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More than 1,100 people of Yemeni descent live in Lackawanna.

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  • More than 1,100 people of Yemeni descent live in Lackawanna.

    A crowd of men, probably a dozen or so, sits on the sidelines, and a
    few
    more sit nearby in their cars, rooting for the Lackawanna soccer team
    and
    its mostly Arab-American athletes.

    No soccer moms in this crowd. Just the guys watching what turns out to
    be a
    close game between two strong high school teams.

    Girls don't play soccer in this community, and women don't come out to
    watch the game.

    In fact, some people in the neighborhood don't even call the game
    soccer.

    "We call it football," says Hussan Muhsen, 52, of Bauder Street, using
    the
    name the sport is called in Yemen and much of the rest of the world.

    In the aftermath of the recent arrest of six men in Lackawanna's Yemeni
    neighborhood, all accused of being trained by the al-Qaida terrorist
    group,
    this community closed ranks around its native sons, denying they are
    terrorists-in-training and declaring them as American as you or your
    neighbor: People who work. Go to school. Take care of their families.
    Play
    soccer.

    But while the accused men are native-born Americans, their community is
    not
    Norman Rockwell's America. It is not even Buffalo's Polish East Side or
    Irish South Buffalo.

    This is a piece of ethnic America where the Arabic-speaking Al-Jazeera
    television station is beamed in from Qatar through satellite dishes to
    Yemenite-American homes; where young children answer "Salaam" when the
    cell
    phone rings, while older children travel to the Middle East to meet
    their
    future husband or wife; where soccer moms don't seem to exist, and
    where
    girls don't get to play soccer - or, as some would say, football.

    In some ways, this slice of American life has the feel of Cattaraugus
    County's Amish community, where men and women dress in traditional
    clothes
    and commute by horse and buggy. Or to the Crown Heights section in
    Brooklyn, where Hasidic men in yarmulkes and women in long dresses
    don't
    drive on the Sabbath. They may be American, but they keep much of their
    traditional ways.

    There's one big difference, though. This is the community that helped
    raise
    the six arrested men - and two other men still at large - who the FBI
    claims formed an al-Qaida "sleeper cell," waiting perhaps for orders
    from
    Osama bin Laden and others who directed the Sept. 11 attacks on the
    United
    States.

    To many Yemenite-Americans - shocked by events unfolding in federal
    court
    in recent days, yet increasingly convinced that the government's case
    is
    largely the result of overzealousness - this ethnic neighborhood has
    provided the support first-generation immigrants of all kinds
    traditionally
    seek when coming to America.

    It's also a community under pressure, as an outside world sometimes
    looks
    askance, skeptical of what seems like a community caught in another
    time,
    another place.

    Ultimately, that outside world lures some of the young people away. But
    so
    far, with new people continually moving in and families growing,
    Lackawanna's Yemeni community has grown in recent decades.

    Where steel dominated

    In the shadows of the giant steel mills that once dominated
    Lackawanna's
    landscape, Yemenites began coming to this community in the 1930s.

    Back then, the four-block area now considered the largest Arab-American
    neighborhood in Western New York was a predominantly Polish-American
    community.

    The neighborhood thrived, recalled Kenny Burse, 44, who said he has
    spent
    his entire life on Ingham Avenue.

    But the steel plants closed. The neighborhood faltered, housing prices
    fell. White homeowners left. Blacks and Hispanics from nearby projects
    moved into what quickly became low-rent flats. Yemenites, meanwhile,
    kept
    coming, staying with family members and working in the Ford plant and
    others or finding work, sometimes opening their own businesses.

    Today, while this fading steel city of 19,000 continues losing
    population,
    its Arab-American community has surged 175 percent in the past decade
    alone, according to census estimates.

    An estimated 1,111 Arab-Americans now live in Lackawanna, with more
    than
    two-thirds concentrated within the immediate streets surrounding the
    mosque
    at the end of Wilkesbarre Avenue, according to census data.

    And while vastly different cultures have lived here side by side for
    years,
    it's not one big happy family.

    Resentment toward the Arab-Americans from the black community bubbles
    just
    below the surface, as the African-Americans express resentment over
    living
    in rented flats while Arab-Americans own their own homes and
    businesses.

    "You see how many American flags are out don't you? Not one," Dennis
    Brown,
    40, who lives in the neighborhood, said of his Arab-American neighbors.
    "If
    you're an American citizen so much, where's your American flags?"

    "They're so worried about the safety of their kids, what about the
    safety
    of my kids?" said Brenda Brown, 43, Dennis' sister, who also lives in
    the
    neighborhood. "We're the ones in danger."

    Such comments are upsetting in the Yemeni community. Although sparse, a
    few
    American flags can be spotted, and many residents talk with pride about
    their U.S. citizenship.

    "I do everything for the U.S.," said Ali Said, 77, wearing an American
    United flag pin as he walks down Ingham Avenue.

    "Look," Said says proudly, as he opens his wallet to show off his 1981
    citizenship card.

    Still, even those in the black community who speak with friendliness
    toward
    their Yemenite-American neighbors say the two groups are cordial but
    don't
    socialize.

    "If you know them, they'll laugh and joke with you," said one
    37-year-old
    African-American male. "If they don't, they'll stick to themselves."

    In some ways, given cultural differences, the separateness seems
    inevitable.

    Dealing with marriage

    Most Yemenite-American youths here do not date. Marriages are arranged,
    sometimes with people in Yemen, although prospective brides and grooms
    can
    refuse an arrangement as well as request one.

    "Usually now with this generation, they see someone they like, they go
    to
    the house, they try to make an arrangement," said America Ali, 30, a
    Wilkesbarre Avenue resident whose name was chosen because her
    Yemen-born
    mother obtained a U.S. visa the same day America was born.

    There are exceptions. One of the suspects, Yasein A. Taher, for
    example,
    married a non-Arab who was his high school sweetheart, and they moved
    to
    Hamburg.

    Ali, who did follow her culture's custom, returned to Yemen when she
    was 15
    to meet the man she would marry when she was 20.

    Like most women in her community, Ali stays home caring for her
    children
    rather than working outside the home. Many of the Yemenite-American
    families in her community have as many as six or seven children, said
    Ali,
    who has two.

    "It's a blessing to have a lot of children. However much is written for
    you
    to have, you will have," she said.

    Also like Ali, many of the women dress in traditional Muslim clothing,
    a
    long dress covering her neck and arms and hanging down to her sandals,
    as
    well as a long head scarf.

    "It's just like a nun. Just to look holy," she said. "We believe every
    part
    of a woman's body is an attraction to men. This way, you don't see the
    beauty of your hair, there's no makeup."

    "Your beauty is only for your husband," she said.

    Many men, meanwhile, work in factories or own their own businesses,
    supporting their immediate and sometimes extended families and
    frequently
    sending money back to needy relatives in Yemen.

    Some men have trouble finding jobs in today's economy, although a
    growing
    number of the younger generation are attending college and say they are
    moving up financially. Still, the median household income in the
    surrounding neighborhood is $23,242, according to census data. That's
    less
    than the median household income of $29,354 in all of Lackawanna.

    With families doubling up in the sometimes big houses on these streets,
    the
    money seems to be enough for what people in this community need. And
    given
    a community philosophy that all Yemenite-Americans are brothers, they
    often
    help each other when money is needed, as when many in the community
    last
    week agreed to mortgage their homes to raise bail money for the six
    suspects in custody.

    In the past, they joined forces to pay for a new wing for their mosque.

    Family also helped some of the men raise the money last year to travel
    to
    Pakistan for the religious pilgrimage that ultimately led to the
    charges
    they now face in federal court.

    Religion is central

    With the Lackawanna mosque being the center of the Yemenite-American
    community, religion is a large factor in the people's lives.

    Still, given the time and money involved, when the men expressed
    interest
    in going to an Islamic conference in Pakistan last year, it was
    unusual.

    One of the men, Sahim Alwan, 29, is a respected leader at the
    Lackawanna
    mosque and works as a counselor in Medina.

    The other arrested men - Taher, 24; Shafal A. Mosed, 24; Yahya A. Goba,
    25;
    Faysal H. Galab, 26; and Mukhtar al-Bakri, 22 - generally have been
    struggling financially, trying to support themselves and their families
    as
    telemarketers, delivery men and warehouse workers, according to friends
    and
    family.

    What's more, it was only in recent years that some of these six got
    heavily
    involved in religion, according to friends and family.

    "They barely speak Arabic, these boys. In religious terms, they are
    virgins," said America Ali, who said she is friends with several of the
    six
    men. "There are religious schools in Amherst and Buffalo, too. If my
    husband told me he wanted to go (overseas) to learn Islam, I'd tell him
    -
    given our financial situation - wouldn't it be best to go to one here?
    These boys are so broke, they can't even afford terrorism."

    Friends and family said they don't know the cost of the entire overseas
    trip. With round-trip plane fare to Pakistan $1,000 or more, some of
    the
    men borrowed from their friends and families. In other cases, even
    family
    didn't know where the money came from.

    "I don't know how he got the money," Ahmed al-Bakri said of his
    brother,
    Mukhta, who most recently had a job as a delivery and warehouse worker.

    Getting involved

    In court documents, federal authorities charged the six men were
    influenced
    by Kamal Derwish, the alleged ring leader who law enforcement said
    recruited the six to go to Pakistan and then to an al-Qaida training
    camp
    in Afghanistan. Derwish is still being sought.

    But friends of the six arrested suspects said it was actually a tragedy
    that got them involved in religion a few years ago, when a friend
    drowned
    while vacationing in Michigan.

    "One of their friends passed away three years ago, and they realized
    life
    is serious. It's no joke. Anyone can go," said Mohamed Ali, 22.
    "Everyone
    started to settle down, shaping up, getting married, having kids."

    "These guys used to go out with girls and drink beer," added Ahmed
    Saleh,
    19. "They had problems. They realized what they were doing was wrong.
    They
    changed."

    They became devout Muslims who taught younger people about the
    religion,
    the friends said.

    "Those guys were like our teachers," said Mahran Omar, 20. "They went
    over
    to Pakistan to learn more about Islam, to be educated."

    "If I would be walking along the street, one of them would stop his car
    and
    call to me, "Let's go to the mosque and pray,' " said Abduah Ahemo, 19.
    "Let's do the right thing instead of the wrong thing."

    When the men returned from overseas, Omar said, they did not speak well
    of
    the experience.

    "They didn't like it over there. They said it was too crazy to stay.
    That's
    why they came back."

    Fadhl Mosed, an uncle of Shafal Mosed, said his nephew returned from
    Pakistan grateful to call America his home.

    "He cut off his beard when he came back. He didn't like the people over
    there. People were out in the streets hungry," the uncle said.

    America Ali said Mosed was supposed to stay for four months but came
    back
    early.

    "I saw him on the street and I was like, "What are you doing back here
    already?' He said to me, "I missed my pizza, my football, my wife and
    my
    son.' And he hated the weather there," she said.

    Friends and family also said none of the young men was political and
    that
    none was espousing any anti-American sentiments when he returned home.

    Issues with Bush

    Many in the Yemeni community, when asked, say they aren't happy with
    U.S.
    policy on issues affecting some Muslim countries. Several said the Bush
    administration is too pro-Israel and being too stubborn in its dealings
    with Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

    Also, several in the community said one of the reasons they watch
    Al-Jazeera, the Arab television station, is "to get news from back
    home."

    "The U.S. news doesn't go into detail with Israel and Palestine.
    Sometimes
    ABC, NBC and CBS tend to be on the Israeli side," said Sahem Elbaneh,
    the
    younger brother of one of the suspects.

    Others say they like Al-Jazeera for the entertainment and music shows.

    "We watch the movies and TV shows that are in Arabic," said Mohmed
    Ahmed, 17.

    And some said any disagreements they have with American foreign policy
    don't change their overall view on America.

    "As Arab-Americans, we consider the United States as a mother," said
    Ahmed
    Jamil, standing outside the Lackawanna mosque. "You may disagree with
    her
    sometimes, but you fight to the death to protect her."

    Added Muhsen, the Bauder Street resident who watches the Lackawanna
    soccer
    team: "I don't enjoy seeing Israelis or Palestinians killed. We pray
    for
    peace."

    Muhsen, like many in the Yemeni neighborhood, also said he hopes the
    larger
    community understands the six men are "innocent until proven guilty."
    If
    the men did something wrong, they should be held accountable, he said.

    But the whole Yemenite-American community of Lackawanna should not be
    blamed, he said.

    That's a view held by many in the Western New York's Muslim community,
    both
    in Lackawanna and the rest of the area.

    It's a community estimated to be anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people
    and
    includes American converts to the faith as well as people from around
    the
    world, including Iraq, China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Kashmir in India.

    This larger Muslim community has been working hard in recent years to
    build
    bridges in Western New York and to be accepted and understood by
    non-Muslims, according to Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the local
    American
    Muslim Council.

    If the accusation against the Lackawanna men are true - and two of the
    suspects have told FBI agents that they were at the al-Qaida camp -
    then
    that is "unacceptable" to the Muslim community of Western New York,
    Qazi said.

    Harm has been caused

    Already, these allegations have hurt the progress that was occurring in
    building bridges among communities, Qazi said.

    Meanwhile, back on the soccer field, one place where people of all
    faiths
    and backgrounds are often able to build bridges easier than in public,
    the
    Lackawanna and Maryvale high school teams seemed focused on only one
    thing
    during the recent game: winning.

    As it turned out, the game was a 1-1 tie.

    Some 30 parents, soccer moms and dads, sat on the visitors side
    cheering
    for the Maryvale team.

    The Lackawanna team had a big cheering section also. About a dozen
    Yemenite-American men huddled together supporting the team, while other
    men
    in the community - even those without children of their own - stopped
    by to
    watch the game for a while.

    There were no girls or women in the crowd. Yemeni girls, by tradition,
    don't play soccer, and mothers don't have time to show up for games,
    although they are welcome, said Abdul Salam Noman, the Lackawanna High
    School varsity soccer coach who also heads the Lackawanna Yemen Soccer
    Club.

    "Each family has many kids, and it's a lot for the women to drag them
    to
    the soccer field to watch a game," Noman said. "It's not that we don't
    want
    them there."


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