How the “war on terror” ripped an Atlanta family apart
By: Sharmin Sadequee
I once watched my mother pray for nine hours straight. She did so when we drove five hundred miles to visit my brother, traveling from my home in Michigan to a federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
My mother was sitting next to me in the front passenger seat. Holding a Quran in her lap, back arched forward, she was melodic. The breeze outside vibrated the gentle sound of her recitation, warming the inside of our car.
Unfortunately, I kept asking when she was going to finish praying so I could listen to some music.
My mother—a little agitated—responded in Bangla, “We’re going to see Shifa after a long time. You need to pray that we can see him. It’s a long drive…we need to make sure that we face no problems in our journey and that the prison gives us no trouble.”
Gesturing, she said, “I don’t know how he is doing. What he eats there. I’m not there for him anymore. I can’t call him…bring him food…I can’t hug him. I am praying that he is all right.”
When we arrived at the prison and entered the visitation room, Shifa was waiting for us. A guard closed the iron door behind us, locking my mother, my sister and me inside. In the small, dimly lit room, there were no windows, no bathrooms, no vending machines. However, two cameras always watched us, studying our bodies and movements.
Shifa welcomed us from behind a plexiglass barrier––no contact visits are allowed—with the biggest smile stretched across his face and the longest Muslim greeting in Arabic. He wore a khaki uniform, a white skullcap, and glasses. His hair fell down to his ears, and a full beard covered his face. He brightened up the morose room with his poised grin and graceful warmth. My mother was filled with joy to see her son. She was very anxious to talk to him, to hear his voice. She took her seat between my sister and me and picked up the white phone sitting amid three wall phones.
“Abbu, have you had breakfast this morning? What did you have?”
“Alhamdolillah. I had breakfast,” Shifa replied through his phone on the other side of the glass.
“Did you sleep well last night?”
Smiling, Shifa answered, “Alhamdolillah.”
“Do you need anything? Has your sister been sending you money regularly?”
“Alhamdolillah, Ammi, I am in the care of Allah Subhana wa ta’la. Nothing to worry!”
My mother continued to press him. “But how much money do you have right now?”
“Alhamdolillah, I have enough.”
“Do they give you fruits and vegetable regularly?”
“How is the temperature in your room? Is it normal?
“Alhamdolillah” means “Praise is to God.”
My mother asked if we could get him something from the vending machine in the other room, but he said he didn’t want anything. She offered to buy him some chips, cookies or soda, but he declined again. Then she looked at me and my sister and, raising her voice a little, said, “Why don’t you get him something? Why are you sitting here?”
“He doesn’t want anything,” I replied.
My mother countered, “He doesn’t want anything because you haven’t brought him anything.”
I don’t know whether being able to feed her son would have quenched the emptiness my mother felt from having lost him to prison; I don’t know whether a mother seeing her son eat before her eyes fulfills her need to be there for her child.
But whenever she visits him, whenever he calls her, and whenever she writes to him, my mother always wants to know these things from Shifa. Every time. Mundane questions to many of us, but so meaningful to a mother.
One day, when I asked her why she always asked him these same questions, she said, “I’m not there for him anymore. I want to know if he is well.”
When Shifa was growing up, he was always glued to the television, watching “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and eating nothing but pizza. Pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If there was no pizza at home, my mother had to instantly make it for him. He would watch her make it and sometimes help her prepare the dough or spread the tomato sauce or the cheese. He loved extra cheese on his pizza. My mother and Shifa made pizza together and ate it together.
It was difficult for my mother to get my brother accustomed to desi food. If he ate desi food, it had to be lentils and rice; she had to make the lentil soup very runny for him; otherwise, he wouldn’t eat it. Now the prison walls barred my mother from being with her son, from feeding him, from preparing food with him. The walls denied her motherhood.
In 2006, news of my brother’s kidnapping from Bangladesh, twelve days after his wedding, shocked and numbed my mother to the point that she started fasting until she got sick.
She and I were staying in New York City because our government held my brother in Brooklyn for three months before moving him to Atlanta. My mother wanted to see Shifa regularly in those three months.
We were staying with my cousin until he asked us to move out; he became concerned with the length of our stay because he was afraid to keep us in his home, so he made up a story that the FBI had visited him. My mother’s heart broke that day, because it meant she could not see her son anymore. She clutched her wrists with pain, held back her tears. Her face turned blank with helplessness, but she forced herself to smile back at my cousin. She did not want to leave; she was living so close to her son in Brooklyn.
Yet who would let us stay when all were afraid of coming under FBI surveillance because of her, because of us, because of Shifa? Who would risk his own and his family’s safety for her? We had no choice but to leave. We eventually found another place to stay. I tried to feed my mother, but she could not eat anything in those days. The thought that she could not be there for her son engulfed her mind and body with pain. How could she enjoy food when her son could not have the same food or even an adequate meal? It was like she was punishing herself by withholding food from her own body in her inability to help him.
Her health declined; she was aggrieved with physical illnesses and depression. The barbed wire and the prison walls took over her health. She has since spent a lot of money each year to visit my brother in order to maintain emotional, social, and familial relationships, but she is still forced to endure the painful process of separation. She is still not allowed to touch or kiss her beloved son.
When Shifa’s trial began in Atlanta in the summer of 2009, my mother did not understand what was going on, for she doesn’t understand English very well. She carried rosary beads and the Quran each day to the courtroom to pray for him. I had to explain to her what the prosecutors were saying: about the PATRIOT Act, about how my brother, her son, was charged with an ambiguous crime called “providing material support to terrorism.” I explained to her what the U.S. prosecutor, in the opening statement of the trial, said about what “crimes” Shifa had supposedly committed (or not committed):
“You will hear no evidence in this trial that the defendant had a gun, that he was building a bomb, that he had joined a particular terrorist organization, because that’s not what the charge is. It would be a very different landscape in United States District Court if that’s what the allegation was, but it’s not…I want to repeat: defendant is not charged with committing any terrorist act, no bomb throwing, no shooting, no dead bodies…It’s not a case about the defendant making bombs or that’s not the charge…” (1)
I also told her that her son’s only “crime” was sitting in front of a computer translating and publishing Arabic, Islamic, and political literature for a publication on a website, sharing a lot of “LOLs” with his online acquaintances, working on a website, and posting photos and videos of his tourist trips for those same buddies.
I explained to her how the government prosecutors could not point to one sentence in his trial that demonstrated that Shifa was even thinking of doing anything criminal. There was not one sentence about such activity, I told her.
She asked, “Not one sentence?”
“No,” I replied. “Not one sentence.”
I could see how her heart dropped.
She wanted to cry that day, but she pushed it all in, hardening her heart at the injustice done to her, to her little son. Another day, my mother was there with my brother’s lawyers when they told us that the government prosecutors did not believe my brother was capable of violence or of harming anyone at all––and so my mother could not understand why her son was punished with over 1,300 days in solitary confinement before his trial even began. And she didn’t understand why the evidence of her son’s kidnapping from Bangladesh and illegal rendition to the U.S. by the FBI was not explained to the jury.
The federal judge prohibited Shifa, who represented himself at trial, from introducing this evidence.
Now my mother has learned that a 2009 report by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed that there is a good chance that government prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence––which could prove a defendant’s innocence––from all post-9/11 “terrorism” cases involving Muslims. This could prove the innocence of her son, and young men like her son, but our country is not looking into this issue.
To pay for my brother’s lawyers, my mother put her home up for sale, as well as her gold; she and my father cashed in the insurance policy they were saving for my brother’s education; she traveled across the country and stood before mosque after mosque to raise funds for Shifa’s legal defense.
Nothing helped. No defense lawyer could help her. No one could help return her heart and soul, her son. No one could release the love of her life snatched from her womb. No one could free him. No one.
My brother, Ehsanul Shifa Sadequee, who spoke out against the U.S. violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, translated literature, and worked on a publication website, was sentenced to seventeen years in a Communication Management Unit. My mother wonders how her precious son can be so far away from her, separated from her by barbed wire fences and iron walls for joining no terrorist organization, for plotting and committing no terrorist acts. He is her little son put behind bars––for what reason?
And in 2009, my mother and I watched on television as––within twenty-four hours of my brother’s conviction––the governor of Georgia appointed the U.S. prosecutor who supervised Shifa’s case to the Georgia Supreme Court.
This story is a brief glimpse of the lived experiences of what Muslim families targeted by the U.S. government under the domestic “war on terror” suffer. There are well over 500 cases like my brother’s, whereby Muslim American youth and adults have been accused of “terrorism-related” charges. Stories and images of some of those families from across the country are portrayed in Shattering Stigma, Crossing Boundaries. The longer story of Shifa Sadequee can be found in From Prayers to Plexiglass.
- Trial transcript, page 44, lines 22–25; page 45, line 1; page 57, lines 19–21; page 62, lines 4–5)