Holy Land Family Fights Terrorist Label
That Tuesday morning, Noor Elashi awoke to red and blue lights flashing through her bedroom curtains as FBI agents swarmed across the freshly cut lawn in front of her small Richardson house. In the early morning mist, the armed agents rushed to her door and began pounding.
"They stood in front of my house as though it were a murder scene," Noor wrote afterward in her journal.
Her father, Ghassan Elashi, sat up in bed, dressed slowly and called his lawyer. Only then did he walk toward the pounding. Before he could turn the lock, three agents slammed through the door and grabbed him.
Majida Elashi watched as her husband was taken away.
"What gives them the right to shatter families?" she said.
The same day, July 27, 2004, FBI agents, acting on a 42-count indictment, arrested the Holy Land Foundation president, Shukri Abu Baker; the director of the California office, Mohammad El-Mezain; fund-raising volunteer Mufid Abdulqader; and the director of the New Jersey office, Abdulraham Odeh. Two others, Haitham Maghawri and Akram Mishal, had fled the country.
The indictment charged all seven with conspiracy to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization and money laundering. In addition, Baker and Elashi were charged with tax evasion. The government had already shut down Ghassan Elashi's business, Infocom, an Arab Web hosting company. In 2005 he was convicted in a Dallas federal court of providing funds to a designated terrorist organization and later sentenced to 80 months in prison.
But the government would not be so fortunate with its case against the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Islamic charity in the United States. The government's prosecutors lugged into court more than a dozen boxes stuffed with testimony, financial statements, wire-tapped phone transcripts and videos dug up in the backyard of someone who had no connection to the case. The government's evidence was intended to demonstrate "willful intent" to support Hamas through local charities in the West Bank and Gaza under the terrorist organization's control. The evidence included denunciations of Jews and Israel by some of the defendants—denunciations the defense didn't deny.
In his opening statement to jurors, defense lawyer Greg Westfall said, "If it were a crime to want bad things to happen to Israel, we'd be dead in the water." But the Holy Land's defense team argued that the organizations within Palestine that received money were approved as legitimate by the United States and that no evidence was presented proving the foundation sent money to charities controlled by Hamas. After a three-month trial by ordeal that saw jurors so perplexed that one dozed off, another refused to cast any ballot and still another was sent home for reasons unknown, jurors in U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish's court last week managed to agree on practically nothing.
The jurors did acquit Mohammad El-Mezain on all but one charge of conspiracy. Otherwise the Holy Land trial ended in a hung jury on all remaining charges and frustration for both sides. It was a feeble whimper for a case that began three years before in a big bang of government publicity. The government, says prosecutor Jim Jacks, plans to retry the case.
"It was a waste of time," juror William Neal complained to the waiting press. "The evidence had so many gaps."
Even if the government eventually abandons its case against Ghassan and the Holy Land Foundation, the Elashi family has been so badly shattered by the ordeal that it will be difficult for them to pick up the pieces. Though Ghassan is the direct target, Noor feels the damning allegations against her father fell like radioactive waste on the entire family—allegations of recruiting children to become suicide bombers and inciting anti-Semitic children's skits encouraging people to kill Jews and other acts of violence.
In their mostly Muslim neighborhood in Richardson, the Elashis are known as "the Holy Land family"—the one in the crosshairs of the government's war on terrorism. For years, Noor worried that her conversations were being wire-tapped by federal agents. Turns out they were. And on the same day FBI agents broke through the front door of the Elashi home to seize her father, Noor turned on the television to hear the highest Justice Department official in America label her family evildoers.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft stood before television cameras to announce the indictment of her father and six principals of the Richardson-based foundation. The Holy Land Foundation, he said, "claims to do good works," but was, in fact, "funding works of evil."
The government's accusations turned the Elashi family into a target for hate mail and Internet vitriol. Noor's inbox began filling up with bombshells such as this one: "You're pathetic liars, terrorist supporters and enablers. If you want to support Hamas, go live in the Arab world and stop abusing our free speech laws here in the U.S. Israel is the light of the Middle East and you stand for darkness. Curse you all.''
Noor couldn't believe that the same government that had given her father's charity approval to provide millions of dollars in humanitarian aide to hospitals, schools and food missions in Palestine was now accusing him and his organization of committing heinous acts of violence against Jews.
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.
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.
The Elashi family enters, presents paperwork to the guard at the desk and takes seats in a row of plastic chairs to wait for Ghassan. After 20 minutes, Omar finds the playroom past the four vending machines and starts toward a TV he hears. Another 20 minutes pass. At the sound of the inmate door sliding open, Noor cranes her neck to see if it's her father. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, Ghassan enters the room with his usual calm smile. He signs in with the guard, and the family gathers around with hugs and bursts of excitement.
They have two hours of precious time. Everyone sits still as Majida gives him greetings from other family members that could not be there and tells him they are all praying. Others take turns spending time with him.
"What do you do all day while we're waiting the last two weeks?" asks Noor.
"Don't worry. I'm fine."
"I wish you were waiting with us," Noor says.
"I read in the room. I memorized 10 pages," he says.
Memorizing the Quran is a form of worship for pious Muslims. Ghassan reminds his family regularly that they're not the only ones to suffer.
"Mohammad is having difficulties in school," Majida says. Their oldest son and his brother Osama are fighting, she tells him.
"As long as I am inside, my influence on him is going to be little," Ghassan says. "I'll write and tell him this is an important time to be studying."
Mohammad has written his dad once but holds his feelings close.
"Keep talking to him. Be patient."
"OK," Majida replies.
"Did Huda find a job?"
"She will have a job. Don't worry. Let her know she will. Just be patient."
"She needs to have a job close to home. She doesn't need to drive a long distance."
As time passes his thoughts nearly always return to the trial and how his family will hold up. He tries not to think about Atlanta or that this visit could be his last. He gives his wife one final word of assurance for when the verdict is read.
"They presented the facts clearly," he tells her.
"Don't be so optimistic," Majida says.
The court is silent as the judge breaks the sealed envelope and reads the jury's verdict—or non-verdict. Most of the blanks have not been filled in, indicating jurors have been unable to reach a decision.
Noor hears her dad's name and leans forward on the overcrowded hard wood bench.
The verdict is out. Not bad, but not good.
She exchanges smiles with her dad and then files out of the courtroom one last time.
She rides the elevator to the first floor. The doors open to the clamor of media and more than 200 supporters. In front of the lights, cameras and microphones, her voice shakes.
"My dad was singled out for feeding, clothing and educating the children of Palestine. Why? Because feeding Palestinian people has become a crime in this country."
Other members of the local Muslim community read statements. "America wins when we choose fairness over fear, tolerance over prejudice, unity over division," one of them proclaims. The prosecution said that the Justice Department would retry the case on the charges that reached no verdict.
They pour out into the mist and chilling winds and hoist their signs to passers-by. "Feeding children is not a crime," one reads. "Freedom from fear and justice for all," reads another. A few cars honk, and dispersing supporters shout their joy from open windows.
The crowd lifts defendant Shukri Abu Baker into the air and begins to chant, "Allah-u-Akbar"—God is great.
A few weeks ago, with the fate of the five defendants in the Holy Land case still in the hands of jurors, Muslim families flooded into Six Flags Over Texas amusement park for a day of pleasure and recreation.
Noor wore a pink T-shirt from the Islamic Circle of North America, sponsor of the event. Earlier that day she had been to the prison in Seagoville to visit her dad. At the park, she enjoyed rides with her sisters, Huda and Asma, and cousin, Rawan. The young women blended into the sea of hijabs and covered heads inside the park where thousands of Muslim moms with strollers and dads in polo shirts with sons in soccer jerseys lined up for rides such as Batman and The Titan.
Noor did not see the 10 protesters near the park entrance holding signs that read, "Holy Land Foundation Guilty" and "Six Flags Over Terrorism."
They called themselves Americans Against Hate.
Dressed in a dark suit and flag-patterned tie, Joe Kaufman, president of the Florida-based group, told the media he has devoted his life to fighting terrorism through his public awareness campaign on political Islam. Not all Muslims are terrorists, he admitted. But as long as they are going to an event supported by Islamic Circle of North America, he said, they are supporting a terrorist organization and are part of the problem. The ICNA was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land case.
"These groups do not care about our country. They do not care about diversity. Stand up for what's right and help protect America from her enemies that are within," Kaufman proclaimed.
Dorrie O'Brien, a mother whose son has served as an engineer in Kuwait with the military during the Iraq War, told the small group of protesters, "The ICNA is putting on the event to show Muslims are just like us. But they aren't. They don't think like us."
Later the next day, Noor read an article about the protest to her mother.
"He should have called it Americans for hate," Majida said.
Majida arrived in the United States some 20 years ago fleeing Palestine. One day soon after arriving, she was checking out at a Sam's Club when the checker told her she shouldn't be wearing her headscarf anymore. He laughed at her lack of conformity and assured her it wouldn't be long before she got rid of it.
And just last week riding the DART rail from Richardson to Union Station, she was mistaken for a nun by a fellow rider. He had alcohol on his breath, and he asked her for some money. "I'm in worse shape than you," she said.
Minutes later a woman sat next to her. "Aren't you hot in that thing?" the woman asked, referring to her Muslim head covering. You decide in your mind and in your heart what you are going to be, Majida said.
Ignorance, Majida says, is what divides us. So does enmity, a subject that occupies Noor's dreams.
A week before the jury ended its deliberations in deadlock, Noor dreamed she was in Wal-Mart and lost her temper. The manager came up to her shouting loudly and told her to get out of the store.
"It was so out of nowhere," says Noor. "I just felt the pressure building up and I started yelling at the top of my lungs back at him, 'You don't even know me. You have no right...'"
In her dream she started to break down and cry and says at that point the manager threw something at her, hitting her in the chest. She spun around and saw a crowd of media staring at her from the other side of the glass. She turned to the media and said, "Did you guys see that? He just threw something at me."
She woke up with tears, a sore chest and tense muscles and could not believe how real the nightmare seemed.
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