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Exiled as a ‘Security’ Threat, Former Orland Man May Soon Return

15 September 2011 General 13 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

By Allison Hantschel, Orland Park  Patch, September 14th

Sabri Samirah’s family left Orland Park in 2003 when the government tagged him as a “risk to national security.” Eight years later, he’s won a legal battle and plans to return.

Sabri Samirah poses with his family upon his son's graduation from college. In the picture (from left, back row) are Samirah, his son Khaled, his wife Sima, his mother Maryam, his oldest son Ibraheem, his youngest son Omar and his father Ibraheem. Credit Courtesy of the Samirah family

A suburban Chicago Muslim leader exiled from the United States after 9/11 could be back as early as this fall after a federal judge declared the government’s argument for keeping him away “totally asinine.”

Sabri Samirah, formerly of Orland Park, has spent the past eight years in his native Jordan. In 2003, he traveled there to visit his sick mother and on his way back was stopped by immigration authorities, informed he was a “national security risk” and barred from returning to America.

Today, his lawyer is negotiating the terms of his return to America. Samirah is hopeful he will be back before the end of the year.

Married to a teacher at Bridgeview’s Islamic school, Samirah ran a Muslim voting rights group and was a powerful advocate for moderate Islam following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. His 2003 banishment, and the Bush administration’s refusal to give any reason for it, sparked a fierce legal battle and public debate over the reach of executive authority in the name of security.

His return now to a country much changed by the past decade’s political upheaval is symbolic of the fallout faced by those who, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, became targets of a country’s suspicion, fear and rage.

“9/11 produced a lot of hysteria in the government,” said Mark Flessner, the former federal prosecutor who represented Samirah in his suit against the federal government. “We have a different perspective on that now.”

Lived in the U.S. for 15 Years

Samirah was born in Jordan in 1967, the son of Palestinian refugees. He came to Chicago as a student in 1987, intending to get a degree and return to Jordan. Instead, he remained here and became involved in the Chicago area’s Muslim community and with Palestinian advocacy groups here. He earned a master’s degree from DePaul University and a doctorate from the University of Illinois-Chicago. In 1998, he founded the United Muslim Americans Association, a Muslim voter registration organization based in Palos Hills.

He married Sima Srouri, a fellow Jordanian, and the couple had three sons, all born in America. After Samirah was denied re-entry into the country, Srouri and the three boys left Orland Park and joined Samirah in Jordan as his legal case dragged on. The family lived first with Samirah’s parents, and later moved into their own home.

“We went through a lot of difficulty with family, with work, with the larger society, with accepting what happened,” Samirah said from Jordan in a telephone interview with Patch.com. “I tried my best to improve my situation, but not a day went by that I did not have some connection to the United States.

“Always I had hope that I would win my case and would be able to come back.”

Samirah became a professor of political science at the University of Jordan, and then a director at the Middle East Studies Center, a Jordanian think tank that runs conferences and symposia on politics and economics of the region. His three children attended Jordanian schools and two — Ibraheem, now 20, and 18-year-old Khaled — returned to the United States for college.

His youngest son, Omar, who was 3 when he left Orland Park, can’t wait to grow up and join his older brothers in America.

“They see what happened to us as a temporary period,” Samirah said. “They were born in America. It’s their country. They feel an attachment there, and we told them, ‘It’s your country, you could go there.'”

Prior to his exclusion from the country in January 2003, Samirah was applying for a green card through his wife’s employment as a schoolteacher. His children were all-American youngsters, watching cartoons and roughhousing after school in the yard behind the family’s ranch house.

The Climate After 9/11

The Bridgeview mosque they attended was conservative and traditional, which attracted attention over the years from those scrutinizing Islam’s influence in America, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But it had never been seriously targeted until after Sept. 11, 2001.

Just days after 9/11, a mob of angry people marched on the Bridgeview mosque, carrying American flags and shouting anti-Arab slurs. Muslim women who wore veils or headscarves were cautioned to stay inside while large “pro-America” demonstrations took over Harlem Avenue. After those rallies died down, Muslims and those who appeared Muslim suffered attacks on storefronts and homes.

Muslim charities were shuttered and investigated, federal agents froze assets, seized donor records and accused the organizations of funneling money to Hamas.

The U.S. Attorney’s office prosecuted several south suburban men suspected of raising money and support for terrorists, including Enaam Arnaout of Justice and Mohammed Salah of Bridgeview. Arnaout, who ran Palos Hills-based Benevolence International Foundation, was convicted in 2003 on several charges, but not the most serious. Salah was acquitted on all charges relating to terrorism in 2006, but convicted of lying about his association with Hamas.

Other local Muslims simply fell under suspicion.

Samirah believed then, as he does now, that the many good Muslims who live in America were being defamed by the terrorists who committed their crimes in the name of religion. American government leaders were being misled, he said, into thinking the Muslim world was one monolithic enemy.

“Many of the government’s policies are now being reconsidered, and they are more willing to open a direct channel with people of the region,” he said. “I believe there is now a new approach for the American government to be open to the Arab people, and people like me can be of use to them.”

‘I Believed … in America’

Samirah’s legal battle hinged on whether the government had the right to exclude him from the country without a hearing. Flessner argued that if Samirah truly was a risk to the United States, he could be arrested and tried for the crimes he had committed. A federal judge initially agreed with him, and ordered Samirah returned to the United States, saying his treatment was “demeaning to this country.”

Government appeals, and then counter-appeals, stretched the process out for eight years, but Samirah did not want to give up.

“I believed in the justice system in America,” he said. “It takes a long time but it corrects its mistakes, and I had the belief that I would win at the end. It was a matter of time.”

Finally, in December 2010, a federal court ordered the government to follow its own immigration regulations. Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner wrote in his opinion that officials could not “play games” with immigrants by waiting until they were out of the country and then not allowing them to return.

Posner dismissed the security risk claim outright.

“No one has told us what kind of ‘security risk’ the plaintiff is,” Posner wrote. “The government points to no facts or reasoning that might support the immigration service’s refusal to allow him to return to the United States. No evidence is mentioned that might connect him to [Palestinian terrorist group] Hamas. There is just the cryptic statement by the government’s lawyer at oral argument — a statement redolent of guilt by association — that maybe the plaintiff ‘needs better friends.’

“What he really needed was a better travel agent …”

Flessner said in the eight years of legal proceedings, which included an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, no government official ever presented any evidence that Samirah was a risk of any kind. Not even behind closed doors, he said, for the judge’s ears only.

“They never, not once, produced a single sentence that justifies this designation that he was a security risk,” Flessner said. “There exists in the law a specific exclusion provision for terrorists in this kind of proceeding, and they didn’t use that.

“All they would have had to say was ‘Judge, he’s a terrorist,’ and we would have been done.”

A Department of Justice spokesman did not return a phone inquiry for comment.

Samirah Hopes to Teach in U.S.

Flessner said he and government officials were negotiating the terms of Samirah’s return, and expected an agreement to be reached by the end of the year. Samirah’s legal status prior to his exile was that of an applicant for a green card, dependent on his wife’s employment as he was self-employed.

Should he return to the United States, he hopes to return to that status, and work as a professor of political science here, using his case as a teaching tool for other Muslims — and for the American government.

“This should be a lesson for the government not to do this for any other immigrant,” he said. “And to the Muslim community, it should show them that the justice system will work and they should not be ashamed or afraid to defend their rights.”

He’s partial to returning to Chicago, Samirah said, but his sons’ schools are on the East and West coasts, and the most important thing is to bring the family together again, somewhere in America.

“I want to return to live peacefully,” he said. “Not to be always struggling like this. My children are grown. I want to have some time with them, to live like any other person.”

Original post: Exiled as a ‘Security’ Threat, Former Orland Man May Soon Return

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13 Comments »

  1. Salam Alaikom..this is a great story to publish! This is terrible how long they all suffered from the pathetic ignorance of some. Allah Bless them in their period of re-adjustment. I don’t really know why they want to be here so much..for me, I don’t know…if that happen..what and how I would feel. It is sad. Thank you. Ani

  2. That poor family! And people say Muslims are terrorists . . .

  3. Maryam alKorji,

    how do you define terrorism? this is an injustice, unamerican, not sure possibly unconstitutional. you could even call the ins a tyrannical branch of the evil american empire. but terrorism, really? didn’t know jordan was doing so poorly?

    do you ever read anything other than this website. (the fox card in reverse) yes muslims commit acts of terror on a regularity you don’t see in any other groups.

    from yesterday….

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-14930409

  4. Mike

    This isn’t about crazy radicals, or crazy muslims or terrorists. This is about a man who was seperated from his family for no reason. Can’t you be slightly sympathetic? Instead of acting like all Muslims do what the Southeast Asian governments do? Jesus Christ, can’t you be slightly compassionate?

  5. elle,

    first of all in my defence, i didn’t bring up terrorism, Maryam did. yes i have sympathy for this man, and for the three brown skinned people arrested on the plane. but to act like “how could this happen in america” seems to just be a little naive. the government is full of idiots as are planes. and to equate it to terrorism is a hyperpole i could not overlook. i hope he makes it back in the country. he is right he could be an asset for understanding between communities.

    i said “this is an injustice, unamerican, not sure possibly unconstitutional. you could even call the ins a tyrannical branch of the evil american empire. but terrorism, really?” now i’m quoting myself???

  6. Elle,

    I realize the depth of emotion that some stories my bring, but we can still choose our words with some discretion. When you use Jesus Christ as an expletive indicating an emotional state of frustration or anger then, for most all Christians, it is considered Blasphemy or the taking of God’s name in vain. It is about on the same level, for Muslims, as if I were to draw a picture of Mohammad and label it in such a way that it is disrespectful. Of course you are free to write and speak as you will but in a forum such as this, with the views you espouse, I do not see how it is appropriate.

  7. Well I apologize, although I wouldn’t use it as a blasphemy mainly cause I believe in Jesus, he’s a Prophet, and a savior, and he’s going to save the righteous from the false messiah and his army. I ddn’t mean it as a blasphemy, so i apologize if it sounded that way.. like if i used “ya allah, ya rab” if I were upset or stressed out, right.

  8. And I happen to know Mohammad Salah and his nieces very well. In school we were told he was arrested and put in trial (this was A LONGGG time ago) and we were encouraged to pray for him and his family and hope for his safety. I remember the day they told us about him being freed, my principal was crying over the intercom and my teachers were hugging each other and crying. LOL Honestly he’s just a regular man with his own hopes and dreams, everytime they arrest the most innocent person they can find and wrap lies around them.

  9. For once I agree with Mike, except for the suggestion that Muslims have a higher incidence of terrorism than other groups. A quick look at the Europol’s terrorism report says that Islamist terrorism comprises a minority of terrorist acts, with separatist terrorism comprising an overwhelming majority, followed by left wing radicalist actions.

    So, yeah.

  10. tyler,

    i was speaking world wide. my bad for not being specific enough. most terrorism takes place in muslim countries. do you read the news? of course within nations with less than 10% muslim populations the majority of attacks will be from non-muslims. yeah i’ll read it. sorry i don’t have a website to link. not sure the pakistanis, saudi’s, yemeni’s, etc… even record these things? it’s kind of like the other weekend my brother mentioned that a report came out saying the us has an infant mortality rate comparable to some third world nations.

  11. Mike, and many of the terrorist attacks in the Middle East hit whom? the Muslims. Yea the two Amercan guys got arrested and that was really wrong. Sure u.s. embassies have been attacked or blown up but if you’ve ever been to Gaza, afghanistan, Egypt, or Saudi, they’re own people are being shot and blown up and oppressed. Sadly its like they believe other countries will fear them if they scare their own. I really hate politics but i think I hate life on this earth even more. So much bloodshed, so much disagreement. sigh

  12. yeah elle, most terrorist attacks are muslim vs muslim. that’s why it’s so perplexing when you hear people call it “the religion of peace”? or when someone says the only difference between sunni and shia was ali being overlooked as first caliphate? so why do they attack each other so? so i quess the question is, as a nation should we be bringing more people from this “many of the terrorist attacks in the Middle East hit whom? the Muslims.” into our nation? but sometimes muslim target non-muslims in the islamic world. how many arab christians are there left in iraq?

    From today: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-15051334

    “I really hate politics but i think I hate life on this earth even more”, and you called me a pessimist? WOW. what kind of journalist do you want to be. you can’t let the news of the world get you down. it’s a beautiful day and football is on. go bucs

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