After being approached by FBI agents, including a British-born Pakistani Muslim female officer, she was arrested and detained for seven weeks without charge. She was subsequently deported to the country of her parents' origin. In her first interview since the ordeal Amatur-Rahman talks candidly to Cageprisoners about the circumstances and effects of her traumatic experience.
CagePrisoners: Why do you believe you were singled by the US authorities out of all your friends?
Amatur-Rahman: Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem. Was-Salaatu was-Salaamu ala Rasulillah wa a’la asHaabihi wa man wala. Thumma Amma Ba’ad. Assalaamualikum warahmatulla hi wabarakaatuhu:
In today’s time and age, it is not very common to find teenagers who take their religion seriously; even more so if the families are not too inclined towards religion or towards giving their children a religious upbringing. I was a practicing Muslim teenager who wore the niqab to high school and I was also interested in da’wah (calling others to Islam). Considering the post 9-11 atmosphere, it was easy for them to single me out and label me as they wished. The immigration issue just made it easy for them to take me in and interrogate me for as long as they wished. I highly doubt other than the ‘religious’ factor, they would have found enough interest in me to put both my family and myself through what we went through.
CP: What did US officials tell you from the beginning about their interest in you - was it a terror investigation or an immigration matter?
AR: Initially, there were two agents who came to my house and introduced themselves as ‘family counselors’ who were going around the neighborhood. There was not any mention of any sort of investigation really. It was more of a ‘checking up on the neighborhood, want to make sure everything is alright’ kind of introduction. My family had never had experience with anything of this sort; my mother allowed them in without giving it any second thoughts. One agent remained downstairs whilst another one came upstairs to my room to speak to me. I still recall, later on while being interrogated (a couple of months later, after being taken) I was asked, why is it that your younger brother and sister were downstairs watching ‘Sex and the City’ and you were upstairs?
They were not aware of my family’s pending immigration status at that point. My parents’ immigration status was actually pending; they had applications sent in years back which were still in some sort of a process. The police came back with a raid a good two months after the initial visit. That is when they showed the immigration matter as an issue. They mentioned that if I would go with them, my parents and one of my brothers would not have to go along. So naturally, I agreed to be taken.
CP: How did you handle dealing with government agents at such a young age?
AR: I had no idea initially that they were agents. I still remember after coming into my room, the agent was taking notes the whole time she was speaking to me. Whatever I was saying, she would jot down. After a few minutes of speaking to me, she opened my closet door and started looking through my books and other stuff in the closet. I started feeling really uncomfortable and I think either I asked her what she was doing or was taking back my stuff from her hands; just alarmed. She was going through books, papers, looking at pictures and asking me questions. Then she wanted to take something and that’s when I told her that she could not just take something that belongs to me. The note jotting continued. I was nervous, shocked and a bit confused, all at the same time.
CP: Despite presenting any evidence to the contrary, did they deal with you as a security threat?
AR: I think, yes, they did think me as a ‘security threat’. But I guess it really is no shock, since almost anything can be considered ‘security threat’ in today’s time. I guess it’s easier to make the public believe what you are doing is right when the individual (s) is shown as a threat rather than a victim.
CP: What did the FBI want from you?
AR: Initially they only wanted to speak to me, just to ask me about my life and how everything was going. After taking me in, their questions revolved around anyone and everyone I knew and questions about them. Their only concern was who else they can deem/label as 'a threat'. In the last meeting, from what I re-call, they suggested how they would 'help' me remain committed to my religion if I 'helped' them out. The next meeting never took place as I left.
CP: Did it help that a female Muslim FBI agent was questioning you, or did that make it worse?
AR: That's a good question, I never really thought about it. The fact that she was a Muslim did not exactly cross my mind, even though her name claims so. She never bought up her religious beliefs with me or spoke about them. At no point did she try and point at our 'similarities', rather it was how different I was. The whole time, she tried to keep it as though it was her duty/job to speak to me. So for me, having her as the agent who questioned me made no difference, opposed to having a female who might have been from a different religious background.
CP: Did you have access to legal advice?
AR: I did have access to legal advice. But my lawyer was an immigration lawyer. So he really could not give me the greatest of advice on everything that was going on. He wasn’t given access to all the information. I think I was more aware of my situation than he was. But he did try to reassure me whenever he saw me. He himself felt really bad that there was not much he could do. It was obvious that they were looking into me not for immigration but for ‘terrorism’. My family’s immigration status, the pending status was an easy advantage for them. They told my mother it was immigration that was the issue, but in reality they had a whole different purpose behind it.
CP: Could you describe the raid?
AR: Early morning fajr (dawn) time I believe (I still remember losing my mind thinking that fajr [prayer] time was going and I was unable to go up and pray; we had to sit downstairs). I can’t recall how many officers there were in total. It was perhaps close to ten-twelve, maybe more.
We all sat downstairs, my baby brother was sleeping in my parent’s room at that particular time, my mom didn’t carry him downstairs. There was banging heard at the front door, my mom ran in and woke me up. So by the infinite grace of Allah I had enough time to cover and then get downstairs. The rest of my family members awoke in shock. They had us all sit downstairs on the sofa with one-two agents observing us.
They mentioned to me that due to my family’s immigration status they would have to either take me or my parents and me together. I went upstairs and I prayed while two women agents observed me from the back. I wanted to change again but they said that I could not touch any of my clothes since they would be taking me away. One of the women was really nice and she picked out the clothes for me as I requested.
Right before leaving, I simply asked one of the agents if I could take something of significance with me. He said yes. I grabbed my Quran, kissed my baby brother, hugged my mom (she completely broke down and was a wreck) and headed out the door. They did not handcuff me at that point; it was not until after the interrogation was over at the center they took me to that they handcuffed me and took me off to another state. You don’t really forget the small acts of kindness that are done to you at times of severe stress.
CP: Did you have any warning that you may be detained?
AR: No, I did not have any warning.
CP: What was going through your mind as you sat in the cell detained with no charge?
AR: The first day I was taken; the whole day was like a roller coaster ride. The raid in the morning, then being taken; interrogated for 4-5 hours straight; taken to an empty room where I had to sit for one-two hours waiting until the van was available to drive me off to another state; driven off to another state 4-5 hours away, sitting in the back of a van (I still recall one of the guys sitting up front with the driver mentioned how he lived a block away from where I did; he saw my address on the paper and he kept saying he could not believe he lived so close to me); once I entered the detention center I had to go through all the formalities and was strip searched and given the prison garb; I entered the cell, prayed my maghrib and isha prayers and just stopped myself from even thinking about what had just happened.
Everything did not hit me until the second day. Once it did hit me, I did break down. But as days go on, you learn to accept your situation and try and deal with it. I kept telling myself that it would pass. I knew I had to keep my spirits up high. Seeing my mother every week was such a booster. She was more effected (health wise) than me. So I had to show her that I was doing well otherwise it would have destroyed her even more.
CP: How was your typical day in detention? How were you treated?
AR: We were awoken everyday at around 6 a.m. Each cell was opened and the girls were allowed five minutes each, by rotation. This took up about an hour. I requested to be awoken at 5am because of fajr. You had five minutes to take a cold shower, brush your teeth and put on your prison garb (which was a pair of sweats and a long sleeve sweatshirt) and go back into your cell. Breakfast was served at about eight in the morning. The first week after fajr I went back to sleep and waited until they called again for breakfast. The second week I would not sleep after fajr, I would stay up and read a book. After we came back from breakfast, we would have to go and attend a ‘school session’ for three-four hours. It was the basic subjects from what I recall. After the ‘school’ session we would have lunch. After lunch we had to return back and sit on the tables they had in the main hall. These tables would have cards out, books, or other games which the girls spend most of their time on. Then we would go into cells again for an hour until dinner. After dinner we would either sit at the tables again or they would put on some movie for everyone to watch. A couple of hours later it would be snacks time and then soon back to bed. Prison life is all about routine.
I was put into a maximum security juvenile detention center (prison). In terms of the strict disciplinary rules, you get used to it. For me what were the absolute worst parts were:
1) I was not allowed to wear the jilbab. The second day (first day, considering the fact that I arrived the night before), they did not even allow me to wear the khimar (scarf) and I absolutely lost it. I refused to leave the cell unless they allowed me at the very least my khimar. They then agreed to allow me to wear the khimar but not the jilbab. However I was not allowed to take the khimar into the cell. We did not have to stay in the cell all the time. There would be one-two hours everyday when you would have to stay in your cell. After entering the cell I would have to take off my khimar and give it to one of the lady guards to keep on my shelf, then re-request it before getting out again. At night there would be male guards who would do round trips but since I was not allowed to take my scarf into the room, I would just put the blanket over me. Even that was not allowed because they had to see the inmate. So I somehow managed to keep everything covered at night except for my face with the blanket.
2) The second worst thing was the strip searches. I had to go through one the first day I was taken there. After every visit I would have to go through a strip search. My mother visited every week and there was also random individuals picked for strip searches on a weekly basis. I cannot really explain in words how this makes a person feel. Especially as a woman who is accustomed to covering herself a certain way, you have to learn to desensitize yourself to this. I did think about refusing to go through the strip searches at all costs but I knew there was absolutely no point. The agents would come every few weeks and remind me once more that it could get ‘a lot worst.’
On the other hand, the staff was actually quite nice. They used to be so frustrated with some of the girls and I didn’t really give them any behavioral problems so they treated me well. There were a couple of pregnant girls and some others who were in for drugs, stealing, attacking or yelling at a teacher or something of that sort. They would talk to me and not understand what I was doing in there! They kept telling me that immigration had nothing to do with their center. I kind of figured that part.
CP: What was your first visit like with your parents?
AR: My first visit was actually on the second or third day. My mother burst in crying her head off. She was such a mess. It was really nice to see her though, Alhamdulillah.
CP: What kept you strong during your detention?
I remember reading a lot. I used to take out the books they had in the shelves and just read. Generally, a book can have your mind soaring and exploring. But when you are in lock up, trust me when I say this, and I know that all other prisoners will have to agree with me; a book can open up the whole world and beyond for you. It can have you both mesmerized and rejuvenated. I also read the Quran; revised the suwar (chapters) I had memorized. Its good to keep your mind occupied, otherwise situations can overcome you.
CP: Were you interviewed while in detention, if so, how often? Did you have a lawyer present?
AR: Yes, I was interviewed while in detention. A total of three-four times. I did not have a lawyer present.
CP: What were your fears about what would become of you – and your family?
AR: My fear was not knowing what would happen next. You feel helpless and unsure of what to expect. It was something new for me. I was young and inexperienced to many of the harsh realities that life can bring forth. But with age comes experience. I was constantly worried about my family. I knew my parents were going through a lot. My parents were going crazy. My siblings also felt really scared and helpless.
CP: How did your family cope with your detention?
AR: They kept in touch with the lawyer as much as possible. They called me everyday for five minutes; visited every week. Again, it was something very new for them. They themselves were not really sure what to expect. People, who go to the West in hopes of having their dreams come true, don’t exactly expect anything of this sort.
CP: When did you find out that you and your family may get deported to another country?
AR: We actually did not get deported. Since I was a juvenile, my mother signed papers and wanted to come back to our country with me. Things were not looking too good. My court appearances were kept private so neither the public nor my family could attend. My mother was becoming increasingly impatient and decided it would be best if she bought me back. I was not sure of what to expect of my new life, but I did feel confident that Allah would take care of it no matter where I went. I felt nervous and anxious.
CP: How long did you have to prepare for such likelihood?
AR: Within a week-two of my mother’s signing, we had to leave. I was not expecting it when one of the prison staff had come to get me. When they called out my name, I knew it was time to go.
CP: How long were you detained in the US before you were sent abroad?
AR: Approximately two months.
CP: How did this news affect you, and your family, particularly your younger sister?
AR: I wasn’t sure on what to expect. I was still taking in everything. It broke apart my family. My younger siblings are introverts. They never really did discuss with me how they felt. But it affected them and perhaps even scared them away from practicing their religion. But my siblings have always respected my choice to practice Islam.
CP: How was the flight for you? How did they treat you?
AR: Agents/officers drove me to the airport. They were in civil clothing in order to not attract attention I guess. The female officer held onto me tightly while walking into the airport and walked me through the checking area. When I saw my family, I headed towards them but I was pushed through to the security area. I think the officers waited until my plane landed before calling it a day.
CP: What was it like to land in a country you left as a child and to leave your home and your friends behind?
AR: It felt surreal. After landing I felt like everything hit me all at once. I remember it was fajr time at the airport when I landed. The weather was intense. The feeling was intense. A reporter had followed me home. She followed us all the way home. I was dazed and I’m not sure how I managed to even speak to the reporter.
CP: What do you miss most about living in the US?
AR: I miss the subway and the public transport. I miss the weather. I miss the corner deli shops where you could get bagels and cream cheese when on the run. I miss the neighborhood in which I had my childhood. But Alhamdulillah I have had great new memories in the past few years as well.
CP: What is the bright side, if any, of the situation for you?
AR: I still have my iman [faith], I still have my Islam, wa lillahil Hamd [Allah be praised]. I did get out and wasn’t entrapped like the thousands of other Muslim prisoners who we witness being sentenced to absurd terms when you have child molesters, rapists and murderers being given less at times!
CP: How has this experience affected your faith?
AR: Iman is like a roller coaster. At times it soars up high and at times it drops real low. It is never constant. I have had my ups and downs through it all. But in the end of the day, my iman is always in need of more. Alhamdulillah, it is a struggle everyday. I ask Allah to keep us all on the straight path and let us die in the state of Islam.
CP: What have you gained through this experience both in the negative and positive sense?
AR: I would say I have gained a lot. I have learned a language, I have met new people, I have experienced the support of many and seen the breaking away as well. I have also learned that you should never expect life to go as you plan it. One moment’s event can change your whole life around. But you should be determined to stick to your deen [religion] no matter what. If you are sincere, then Allah will help you. Your state of affairs will not always be the same, nor will your state of deen. But if you try and hold on to your deen with one finger, Allah will aid you in taking out all nine other so you can grab on. It is on us to take the first step and trust Him. He will take the rest towards us and there can be no doubt about that.
CP: What would you say to those who may find themselves in similar circumstances?
AR: Do not panic. Keep reminding yourself that everything and everyone is in the hands and control of Allah. Keep your reliance on Him. What is meant to hit you will hit you no matter what and what is not meant to hit you will not hit you no matter what. Always remember that there are millions, if not billions who have had it worst, are having it worst and will have it worst. Any test that comes for the sake of your deen, take it with pride and gratitude. It isn’t everyone who is blessed with such an opportunity to be tested for their deen.
CP: Do who have any parting advice for those who might want to assist others who may be unjustly detained?
AR: There are several things that can be done to help. I would like to mention a few:
1) Sincere duaa; a person should never lose hope in the power of duaa [prayer]. This is one of the greatest forms of ibadah [worship].
2) Raising awareness of the individual(s) case. There are thousands of cases we have no idea about. But Allah is aware; so we should make duaa for all.
3) Letter Writing- this cannot be stressed enough. You have to be inside to understand just how much a letter can do. It can make your day/week/month/year or break it. To pass on the prisoner’s letter for others would also be a very good thing.
4) Visiting- if visits are possible then this would be amazing.
5) Send gifts- books or whatever can be sent. Perhaps through the families.
6) If you are able to get in touch with the families, please do. Often times the families are going through an extremely tough time, perhaps even more so than the prisoner. You don’t know how much a visit, a call or letting them know that you have them in your adiyah [plural of du’aa] can do for them.
CP: Sister Amatur-Rahman, may Allah reward you with the best for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.