By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Ghassan was 29 in 1982. He had been in the United States for four years, had earned a master's degree in accounting from the University of Miami and was making progress in a new country he planned to call home. Like many other Palestinian-Americans he was devastated when he watched television reports of massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, where more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed during the Israeli invasion.
Later, when Ghassan saw the bloody streets of Gaza City in 1987 during the first Intifada clash between Israelis and Palestinians, he felt he couldn't simply watch from his living room and do nothing. Though he became a citizen of the United States in 1989, his politics would forever be Palestinian first, then American. The year before he became a U.S. citizen, he incorporated the Holy Land Foundation in the state of California as a nonprofit under the name Occupied Land Fund. In 1992, he moved it to Richardson and changed the charity's name to the Holy Land Foundation. Little did he realize that his charity would one day cost him his family.
He volunteered hours at the Holy Land offices, often walking across the street from his Infocom business. As both his business and the foundation began to fall apart with each government raid, so did his family's sense of security. As their lives swept away, Ghassan watched the same emotional trauma he fled in Gaza reach back in to take hold of his family.
Once Richardson residents, the Elashi brothers, their wives and children have spread out. Three wives did not have citizenship and were deported. The older children were left behind to finish school, and the younger were sent with their mothers to the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt.
Noor's cousin, Rawan, 21, serves the first Friday Iftar meal of Ramadan one street over in her parentless home to what's left of the Elashi clan. She is taking care of her teenage brother, Yusuf, and sister, Hayat, now that her mom, Lima, is in Jordan, and her dad, Bayan, is in a Philadelphia prison. Rawan goes to school at UTD studying computer science. Noor suggests her cousin's story echoes the plight of Palestinian refugees. "You know you always look at it and think, 'It could be worse.'"
Away from the family and alone in the Elashi kitchen, the oldest son, Mohammad, makes himself a Caesar salad and a sandwich and pulls out a mini shrimp cocktail from the fridge. He is ending the Ramadan fast alone because he's a picky eater and doesn't want to drag the food next door. He doesn't speak Arabic and is the only one of the six to go to public high school instead of the Brighter Horizons Academy, where his mom has taught Quran and Islamic studies for more than 14 years.
The day after her husband was arrested, she was at the school and the kids gave her a $200 gift card. "I couldn't believe it and said they shouldn't have done anything. But the kids said, 'No Sister Majida, you've been teaching us for so long. We wanted to say thank you.'"
Majida's job at the school brings in enough money for them to get by. But with six children to look after, a demanding teaching load and frequent appearances in the courtroom, Majida's easy-going life has been turned into a mad dash. In the courtroom one day after a mid-afternoon break, Majida looked down at her shoes. One was black, the other brown. She pulled Noor by the arm and laughed about the chaos of balancing a job and kids. "You'll see one day when you're married with kids. I'm so embarrassed."
Noor plans to go back to work now that the trial has ended. Huda recently passed her pharmacy technician exam and is looking for work. Without Ghassan, the money is running low. One evening Huda, a student at UTD, arrived home late with a double espresso from Starbucks in hand and plopped in the chair with a distracted look. The issue of money comes up again, creating a temporary crisis. "Mom, I got a parking ticket." She needs $30 for the ticket plus another $100 to pay her parking permit at UTD for the year. Noor gave her money to buy the permit.
In a matter of days, Ghassan is expected to be relocated from the Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution to another federal prison in Atlanta. When that happens, weekly visitations will become impossible. That prospect leaves Majida and her children in tears. But Ghassan tells them not to worry; God will provide for them.
"I go to keep him strong, and he ends up keeping me strong," Majida says.
At 11 a.m. on a Sunday, a week before the verdict is announced, Noor, Asma and Omar enter the federal prison. Noor and Majida grab clipboards from the counter by the guard and take a seat. Omar explores the water fountain. He runs up to it to get a drink again and again, unaware of where they are and what they're doing but eager to experience everything around him. After Noor and her mother fill out a checklist of questions, they put their money in a plastic bag, hand in purses and cell phones, take off shoes and pass through metal detectors. Then a guard stamps their hands with an ultraviolet stamp and the sliding gray metal door opens into a small room. The doors slide shut behind the Elashis. They show the stamp to a guard sitting behind glass, and the second sliding door opens into a visitation room.