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Anser Mehmood's family
3.15.02
Politics and Economy:
A Family Divided
More on This Story:
Q&A and Photo Essay

The war in Afghanistan is fought with bombs and bullets on the ground. Here at home the war against terrorism has no frontline and it's hard to know just who the enemy is.

Consider the story of Pakistani truck driver Anser Mehmood. On September 11, Anser was scheduled to make a delivery to the heart of Washington, D.C. The delivery was canceled but that did little to dispel the suspicion of the FBI. Anser was arrested and thrown into jail — where he remains today.

We talked with investigative journalist Tia Lessin about the story. Photographer Carl Deal narrates our Photo Essay about the Mehmood family's plight.



Photo Essay How did you get involved in this story?

TIA LESSIN: As the daughter of an immigrant, I've been concerned about the impact of September 11th on the Muslim community here in the U.S. As a documentary filmmaker, I thought the best way to capture that is through video. I produced a report for NPR about a Palestinian-American man who escaped from his Morgan Stanley office on the 72nd floor of the World Trade Center only to come home and find his family terrorized in their own neighborhood by anti-Arab sentiment. I documented hate crimes in my Brooklyn community against neighborhood mosques and Arab-American-owned businesses for National Geographic television.

Did you talk to many others in Anser Mehmood's situation?

LESSIN: I've talked with over a dozen men in three different jails, on the phone and in person, who are in similar situations as Mehmood. They are Turkish, Pakistani, Tunisian men being held on petty immigration violations. They are totally helpless and despondent. Some don't have attorneys. Many cant call friends or family members for fear that authorities will arrest them also. These men are 7-11 clerks. They are gas station attendants. They are cab drivers and construction workers. They are not terrorists — they are hardworking immigrants; they came here to seek a better way of life, not to destroy ours. Like nine million others they are here without legal status and now they're just sitting in jail waiting. Some may even have plane tickets and orders of deportation, but the FBI refuses to let them go. (Read a detainee's letter.)

Is deportation sometimes the best option for these men?

LESSIN: In many cases, it is dangerous for these men to return to their home countries. I interviewed three men in the Passaic Country jail that were seeking asylum here because of their political activities in Pakistan. But they'd rather go back to Pakistan than be behind bars here in the States.

Have you heard from Uzma since the family went back to Pakistan?

LESSIN: I spoke with her a couple of nights ago. She's aware of the bill in the House that would grant amnesty to undocumented workers and she's naturally upset that it came too late. Her husband is worried about how his sons will be treated because they are Americans. Ironically he's afraid of the anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.

Uzma is looking for schools for the kids, but it's hard because education comes at a high price there. Also, her kids only read Urdu, they can't write it. So they must catch up. She asked me if I'd heard from her husband. She really wonders when she'll ever see him again.


Read the Family Divided transcript.

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