from jail they put me on the plane and I was guarded by police. I wasn’t alone for one minute—I had no chance to get drugs or anything, so I don’t see why you have to search me.”
“Well it’s the law, we’ve got to do it. I’m going to step out, you get undressed and I’ll come back.”
I said, “okay,” and he stepped out. It felt like a long wait—–I didn’t have a watch. Then he came back and I was still dressed. he said, in an aggressive and demanding voice, “Didn’t I tell you to get undressed?” I said, “Yes, you did. But I don’t have anything, what are you looking for?” “We don’t know if you have weapons.” “You can still search me with my clothes on. If I had anything you could see. I can take off my shoes and socks if you want to but I’m not going to take off the rest of my clothes.” he said, “Why don’t you listen? I have a supervisor expecting me to give a report.” I said, “You tell your supervisor that I got undressed and that you searched me and you did not find anything. And I will appreciate it. I will let you touch me through the clothes and see if I have something.” he said, “But I can’t do that.” I said “Yes you can, because you’re such a nice man that you’re going to do this for me.” he said, “You know I can get into trouble.” I said, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to get undressed.” he patted me through my clothes.
I’m a weak woman. I do not consider myself strong. But when I’m in a situation, I don’t know what changes me—–you know, completely—–into another person. I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t have respect for those guards because they had no respect for my people at all. That guy wasn’t one of the bad ones–—maybe not—–but I have a brother who was killed, I have teachers who were killed during the war, I have friends from my school who were killed during the war in very bad ways—–couldn’t be worse, being dismembered—–and the guards were doing all this.
And you know, if it wasn’t for Ronald Reagan, so many people in El Salvador would not have died in that war. Because of his support for the Salvadoran government at that time, the war lasted as many years as it did. seventy-five thousand people died. I have no hatred towards the American people, but the government… !
I spent four days in a cell by myself, with big roaches running all over. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. They would bring me tortillas with rice and beans but I couldn’t eat. They would not let my mom see me. They wouldn’t let anybody visit. But I knew that the guy who sold us the passports was the one who must do something. he had his connections. If he lent us those passports, he was supposed to send them back because other clients were waiting to use them come to the states. Those diplomats did not want to get into trouble either, so they would figure out how to get me out of there. They did. They were the ones who got us out of jail in four days.
When you talk to people, they all have all different stories, different stories just like snowflakes. We are not the same, we go through a lot, but it’s not the same story for everybody.
MY Own Kids
I spent six months in el salvador waiting to see if we could come back. It was a terrible time in my country, with the war, no jobs, fear of the guards, friends disappearing. At last, we organized to come back with visas, not a diplomatic passport. But I didn’t want to come on the same plane as the kids so I sent them by themselves. somebody was waiting here with papers—she was supposed to be the godmother. once the kids were safely here, they called me. And then I took the next plane, the next day, hoping that everything was going be okay. Our green card application was still in process. It took another year.
Once the kids were here, we looked for a bigger apartment. I didn’t bring papers for them, so we had to start all over, get vaccinations so they could enroll in school. And that’s how we found the clinic. It wasn’t too expensive—–it was based on your income. But then I had to lie again, say that my husband wasn’t around, I was by myself with my kids. otherwise, I would have had to pay a lot of money. That was the only organization that I found in new York that was helpful. Before my kids came, I never went to the doctor, I never got sick! even if I was sick, I didn’t know where to go and I wasn’t going to pay.
My daughter went back to El Salvador when she was fourteen. she said “I like it in El Salvador, I’ll stay to finish my high school.” I thought she was going to have problems over there, because between her and her brother they only spoke English, growing up in the us. But she did well and now she’s working with World vision. She’s doing in El Salvador what I’m doing here in the us, working with kids with drugs and problems.
My son stayed on in the us. he’s an artist. he was one of those teenagers that dye his hair different colors. he used to say, “Books are not for me, I hate school.” But we told him, even if you don’t go to school, you have to work. You’re not going to be hanging out on the street doing nothing. he worked as a dishwasher. he said, “oh my god, it’s so hard.” I said, okay, I’m glad you know it’s hard—nobody has to tell you—you’ve been there. now you have an option: continue to work as a dishwasher, forget about school, or go back to school. so he got his GED and was accepted at a great design school in new York. It wasn’t easy to get in there—–he’s really talented. I’ll still be paying his student loan for ever, probably. It’s a lot of money, but that’s the least I can do for him.
When we first moved here to DC, I said “I want to do something else besides cleaning houses or babysitting.” But a lady I knew with two kids said, “Great, you’re here, come over.” oh, no! Babysitting again!
But I also became a volunteer on Wednesdays at a clinic for pregnant women, girls who work in the daytime. I trained to do the intake and I also did some interpreting. Then I signed up to go to hospital with women who don’t have anyone else to accompany them for the birth, so I saw a lot of babies delivered. It was very emotional. later, I worked as a home visitor, to prevent abuse and neglect of children. There, I saw that I was working with my own people—–Latinos, mostly Central Americans, Salvadorans. And I liked it. After two years, I moved on to social services and before I left there I was the coordinator for the teen clinic. so you see, a person can start where I did and still move on. You can set your goals and work towards them. That’s the reason why I really like the job I have now, where I can encourage young people.
I used to bring adolescents to this school to get their GED. every time there was a position here, the principal would call to ask me to apply and finally I came to work here. I’m a counselor, that’s my title. For crisis intervention, we refer the young people to mental health services, but I connect them with the daycare organizations, vouchers and food stamps, Medicaid, health insurance, all kinds of things.
Right now, we have kids phoning to say they aren’t coming in to school because they’re afraid. lately, there’ve been a lot of raids going on, buses being stopped, lots of deportations and detentions. some kids were afraid to come to school to pick up their report cards on Friday because they are undocumented. And all of them are afraid to apply for health insurance or other services. There are some services for undocumented, but they are still afraid.
They have a lot of responsibilities too. They have to work and there are no good jobs for them. like me, I wasn’t happy working where I was working to start with, I was so depressed but I knew that I had to do it. I had no option. I couldn’t say, “Mom, I’m going to college. Can you pay?” There was no way. I had two kids to feed. At work, the kids don’t have insurance. They don’t have any rights around getting sick. You’re sick—you lose your job. sometimes, we ask them to stay longer for school activities but they have to go to work. Can I call your supervisor? Can I send a letter? “no, They’ll fire me. They need me. I have to be there.” People don’t understand that immigrants do the jobs that others won’t do. If I’m a dishwasher and I don’t go to work, who is going to do the dishes? It’s not like the position I have right now at the school—if I’m not there, my co-worker will do some intervention and the rest I’ll do when I come back. But the dishes must be done right now. Who’s going to cook if I don’t go to work? Many kids are in gangs, we know which gangs they belong to. We work with a group of police officers know who’s in the gangs, their names and everything. In one particular case, I saw a girl talking with a guy I know is in a gang. I said, “What’s going on, is he your friend?” and she said “no, I just met him.”
“Then why do you run to the window to talk to him?” “’Cause he was asking me to go to a party.” That’s how they hook them in: Come to a party. This girl is under-age, so I said, “I’m going to talk to your mom about your friends because if I was your mom, I would want to know who your friends are.” I don’t want anything to happen to her and have to say, “oh I knew it and I didn’t tell her mom.”
“Oh, no, please don’t tell my mom. he’s not my friend and I don’t want to get into a gang.”
“That’s good. Just stay away from them.” once she joins a gang, it’s hard for her to leave. Members of other gangs know that she belongs to that gang so when she’s by herself, they jump on her. They’ll beat her.
Families are so broken. If it’s only the mom in the house, she has to work double shift—to pay rent and to feed them. There’s no communication between kids and mothers. Most of these families were separated by the war. We are coming from a very violent, a very abusive country. once they’re here, they try to find a group of people that will support them or protect them. The gangs call it protection but they’re not really there to protect you. You’re on your own. And if you’re in jail, you’re on your own, too. If you’re in the hospital, you’re on your own. The only person who’s going to visit you in the hospital is your family. But I think that all those issues come from not knowing the language, not having hope, because hope is all you have when you come here. When I arrived, I didn’t know one word of English and I thought that I would never learn the language. “What are they saying?” I couldn’t understand anything—it makes you feel lost. Then these kids find ‘friends’ who speak the language and they like adventure, like every teenager loves adventure. That’s how kids get drawn into gangs.
El Salvador and the U.S.
Right now, with ‘free trade,’ these kids have been thrown here. In El Salvador, there is Office Depot, Home Depot, Starbucks, Target, Wal-Mart, and all these big, huge companies are taking over. They open up a sweatshop, they hire a lot of people. Victoria’s Secret and Gap—–they have all these sweatshops over there. Great, good job opportunity. Come and work for one dollar a day. sewing or whatever. no lunch break, eight hours or nine hours a day. Get paid every month. But when it’s getting closer to your next pay, you go to work and where is it? Where is the company? Where is the factory? They’re gone, they close overnight and they leave you without pay and without a job. This is what they do in El Salvador. That’s ‘free trade.’
so then, let’s say my brother—he has a little stationery store—he goes to San Salvador to buy paper and books and pencils. But nobody will go to his store instead of going to office Depot where they get it cheaper. he will have to close his place. so then what can he do? Come to the us. Come here and work.
No, it’s not right. That’s why the war started in El Salvador. That’s how people got so angry and got armed—–it was because they couldn’t take it any more. Working in those big cornfields cutting corn every day, burning yourself in the sun, for nothing. Just for a tortilla and beans. no place to live. no clothes to dress your kids. no shoes for your kids. It shouldn’t be like that. The country has money.
You go to San Salvador, you see the big city and you feel like you could be here in the us. But you move to the countryside and you go three hundred years behind. no bathrooms in the houses, no toilets, no electricity, no water—you have to walk miles to get some water to drink. But the government says that in Sl Salvador only six percent are unemployed. Is it Sweden? no, because they count anyone who’s selling mangos on the street— that’s ‘employed.’ even though she just picks mangos from her own tree and puts them in a bowl and then sells them. But she’s ‘employed.’ The other one selling newspapers on the street is ‘employed.’ You selling gum and cigarettes on a little box? You’re ‘employed.’ If there’s a guy putting gas in his mouth, burning his mouth and spitting fire on the street to get some money? he’s ‘employed.’
In El Salvador today, education is supposed to be provided to everybody but if you don’t have a pencil, you can’t go to school. If a family doesn’t have money for food, they won’t spend money on a pencil instead of buying rice and beans. once you go to high school, they say it’s free. You don’t pay tuition. But you pay seven dollars to register, and you have to buy your books and you have to wear a uniform. not everybody can do it; some fifty percent of El Salvador wouldn’t be able to do that. I see it with the students in my school right now. kids who are seventeen and only finished third grade in El Salvador–—why? “Because I decided to help my mother with the tortillas,” “I decided to help my tio–—my uncle—–in the fields.” “No, I wanted to baby-sit my sisters’ children.” “I have to go be a maid.” They’re better off being here in that situation, even going through whatever you have go to through.
It’s not fair that the us government supported that war and now they want to build a wall to stop us from crossing over. And who’s going to build that wall, anyway? Tell me that.
849 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110