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Arrests 'like a nightmare' for Pakistani community

Kay Khan and some of her sisters went for an evening stroll Tuesday through their east Lodi neighborhood only to face an unexpected reaction.

Some Pakistani men drove by, cursed at the women - who also are Pakistani - and told them to stay inside, she said Wednesday. The men were concerned that her group would be singled out or attacked because they share the same nationality as five Lodi men now in federal custody.

"It's like a nightmare," Khan, 19, protested Wednesday. "It's our country, too."

Lodi's small and close-knit Pakistani population is awash in fear.

The fears began in late May when federal agents first descended on Lodi investigating what they say is an al-Qaida terrorist cell, and have intensified as word that two men - father and son - had been arrested on suspicion of links to an al-Qaida terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

Three others connected to the local mosque have been detained for alleged immigration violations.

Though it's not how city leaders or winery boosters may have planned it, this agricultural San Joaquin County town and its 62,500 residents overnight have become the focus of national attention - and the nation's anxiety about terrorism.

Just Tuesday, Pakistani men bantered in their usual spot on the Lodi mosque's porch, sitting side-by-side on folding chairs and benches. Across the street, teenage Pakistani boys shot hoops in Blakely Park.

A day later, after the arrests and allegations made national news, the atmosphere transformed completely.

By Wednesday morning, the small mosque - on the edge of the neighborhood where many of Lodi's Pakistani families live -had turned into an encampment for media, one of two such camps within a few blocks of each other.

Where men had once bantered, the chairs and benches were empty.

Just before 2 p.m., men began arriving by car and on foot for afternoon prayers. Some were unable to pull their cars into the mosque's driveway, blocked by reporters and cameramen. Most declined to speak as they entered the mosque through a rear door.

One man, Nawaz Shah, expressed frustration that the media were disrupting the normal routine at the mosque and that he was being forced to defend his religion.

"We really can't even go around believing in our faith because the press and everything else is on us," said Shah, 19, who is acquainted with two of the men now in custody.

"I'm praying, that's all I am doing," Shah said.

Some Pakistanis say the fear began when one of the suspects, 22-year-old Hamid Hayat, returned to the United States from Pakistan May 29. That's around when federal agents began to case the neighborhood, parking at either end of his street in SUVs with video cameras.

Over the past several days, the fear has spread as many Pakistani men reported they have been approached by FBI agents asking them to submit to polygraph tests or answer questions.

Within the Pakistani community - estimated at about 700 in Lodi - the levels of outrage and fear vary.

Most older Pakistanis remain quiet, declining to speak to reporters about their concerns.

Some members of the younger generation, however, complain forcefully and defiantly about what they say is discrimination.

Khan, her nine siblings and their spouses live in two houses next door to each other, within a few blocks of the mosque. She said the difference between younger and older Pakistanis is marked.

"I'm not afraid, but my family is," she said. "They think it's going to be like what happened to the Japanese people, that they (the government) are going to accuse everyone who has the first name Mohammad or looks like us."

Sohel Altaf, a 17-year-old cousin of Hayat, said teens who have been approached by FBI agents have asked if agents have a warrant, and have declined interviews and polygraph tests.

"The younger people know what's up in America," he said. "(The older people) are scared now. They say they don't have any rights. They can't do anything."

Outside the Pakistani community, several Lodi residents and leaders expressed support for their Pakistani neighbors.

Lodi is a small town about to be a city. In recent years, local officials have worked hard to contain growth and foster the area's burgeoning wine trade.

Larry Hansen, a Lodi city council member and former police chief, called members of Lodi's Muslim community - which is largely Pakistani - "very good neighbors."

He cautioned other Lodi residents and the American public not to jump to conclusions about the arrests.

"(These are) people who are striving to be good American citizens," he said. "The whole news coverage is going to shake the community to the bone."

Ron Kemper, however, said he wasn't shocked by the arrests.

"It just shows that even small towns aren't free from any of this stuff," said Kemper, sitting on a bench in Lodi's downtown, which still feels like the center of a smaller place.

A few blocks away, Mohammad Shoaib stood behind the front counter of his grocery store, Pak-India Spices, where he rung up sales. The downtown shop's shelves are packed with items such as 10-pound bags of basmati rice, several varieties of curry powder and dried garbanzo beans.

Shoaib, who has been in the United States since 1967, said about 90 percent of the city's Pakistani residents are from the Attock district in northeast Pakistan.

"This community is from small villages that are nearby each other," said Shoaib, whose round face was framed by his beard and a gray beret. "Most are friends and relatives of each other."

Shoaib said the FBI came to his home a few days ago and asked his son and son-in-law to submit to a lie detector test. A lawyer advised them against it, he said.

"We have good relations with the Police Department and have never had any trouble before," he said. "This is way out of proportion. There is no al-Qaida in this community."

About the writer:

  • The Bee's Emily Bazar can be reached at (916) 321-1016. Staff writer Lesli A. Maxwell contributed to this report.
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