By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
With her father behind bars in a federal prison in Seagoville, Noor's life turned upside down. As a general assignment reporter with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, she used to call her father with questions on the road to her next story assignment. She used to beg him to make guacamole dip. She used to fight with her siblings in the evening after dinner for his ear. She relied on her dad like no other person. She decided to take a leave of absence to watch the trial and watch over her dad. Her only communication with him is through letters and two-hour weekly visits.
"I've put my life on hold," Noor says.
Recently, the family celebrated their first Ramadan without Ghassan. Noor's broad shoulders slump as she talks about her father. Two shelves stacked with her father's religious books and a tapestry embroidered with a verse from the Quran—"There is no god but God...He knows all things before and after, and nothing shall pass that is not His will"—serve as painful reminders of his absence. She feels like she's saying goodbye to pieces of her father with each passing day he's in prison. "It's not as bad as death or even divorce," she says, "but the day you realize your dad may not be at your own wedding is every girl's nightmare."
At 21, she is the oldest of six children. Her deep, sea-green eyes give a doe-like expressiveness to her presence in the courtroom. She's kept watch over her dad every day of the trial and deliberations. She says her strength to carry on comes from her father's last words as he was taken away that Tuesday morning three years ago: "It's OK, hon. Keep your head up high because your father did nothing wrong."
Now, morning, noon and night, her father sits in solitary confinement reading the Quran. During her visitations, Noor says her father seldom talks about his predicament. His mind is entirely preoccupied, she says, with his family's plight.
On a sunny late afternoon inside the Elashi home in the middle of the trial, the washing machine spins clothes with a clank and the water runs over dishes stacked in the kitchen sink. Noor sits on the couch in jeans and a T-shirt, her shoulder-length chestnut hair let down and her iBook on her lap as she punches out the latest trial update before dinner. The reporter turned protector spends nearly two hours every evening editing a blog for families caught up in the web of the government's case against the Holy Land Foundation.
Noor handles the stress differently from her sisters Huda, 18, and Asma, 16. She peeled off the bathroom wallpaper, launching a remodeling project to have fresh surroundings for when everything ends. But the task seemed overwhelming, and soon she abandoned the new apricot wallpaper. It lies on the floor, waiting for someone to install it—later.
"I get frustrated really easily these days," she says, recalling a fight she had with her sister over a plate of brownies. Fasting for Ramadan, Huda was standing near Noor with the brownies she'd made. Noor just reached out and said, "I need one."
Huda pulled the plate back, chiding, "No, you're gonna wait until everybody eats."
Noor feels it has been worth it to be at home, focused on the case. On a Friday early in the trial, she drove Huda to a pharmacy technician exam and picked up her brother Mohammad from school for a doctor's appointment for his ankle, fractured in a skateboard accident.
In the kitchen, Majida asks her middle son, Osama, 11, about his progress in school. He says he got a 70 in one class.
"Oh my goodness, Osama! Never again, Habibi [my dear]," says Majida softly. "You better get hundreds all the way." She sits the oldest son, Mohammad, 12, down to do his Quran memorization and asks the other a long string of requests. "OK, my Osama, can you help me with the dishes? Can you take this with me to grandmother's? Did you make your prayers?" The youngest son, Omar, 7, has Down syndrome. Majida and Ghassan married and lived in Culver City, California, before moving the family to Richardson in 1992. Ghassan's mother, Fadwa, a Palestinian refugee from the city of Jaffa, lives next door. She and her oldest son have rented side-by-side three-bedroom duplexes. Most nights the family eats together in Fadwa's home.
Over dinner, the conversation is in Arabic. A map of Palestine with the city of Jaffa and a gold key hang next to hand-stitched artwork, gifts from Palestine that remind her of a home demolished long ago. The smells of chicken and rice and vegetable soup hover over the table she used to share with her sons—all five of them now in prisons scattered around the country on charges of conspiracy to violate export regulations and money laundering in the Infocom case. Hazim Elashi was sentenced to 66 months with deportation after his sentence ends. Ihsan Elashi was sentenced to 72 months. The other brother Bayan was given 84 months while Ghassan and Basman were given 80-month sentences.