The feds suspect his charity aided terrorists. His wife says they're wrong.
16 January 2002
|Salma Al-Rushaid (Metro Times Photos / Bruce Giffin)
|About 80 people protested last week during Haddad's immigration hearing.
|Salma Al-Rushaid with her children (from l:) Rami, Sana, Oussama &
|Rabih Haddad with his son
|Al-Rushaid at home
It is a couple hours till sunset on a peaceful winter day. Salma Al-Rushaid’s daughter quietly reads on the couch. Her three sons take turns riding on the back of their father, Rabih Haddad. Al-Rushaid laughs at Haddad, who lumbers along the floor on his hands and knees in their modest Ann Arbor apartment.
Dates and yogurt sit on the dining room table. A cooked roast warms in the oven. It is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Al-Rushaid and her family expect to break their fast by eating the dates and yogurt, then will pray and feast on the roast.
But it’s not yet sunset. Al-Rushaid has time to check on a sick friend who lives in the apartment complex. She tells Haddad to watch the children while she is out.
The 36-year-old Kuwaiti doesn’t suspect that when she returns, the tranquil life she and her Lebanese husband created in the United States will be over.
After a brief visit with her ailing friend, Al-Rushaid heads home. As she enters the apartment, she sees three large men in black suits standing in her small living room. Haddad, who sits on a wooden coffee table, rises to meet his wife. The men motion for him to sit.
Al-Rushaid does not know why they are there. She panics. She sees two of the children and tries to dash past the men to find the others. But the men won’t let her pass. She pleads and the men let her go. Al-Rushaid comforts her daughter, who is crying in the bathroom and won’t come out. She finds her missing son in a bedroom, gathers the children and huddles on the couch.
One man searches the couple’s bedroom and returns with a camouflage case.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“A hunting rifle,” says Haddad.
“Why do you have it?” the man asks.
“I hunt,” he answers. “I’m a member of the National Rifle Association.”
“Is it licensed?”
“Yes,” says Haddad.
The three agents speak to one another in what sounds like Spanish. They read Haddad his rights and prepare to take him away. Al-Rushaid does not know where they are taking him and is too frightened to ask. As she cries, one man gently says, “We won’t cuff him in front of you.”
The children hug and kiss their father goodbye. Al-Rushaid embraces Haddad, who whispers, “God is with us. Be strong.”
Before they leave, Al-Rushaid rushes to the dining room table to collect three dates. She gives them to her husband so that he may break his fast. It is nearly sunset.
This is how Al-Rushaid remembers the events of Dec. 14, 2001, the day that three U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officers took her husband from their home for allegedly overstaying his tourist visa, which expired in 1999.
Metro Times’ exclusive interview with Al-Rushaid marks the first time she has given a detailed account of the events surrounding her husband’s arrest. She also provides a glimpse of her husband — whom she portrays as a selfless and peaceful man who has broken no laws — the couple’s childhoods, their arrival in this country and their life together here.
On the advice of her husband’s attorney, she refuses to speak in detail about a charity her husband helped found. The Global Relief Foundation has had its accounts frozen by federal officials who suspect it has funded terrorist organizations.
Haddad, who applied for permanent residency last year, was held in solitary confinement at the Monroe County Jail without bond; the immigration judge ruled that he poses a danger to society since he owns a hunting gun. On Jan. 11, U.S. Marshal Service took him into custody. He reportedly was bound for Chicago.
Jim Douglas, U.S. Marshal for Michigan’s eastern district, says the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois asked that Haddad be moved. A spokesman for the northern Illinois U.S. attorney’s office would not comment.
Haddad’s attorney, Ashraf Nubani, declined to comment on the movement of his client.
Haddad is one of thousands of Arab and Muslim men who have been scrutinized since Sept. 11. The government announced plans to deport 6,000 of those who have violated immigration laws.
But Haddad’s case, which has stirred a flurry of media attention, is unique. The same day he was arrested, the FBI raided the offices of the Illinois-based nonprofit charity the Global Relief Foundation (GRF), which Haddad co-founded in 1992. The U.S. Treasury Department also froze the group’s assets.
Though the INS and FBI insist that Haddad is held for visa violations alone, his attorney suspects that his imprisonment is connected to the GRF.
The INS wants to deport Haddad. His hearings have been conducted in strict secrecy, closed to his family, the press and the public. The government won’t disclose what evidence it may have that links the Global Relief Foundation — or Haddad — to terrorism.
Salma Al-Rushaid was born in 1965 to wealthy Kuwaiti parents. Her father served as an ambassador to India. She and her seven siblings were raised in a massive house in Kuwait City with many servants.
“I grew up not getting a glass of water for myself,” says Al-Rushaid.
She remembers the first time she had a task of her own and the pride she felt. In 1974, she visited a sister who was studying business at a university in Wisconsin. During her three-month stay, Al-Rushaid baby-sat for a neighbor.
“I loved the fact that I had a job, that I could do something on my own,” she says.
Al-Rushaid has always been determined to make her own way in the world. Throughout her life, she says, she often questioned why her family had so much while others had so little. Though her Muslim family did not practice the religion, Al-Rushaid was drawn to those who did.
Many of her friends were practicing Muslims whose modest ways appealed to a young woman who was accustomed to luxury. She considered becoming devout, but feared deviating from the path of her family, particularly her father, whom she deeply admires.
In fact, all of Kuwait admires her father, not only for his diplomacy, but also for his published poetry and expert hunting skills, she says. In the mid-1960s the Indian government hired him to kill a tiger that had been attacking villagers. A book he wrote about his expeditions sits on Al-Rushaid’s shelf along with his poetry.
But when Al-Rushaid left Kuwait to study in the United States in 1984, she was free to make her own way. She studied political science at Ashland University in Ohio. At the time, she thought that she would become an ambassador like her father.
“I thought it would be so neat and cool,” says Al-Rushaid.
But the courses bored her. She preferred studying philosophy and French literature. Al-Rushaid, who speaks Arabic, English, Urdu and French, dreamt of becoming a United Nations interpreter.
She also continued to wrestle with her secret desire to embrace Islam. College friends who were devout told her that some day she would be too. Al-Rushaid had her doubts, but during her sophomore year she decided to give it a try.
“I literally woke up one morning and said, ‘I want to do it now,’” says Al-Rushaid. “I went to college with jeans and T-shirts one day and the next day I went to college with a head scarf and skirt.”
Rabih Haddad was born in Lebanon in 1960 to a Christian couple who own a clothing store. They raised their eldest son and his two younger brothers, Bassem and Mazen, in the Hammana mountains. Haddad’s father taught him to hunt. Rabih brought game home for food.
Though the boys’ parents were practicing Christians, they did not baptize their sons. They were free to follow their hearts. Rabih’s brothers did choose Christianity.
Rabih, an earnest boy who began writing poetry when he was 14 (and still writes poetry), explored various religions. Christianity posed some difficulty for him, his wife says. He was unable to make sense of how Christ could be both a prophet and God. When he was about 17, he began studying Islam on his own. He read the Koran and other Islamic writings for several years. But he wasn’t ready to dedicate his life to the religion.
He aspired to be an engineer. His parents paid for him to attend the University of Nebraska in 1980. Haddad loved America, the vast landscape and tranquility. After many years of living in a war-torn country, the United States was a welcome change.
As he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Haddad continued to study Islam. He still had not immersed himself in the faith. Haddad still had dreams of becoming a “big-shot engineer,” says Al-Rushaid.
He earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering in Nebraska. He wanted to connect with an old friend he had met in Lebanon. She was studying in Ashland, Ohio, when he gave her a call.
Salma Al-Rushaid first met Rabih Haddad in 1979, when she was 14. It was in his homeland of Lebanon, where her family owned a summer place in the mountains near Haddad’s home. Over the years, the neighbors grew to be friends.
When Haddad discovered that Al-Rushaid was studying in the States he decided to contact her. They traded phone calls for more than a year. They exchanged letters and photos. In 1986, Haddad visited Al-Rushaid in Ashland for the first time and proposed. But she did not accept right away. She waited for her parents to visit so she could ask for her father’s approval.
Pleased with the young Haddad, her father gave his blessing and the couple married in Ohio the following year.
Al-Rushaid returned to Nebraska with Haddad, where she finished her degree in political science. In 1989, the couple moved to Kuwait. Though Al-Rushaid loves Kuwait, she was no longer used to the harsh desert climate. They lived briefly in Lebanon, but wanted to return to the States.
In 1992, they moved to Chicago.
By then they were deeply committed to their faith. They put aside their professional aims and devoted themselves to charity work, a major tenet of Islam. While Al-Rushaid tended to their children and lectured at the mosque, Haddad helped found the Global Relief Foundation.
According to the group’s mission statement, it provides money, food, clothing, medical supplies and other relief to needy people around the world.
“Islam means not just worrying about me, my family, my kids, it means being responsible for your deeds and the people around you,” says Al-Rushaid.
The foundation raised $20 million during its 10 years.
“I would love to tell the story of Global Relief,” Al-Rushaid says. “It is a beautiful story.”
Her husband’s attorney, Ashraf Nubani, advised her against it since the government suspects the GRF of funding terrorism and may be the reason her husband is being detained.
“The organization has had its assets frozen, but it has not been designated a terrorist group,” says Nubani. “The problem is the organization has been sullied and the government hasn’t produced anything.”
Haddad and Al-Rushaid decided to leave Chicago’s intense urban life. Friends recommended Ann Arbor.
“I heard it was clean, safe, family-friendly, and that the people are educated and open to different cultures,” says Al-Rushaid.
When they arrived in 1999, they were instantly enamored with the town. Haddad became deeply involved with the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor. The center, which serves about 1,500 Muslims weekly, includes a mosque, a community center and a state-accredited Islamic academy for kids from preschool through 11th grade. The couple’s four children attend the academy.
Haddad — who would rise sometimes at 4 a.m. to study, write and pray before making breakfast for his family — devoted most of his time to the Islamic Center. He volunteered to teach Islamic studies two days a week to high school students. He also gave lectures at the center about refugee crises in Muslim nations. Occasionally, he would deliver the weekly sermon.
The couple’s parents help support the family; Haddad also receives financial contributions from the Muslim community for his volunteer work, according to his attorney.
After Sept. 11, Haddad took on some new tasks. He was acting as the assistant imam when other clergy were away.
Nazih Hassan, the Islamic Center’s vice president, sent Haddad to speak at an interfaith vigil in Ann Arbor.
“He spoke out about the terrorist attack and stated Islam’s position against terrorism,” says Hassan, who says he has never heard Haddad give political speeches.
“In terms of speaking in public he usually spoke about humanitarian issues because of his involvement with Global Relief,” says Hassan. “He did not speak about political aspects of conflict, at least from the speeches and seminars I have attended.”
Haddad also spoke at a town hall meeting organized by U.S. Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Ann Arbor).
“He received the most applause,” says Hassan. “He’s quite an eloquent speaker.”
The center sent him to give seminars on Islam to corporations and universities. The center worked hard to build trust with the non-Muslim community by inviting the public to tour the center. Its annual open house drew more than 2,000 visitors this year.
The center also worked with authorities after Sept. 11, Hassan says. When the federal government announced plans to interview about 5,000 Arab and Muslim men nationwide, Hassan says that the Islamic Center cooperated; Haddad was not interviewed.
“We had a lot of faith in the government,” he says.
But when they took Haddad into custody for a minor visa violation, Hassan says, “They destroyed all our trust.”
“We don’t object to enforcing the law, we just want it enforced equally for all people,” he says.
Al-Rushaid, whose tourist visa also expired in 1999 and who has applied for permanent residency, has always seen the United States as a bastion of freedom. She never expected that the government would take her husband into custody and keep him there indefinitely.
She sits at the dining room table describing her life since Haddad’s arrest. Her head is wrapped in a gray scarf; her large brown eyes are doleful.
“He was the spirit of the family,” she says. “I can’t imagine life without him.”
Haddad joked and played with the kids, who have seen their dad only once since he was taken into custody a month ago. After the visit, 8-year-old Rami cried and screamed for an hour until he fell asleep. When Rami woke the next morning, he wrote a letter to President Bush, asking, “How would you like it if someone came and took your dad?”
Al-Rushaid says she has received tremendous support from Muslims and non-Muslims. A stream of visitors delivers meals. Her phone rings continuously. Her children have been treated well during the ordeal, with friends, having them over to play. Al-Rushaid has received dozens of letters and hundreds of e-mails, many from people she has never met, offering encouraging words.
At the first immigration hearing earlier this month, about 200 people protested outside because it was closed to the public. Al-Rushaid and her children, also barred from the hearings, marched with the protesters. Not even Haddad is allowed to attend the hearings — he watched them on a closed-circuit system from his jail cell.
Haddad has been allowed to call his family once a day for a 15-minute conversation, and to send letters. Al-Rushaid searches for his latest one and briefly panics when she can’t find it. When she discovers the letter, Al-Rushaid holds it to her chest, then reads Haddad’s words:
“Here we are, 22 years later, separated by our destinies. But all this misery that we are undergoing at the moment will turn out for the best. InshaAllah. [God willing.] You’ll see. I just pray to Allah to grant us the patience and perseverance that pleases him so that we can endure this ordeal and pass this test with flying colors. Injustice is never tolerated by Allah. I am being unjustly jailed and this, like all other things, will come to pass. I have not done anything to hurt another human being and sooner or later this truth will shine.”
Ann Mullen is a Metro Times’ staff writer. She can be reached at (313) 202-8015 or