Available now from Voice of Witness, Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice, is edited by Alia Malek, an author (A Country Called Amreeka) and former Department of Justice attorney. 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. For more information about Voice of Witness visit voiceofwitness.org.
On March 24, 2005, Adama Bah, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl, awoke at dawn to discover nearly a dozen armed FBI agents inside her family’s apartment in East Harlem. They arrested her and her father, Mamadou Bah, and transported them to separate detention facilities. A government document leaked to the press claimed that Adama was a potential suicide bomber but failed to provide any evidence to support this claim. Released after six weeks in detention, Adama was forced to live under partial house arrest with an ankle bracelet, a government-enforced curfew, and a court-issued gag order that prohibited her from speaking about her case. In August of 2006, Adama’s father was deported back to Guinea, Africa. Adama, who had traveled to the United States with her parents from Guinea as a child, also found herself facing deportation. She would spend the next few years fighting for asylum and struggling to support her family in the United States and Guinea.
The morning of March 24, 2005, my family and I were in the house sleeping.
Someone knocked on the door, and my mom went and opened it. These men barged in, waking us up. I always sleep with the blanket over my head. They pull the blanket off my head, I look up, I see a man. He said, “You’ve got to get out!” I’m like, What the hell, what’s going on?
I saw about ten to fifteen people in our apartment and right outside our door in the hallway. They were mostly men, but there were two women. Some had FBI jackets, and others were from the police department and the DHS. We were all forced out of the bed and told to sit in the living room. They were going through papers, throwing stuff around, yelling and talking to each other, then whispering. I heard them yelling at my mother in the background, and my mom can’t speak much English, and they were pulling her into the kitchen, yelling at her, “We’re going to deport you and your whole family!”
This whole time, I was thinking, What’s going on? What are they talking about? I knew my dad had an issue with his papers, but I didn’t think that my mom did. They kept saying, “We’re going to send all of you back to your country.”
Then I saw my dad walking in, in handcuffs. They had gone to the mosque to get him. It was the scariest thing you could ever see; I had just never seen my father so powerless. He was always this guy you didn’t mess with. If he said do it, you did it. He was just someone you didn’t cross paths with.
They took him to the kitchen, whispered something to him.
He sat down, looked at us. He said, “Everything’s going to be fine, don’t worry.”
And then I knew nothing was fine, I knew something was wrong. They told him to tell us what was going on. He told us that they were going to arrest him and they were going to take him away.
The FBI agents told me to get up and get my sneakers. I was thinking they wanted to see my sneaker collection. I have all types of colors of sneakers. I went and grabbed them. I said, “I have this one, I have this one, I have this one.”
One of the agents said, “Choose one.”
My favorite color is blue, so I picked up a blue pair and said, “This one.”
He said, “Put them on.”
I said, “Okay, but I know they fit me.”
He said, “Put them on!” He was very nasty. Then he said, “All those earrings have to go out.” I have eight piercings on each side, a nose ring, and a tongue ring. I went to the kitchen to take them off, and they followed me in there.
My breath was stinking. I asked, “Can I at least brush my teeth? My breath stinks really bad. Can I use the bathroom?”
They said, “No. We have to go. You’re coming with us.”
I said, “Where am I going to go? Am I going with my dad?” I put on my jacket. They let me put my headscarf and abaya on. Then one of the women took out handcuffs. I panicked so badly, I was stuttering, “What did I do? Where are we going?”
First time in my life, I’m sixteen years old, in handcuffs. I looked at my dad, and he said, “Just do what they say.”
My mom didn’t know I was going. When we got out the door, she said, “Where she go? Where she go?” the agents said, “We’re taking her,” and they held my mom back. The man who seemed to be in charge put his hands on my mother to stop her.
They took me and my dad and put us in the same car. I was scared. I said to him, “What’s going on? What’s going to happen?” My dad said, “Don’t say anything, we’re going to get a lawyer. It’s okay, everything is going to be fine.”
There were two Escalades driving with us. I was looking around, paying attention. I recognized the Brooklyn Bridge, I recognized a lot of landmarks, but I didn’t recognize the building where my father and I were taken. We got out of the car and we walked past a security booth where the cars drive up to, before taking a ramp beneath the building to the parking lot. Once we were inside the building, they put me in my own cell. It was white, with a bench. No bars. No windows. There was a door that had a tiny glass pane, and I could see who was out there. I just saw a bunch of computers and tables, and people walking back and forth and talking. I kept seeing them talk to my dad.
I don’t know how long I was in there.
I was nervous, I was panicking, I was crying, I was trying to figure out what was going on. And I was constantly using the bathroom.
The toilet was an open toilet, though. There was a camera on the ceiling in the middle of the room. I was wondering, Can they see me peeing? I just wrapped blankets around me as I was peeing.
Hours later, Adama was removed from her cell for questioning, during which she learned that she was not, in fact, a U.S. citizen. While being fingerprinted, she saw that another teen from her mosque, named Tashnuba, had also been detained. Here, she recounts her final interrogation before being transported to a detention facility in Pennsylvania.
Finally I was brought to another room. This room had a table, a chair on one side, and two chairs on the other side. A federal agent walked in. She said, “I need to talk to you about something.” The questions she was asking had nothing to do with immigration. They were terrorism questions. She asked me about people from London, about people from all over the world. I thought, What’s going on?
The male interrogator told me that the religious study group Tashnuba was part of had been started by a guy who was wanted by the FBI. I had no idea if that was true or not.
The study group at the mosque was all women. So it was women learning about religion, women’s empowerment, why we cover, how we do the prayer, when to pray, things like that. It was more for converts and new people who had just come into Islam. There was nothing about jihad or anything like that.
I wasn’t part of the group, but Tashnuba was. We were the same age, sixteen. So, they asked me about this group and they told me they’d taken my computer and my diary. My diary was a black-and-white notebook. I had phone numbers, I had notes, I had stories in it, I had everything. Basically, they asked me about every contact in there, they asked me about every little thing. But, there’s nothing in there about jihad, there’s nothing in there about anything that’s suspicious. There was nothing in there at all. So I wasn’t worried.
They said, “We have your computer, we can find whatever you’re hiding.”
I said, “Go ahead, look in my computer. I have nothing to hide.”
They kept making a scene, like there was something big there. They said, “Don’t lie to us. If you lie to us, we’ll have proof, we’ll catch you in your lie.”
I knew there was nothing in my computer, but at the end of the day, I started to doubt myself. I thought, Okay, what’s going on now? Is there something there? Their technique is to make you doubt yourself. But then I thought, Wait a minute, I’m not this person. What are they talking about?
The interrogation lasted a long time. This Secret Service guy came in. He asked me how I felt about Bush. I said, “I don’t like him.” I was being very honest with them. There was nothing to hide.
The Secret Service guy was just too aggressive. He said, “I don’t understand—why do you choose to cover when women choose to wear less and less every day?”
I said, “It’s freedom of choice. Some people want to show some stuff, some people want to hide things. Some people want to preserve their bodies, some people don’t want to. They want to show it to the whole world.”
He said, “I don’t understand. You’re young, why are you doing this?”
Then they asked me about Tashnuba. They asked me about her name, they asked me about her family, but I told them, “I don’t know her.”
They said, “Tashnuba wrote you on this list.”
I said, “What list?”
They said, “She signed you up to be a suicide bomber.”
I said, “Are you serious? Why would she do that? She doesn’t seem like that type of person.”
They were trying to make me seem like I was wrong about who I knew and who I didn’t know.
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