Muslim college students in US report threats

September 21, 2001
By Sarah Tippit

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Scores of students from the Middle East are considering returning home because the aerial assaults on the Pentagon and World Trade Center have inflamed passions against them, campus officials said on Friday.

In recent days, at least five Middle Eastern students have been assaulted on U.S. college campuses while several others have received threats. The United States says Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden is a chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks that have left more than 6,500 people dead or missing.

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige has urged educators to work to ensure the safety of Arab students and school administrators have urged tolerance on campuses. Meanwhile university police are scrambling to beef up security and Muslim groups are warning students to keep a low profile.

"Obviously they feel bad about Americans who paint them with a broad brush and see all people from the Middle East as being similar," said Dixon Johnson, executive director of the office of international services at University of Southern California, who has urged foreign students to lay low and avoid frequenting campus hangouts where they believe they might face harassment.

"The students experiencing the most unease are the recent arrivals, the youngest, of course, and unfortunately the ones who are most visible" because they wear scarves or turbans on their heads, Johnson said.

For example, an Indonesian Muslim student wearing such a scarf was assaulted by a student who ran in front of her car as a light turned green and angrily began shaking the car and shouting at her, Johnson said.

A Pakistani-born student at Florida International University in Miami told Reuters she has received several verbal threats even though she is an American and has lived in the United States almost her entire life. "They do it when they see you in the grocery store, they give you bad looks and look at you so weird, so oddly. I'm not involved in it, I've been living here since I was little. We're not all terrorists," said the student, who wished to remain anonymous.

Mazen Ahmad El Kassaa, a 19-year-old student from Lebanon, is leaving the University of North Carolina at Greensboro after two young men yelled "Go home, terrorist!" before twisting his arm, punching him and breaking his glasses last Sunday, campus spokeswoman Robin Adams said.

Kassaa, an exchange student who had been in the United States one month trying to learn English, was making hasty plans to return to Lebanon on Friday. "He said 'When things get better I will come back when they figure out who did it and when Americans realize all Muslims are not the same,"' Adams told Reuters.

A Saudi Arabian student at Santa Barbara City College in California was attacked while walking near his home Monday when two men hit him, slammed his head into their car's roof and slashed him with a knife, police said.

Last Sunday an research assistant from India at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces was attacked across the street from campus, said campus spokeswoman Nena Singleton.

Last Thursday, two students at Arizona State University were pelted with eggs and one of them was beaten in a campus parking lot, a school spokesman said. Four people have been arrested.

Students say they have received ominous threats on their voicemails or through e-mail. The University of Miami College of Engineering, which has a large Arab student population, received a threat on its office voicemail, campus spokesman Alexandra Ravinet said, refusing to disclose details.

Reports are also coming from all corners that some students are choosing to return home. For example, USC's Johnson said he received a letter from a Kuwaiti student stating that he was "withdrawing for family business reasons."

At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's main campus in Daytona Beach, Florida, a spokeswoman said a few Muslim students from other countries had left out of apparent concerns for safety. "What we are hearing is that some of the embassies -- and I don't know which ones -- are simply contacting their students and suggesting that they may want to come home," Embry-Riddle spokeswoman Lisa Ledewitz said, adding that "less than a handful" so far have left, presumably for safety reasons.

Two students at University of Texas Austin withdrew this week out of fear of a backlash against Muslims, said Jerry Wilcox, director of UT's international office, which has distributed "discrimination divides" buttons to all students.

Officials at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington told the Chronicle of Higher Education in a report published Thursday that about 20 college students in the United States have asked for assistance in returning home.


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