Welcome awaits Muslims from China

Tallahassee is preparing to receive and look after three men on an improbable journey from Guantánamo Bay -- and Tora Bora.

10/17/2008 1:49 PM

12/29/2013 1:54 PM

The Rev. Brant Copeland never heard of a Uighur before Guantánamo. Neither had Imam Naeem Harris, this city's Muslim spiritual leader. Nor had Rabbi Jack Romberg.

Now the men have forged a community effort to settle three of the 17 Uighurs -- men from a Muslim minority in China -- whom a federal judge ruled were held for years in a legal limbo while mislabeled as enemies at the prison camps at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

At first blush, this southern capital city of 160,000 seems an unlikely destination for war-on-terror detainees from a faraway place: Spanish moss clings to centuries-old oak trees. The soundtrack at the airport plinks, Give Me That Old Time Religion.

The city has only two mosques, and not a single Uighur (pronounced WEE-gurr).

Still, people here are preparing to embrace the Uighurs, men who fled northwestern China in the '90s.

Restaurant kitchen jobs have been found, and an apartment awaits, along with healthcare and volunteers to carpool the men.

In doing so, the community plunged itself into a court battle between lawyers for the men who were captured by U.S. allies fleeing Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in 2001 and the Bush administration, which is fighting a judge's order to release the men. An appeals court temporarily blocked the release last week.

''The executive branch has made a determination that these individuals . . . should not be admitted to the United States,'' said Dean Boyd, a national security spokesman at the Department of Justice.

Boyd noted that, at Guantánamo, the men ''admitted receiving weapons training at military training camps'' in Afghanistan.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ruled for teams of U.S. lawyers who filed unlawful detention lawsuits. In a historic ruling, Urbina told the government Oct. 7 that unless a third country agrees to resettle them safely, the men must be brought to the United States. It was the first time a judge has ordered the release of a war-on-terror detainee onto U.S. soil.

The Uighurs have for years claimed through their lawyers that they admire American democracy and their dispute is with China.

They claimed they fled communist repression in Xinjiang, where Uighur insurgents have for years resisted Beijing's rule. Those who admitted having trained with AK-47s in Afghanistan said they sought only Uighur autonomy in their homeland.

FINDING SYMPATHY

Meantime, activists in town are siding with the Uighurs. They liken their plight to that of the Tibetans, without the benefit of a celebrity like the Dalai Lama to tell their story.

Members of the Tallahassee network deny they are thumbing their noses at China, which labels the Uighurs of Guantánamo ''terrorists'' and wants them back.

Nor is the interfaith community making an anti-government statement about U.S. detention policy, says Copeland, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee. He told his 175-year-old congregation the story of the Uighurs in a sermon in September.

''It's a pro-Jesus statement,'' Copeland says. "Regardless of one's political opinion, these are folks who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they have been so unjustly imprisoned for seven years.

"This issue cuts across all the political agendas. It's a pro-compassion statement. And a pro-Mohammed statement and a pro-Moses statement.''

Civil rights attorney Kent Spriggs argues that their effort blends charity and capitalism by tapping into Leon County's diversity.

A Saudi member of the Islamic Center of Tallahassee -- a massage therapist by profession -- is heading up the host community.

He told the Uighurs' story to a Turkish-American businessman, who has guaranteed them jobs at his Italian restaurant chain.

A Pakistani-American located a rental apartment within walking distance of Tallahassee's main mosque.

And at the Lafayette Presbyterian Church, the Rev. John Lown speaks with a lilting southern accent as he explains how he'll model the absorption program after his '90s experience with the Northern Virginia Council of Churches resettling Bosnians and Ukrainians.

At Copeland's church, members are channeling its relief experience from Hurricane Katrina to collect donations. So far, $9,200 have been raised.

''We're going to show the people of Tallahassee and Florida when people of faith come together for the community good what happens,'' say Salah Bakhashwin, 48, a longtime capital resident who spread the word through the city's 3,000-member Muslim community.

Bakhashwin left his native Saudi for America at age 17, and declares himself weary of a ''guilt-by-association'' atmosphere toward Muslims that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Adds Romberg, rabbi at the Reform movement's Temple Israel: "If indeed these people are found to be harmless, it's only just that we find a way to take them in, get them on their feet and up and running as people who function in the community.''

The goal: a community embrace of housing, healthcare, jobs, language training, even cellphones linking them to 24/7 community volunteers to make them self-sufficient in three months.

Lawyers for the 17 have said they would identify the three with the best English skills and settle the rest in the Washington area, which has the largest concentration of Uighurs in the United States -- about 1,000.

PLEDGE OF AID

The Tallahassee Plan presented to Urbina's court also includes a commitment to buy them a used car, once they get licenses, and pay for their insurance.

Not everyone in town is as accepting. Copeland came to work the day the news broke to a local woman leaving ''Are you nuts?'' on his answering machine.

The unlikely offer to take in the Uighurs started with Spriggs, who served a stint as mayor in the 1980s and learned about the Uighurs while filing suit on behalf of two Afghans at Guantánamo.

Unlike those two, who have since been sent back to their native Afghanistan, the Uighurs couldn't go home. China considered them hooligan separatists who had fled the country illegally, and the State Department calculated they faced certain persecution if they returned.

Yet, U.S. diplomats couldn't find a third country to resettle them. Some have since been resettled in Albania and Sweden.

Spriggs told the story to Bakhashwin, who had helped with some Arabic-English translation on a Guantánamo case. They both felt certain that Tallahassee could take three. And that started with community education. Tallahassee's imam, an African-American Christian convert to Islam from Philadelphia, has now embraced the idea that he will serve as spiritual leader for three men who spent years in U.S. custody and soon will need to settle into U.S. society.

''Look at the good that can come from it,'' said Harris, 30. "This can be an opportunity to show a lot of non-Muslims the real religion of Islam.''

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About Carol Rosenberg

Carol Rosenberg

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Carol Rosenberg reports on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the place, policy, people, war court.


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