Today I Was A Racial Profiler

By Laura J. Nigro ‘LJ’, Marketing Director
Jewish Federation of Portland

Shortly after noon today I stepped off the bus and invaded downtown Portland. A community peace gathering was underway on this brilliant Indian Summer day. But I had not come to join the rally per se. I had come to hunt for a certain type of person it was likely to draw.

Despite having been publicized as a vigil planned by Muslim and Arab groups, the event looked largely populated by the typical “white-American” left-wing types who frequent such affairs. So as the peace patriots circled Pioneer Square, it took somewhat more effort than I had expected to scope out the scarved women in floor-length garb and the swarthy men wearing banded-collar shirts. To spot the lush black hair and eyebrows. And to zero in on those among them who seemed especially demure, perhaps even furtive, and avoided eye contact. Spying ones who fit this profile, I made a beeline for them.

“Hello, I’m Laura,” I presented with a smile. Each accepted my outstretched hand and smiled tentatively in return. Most introduced themselves back; a couple of shy ones I coaxed along with, “and who are you?” Once I had a name for the face I asked gently, “How have you been these past few days? Do you feel safe, at ease in our community? Are your neighbors treating you well?”

At that, the hesitation and reserve melted.

For three hours today as I deliberately made my way from ‘dark’ stranger to ‘dark’ stranger, some now American citizens, others visiting or working here on visa, I was the beneficiary of a quiet human outpouring. An outpouring of faith, apprehension, autobiography, “one-degree-of-separation” stories, political convictions, and undifferentiated grief. But most touching was the basic, appreciative response to the simple fellowship I extended.

One of the individuals I reached out to was Siddhartha, a young computer programmer from Culcutta. He arrived in Portland just three weeks ago as part of a whirlwind tour of duty that had taken him to New Jersey, San Francisco, Chicago, and back to India before his latest assignment here. The first day or two after the attacks on America he’d been agitated and self-conscious. When I asked if he had any friends or family in town, he said no, he was more or less alone and had simply stumbled upon the peace procession on his way to Powell’s Books. He told how his new colleague had been originally hired a few months ago by a firm in the World Trade Center, but then was laid off and re-routed here to the same Portland company as himself. The sluggish US economy ended up sparing his life.

A different narrative came from an OHSU neuro-scientist named Sabri and his wife Hajmi. This Muslim couple originally from North India reported on the generous concern and kindness of their West Linn neighbors. They have lived in Portland for many years and their circle of friends here is wide, diverse and supportive. I was subsequently saddened to learn that another woman, Subia from Pakistan, has been greatly ill at ease in her hometown of Beaverton, where a mosque was just vandalized. She’s afraid to leave the house without her husband and will now have him drop her off with their children at the Muslim school they attend, so she can be constantly by their side.

I was stirred by Canaan, a Palestinian artist who yearns for a Middle East – and a world – devoid of racism and oppression. I listened attentively while he espoused in no uncertain terms his opinion of Zionism, and America’s role in ‘creating’ Osama bin Laden. And while he described with passion his idea for a community-wide Portland art project that would symbolize barriers of intolerance being broken down. A project that other groups would embrace as a fund-raiser of some sort. He also shared with me his strong desire to help integrate Portland’s Arab population with the greater community here. And he, too, mourned the colossal loss of human life.

I was moved by the personal narrative of Asaad, a Kurd, who told me of having served as a fighter pilot – as well as an attorney – in his native land. And of how he fought steadfastly against Sadam Hussein, and hid for some time in the Urals, separated from his wife and children. How his youngest son did not recognize him when Asaad was finally reunited with them a couple of years later. And how they all eventually came to the United States in exile three years ago. On this beautiful Sunday, he echoed the universal grief that has gripped all of us. He cut a dignified figure, dressed in a crisp white shirt, tie and dress pants. His demeanor was so openly gentle and deferential, that, thus attired, he might easily have been a Floresheim salesman who had momentarily stepped outside his shop to observe the passing scene.

I too spoke freely, identifying myself as someone who affiliates with no particular religion yet tries to live through all of them. When the subject of work arose, I disclosed my employment with a Jewish-based philanthropy that is, yes, pro-Israel. Naturally I also talked about MRA/Initiatives for Change and Caux Conference, and the personal relationships I have built with Muslims and Arabs (and Jews and Christians and others) through my own exposure to this global network. And I invited those who showed interest to attend the MRA-Northwest Compassionate Listening workshop on September 29th, not only to learn a specific communication skill but perhaps also to find the embrace in broader community which some of them seem to seek.

As I talked with these people from diverse backgrounds, angry anti-peace outbursts from the sidelines occasionally punctuated the dialogue. Mostly I couldn’t discern actual words (other than expletives), bent as I was on fixing my attention on our conversations. Right before we separated, Assad asked how I knew to single him out. “Was it because of my face, the way I look?” he asked simply. “Yes,” I answered plainly. And with some regretful sense of irony, knowing others might just as readily see in that same face a target for their hatred and vengeance.

I urge all of us to go out into our neighborhoods and search earnestly for such faces. And to take these faces tenderly in our hands, as it were, and let them know that we care. Because no matter what the ultimate political solution to this monumental mess – and regardless of who and where the other terrorists are – it will demand from everyone a greater loving regard for the whole of mankind.

In the name of Allah, most merciful, most compassionate.

Written just after September 11th 2001

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