Family (Terror) Ties

With a brother in prison, Sanya Siraj sells books and hopes to remain in the country.

Here we go again. Another nefarious plot by "terrorists" to blow up/shoot at/set on fire a New Jersey military installation/a midtown subway station/the Sears Tower in Chicago. And at the center of it, a paid government informant egging on hapless out-of-work exercise fanatics/book-selling Pakistani immigrants/semi-employed roofers, encouraging them to make boastful claims about swearing allegiance to Al Qaeda.

If the details in the Fort Dix attack fantasy feel depressingly familiar, it's because they are. It's been a year and a half since another big-talking, weapon-lacking, would-be–Mohammad Atta, a Pakistani immigrant by the name of Shahawar Matin Siraj, was charged with plotting to bomb the Herald Square subway station. In January, Siraj was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and less than a day after that sentence was handed down, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers raided the house of Siraj's parents and his sister, who were brought to a detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Sanya Siraj, 20, was never considered a suspect in the activity that sent her older brother to prison. But being the sister of a convicted terrorist, she figures, has made her a target as well. Sanya and her mother, Shahina Parveen, were charged with overstaying their visas, and ICE officials claim that a deportation order had been issued against her father, Siraj Abdul Rehman. But the family's attorney, Mona Shah, insists that the Sirajes had an asylum claim already pending when they were picked up.

Although the Siraj women were released after two weeks, supporters of the Pakistani family have taken issue with the high cost of their bond: $35,000, or roughly twice the amount typically charged for a potential visa violation. Meanwhile, Mr. Rehman remains in detention, and lawyers and immigration officials are still arguing over the family's fate.

When Siraj's trial began, Sanya was preparing to take the Regents exam at New Town High School in Queens. She wanted to go to college and become an elementary-school teacher. But, as news of Siraj's case spread, Sanya found herself ostracized and increasingly isolated.

"Sanya had to leave school because students were harassing her," her attorney tells the Voice. Before long, she had locked herself indoors completely. It would be almost a year before she re-emerged.

"Talking to her was a little off," says Fahd Ahmed of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a nonprofit that organized a letter-writing campaign and support fund to help the Sirajes. "You could tell when we first started working with her that she had been a shut-in—that she hadn't been around people in a while."

Since her release, Sanya and her mother work at her uncle's bookstore in Bay Ridge, Islamic Books and Tapes, assuming the jobs that Siraj and his father had before they were locked up. The hours are long, and on slow days, Sanya passes the time watching a small television behind the counter.

"If my dad comes home, then I can go to college," she says. "Because he will work at the bookstore for me."

One recent Friday night, Sanya found herself back at the detention center, as a visitor. This time, the guard would not let her in to see her father—apparently her student ID wasn't an approved form of identification. Sanya drew a deep breath and fixed her eyes on the waiting room ceiling. The situation was mildly ridiculous.

"You have all my other identification," she explained to a tall, serious-looking woman dressed in a gray uniform. "You took it from me when I was held here." When Sanya and her mother were released in late January, ICE officers confiscated their passports and state IDs. Since then, they have returned to the facility three times to visit Rehman. Although the guard clearly remembered them, logic was no match for the power of law.

"It's so stupid," she sighed. "Four months ago they wouldn't let me out, and now they won't let me in."

 
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