Tavis: When the rising waters of Hurricane Katrina began to envelop New Orleans, a former fisherman named Abdulrahman Zeitoun went into action. The Syrian-born father of five grabbed his canoe and began rescuing neighbors who could not help themselves.
But apparently because of his ethnic origin and Muslim faith, Zeitoun was detained and held for almost a month in the chaotic days following the storm. I began my visit with the family by asking them to recount the harrowing details of the approaching storm five years ago this weekend.
The family’s all together as the storm is approaching the city. The storm hits. Give me an understanding of the process that a husband and wife go through trying to figure out what their unique strategy is going to be?
Because every family in this city had decisions to make about what they were gonna do. Are we gonna leave? Are we gonna stay? Who is going to go here?
Take me inside – bring me inside this house as the storm is approaching the city and tell me what your decision-making process was for how you were going to navigate through this moment.
Kathy Zeitoun: They call them storms over in his country, but actually we would phrase them as hurricanes, so he’s used to these kinds of storms, but I’m not. I didn’t want to take the chance of having my children here. If I didn’t have children, fine. Probably I would have stayed, but my children come first.
At the last minute, we decided we were going to leave. We didn’t really pack anything because we were expecting to come back the next day. I think the kids each brought one outfit of clothing and then we just decided to leave and he stayed behind.
Tavis: So, Abdul, why did you decide to stay behind when your wife and kids decided to leave?
Abdulrahman Zeitoun: I came from island. I mean, we’re used to this kind of weather, also my experience with the ships, working on the sea. I mean, I have plenty worse than what happened in Katrina.
Tavis: So because you had seen worse, you weren’t afraid of what was to come?
Abdul: On the other side, I believe if someone be around, we try to minimize the damage, like keep the damage smaller if possible.
Tavis: But days later, you’re still here. The water has come into the city, into this house, how high?
Abdul: Before that when Katrina pass, we no have no water, no nothing. All we have like a few damages in the roof, a few broken glass, trees down in the street. We no have too many damages.
After Katrina over, I call my wife and say everything over, you can come back. Before I go to sleep, I take my canoe outside. We have not much water, like a foot and a half in the street.
Tavis: You have your own canoe?
Abdul: My own canoe, yeah. I go exactly one block around. I saw a few trees down. When I come home, I call my wife and say everything over. Also, the water is going lower after when I make my trip. I mean, usually I [unintelligible]. This time, I see the sunshine on my house and I hear the water around the house because all the houses are above the ground like two or three feet.
I hear water working around the house. I hear noises and I look and now I see the water coming. I got the phone and called my wife and said you need to go find someplace for the kids in school. They go before long time.
When I saw the water come in, the first thing come to my head, the levee broke because this kind of water not possible to come from the rain because the rain stopped already and I see the water and the sound was that the levee broke.
Tavis: So, Kathy, explain for me how it feels, how it felt, when your husband calls you one day and says, oh, it’s not so bad. Get the kids, come on home? Twenty-four hours later, he calls you back and says put the kids in a school somewhere. It’s going to be a long time before you get back home. Explain those two calls 24 hours apart from each other.
Kathy: Well, the first one was like, okay, honey, we’re coming home and I tell them we’ll leave the next day. Let the kids play with their nieces and nephews.
But the second phone call that I got was about the levee and I was like, oh, my God. He’s telling me that the water has already risen to the bottom of the stop sign which is, you know, the little white ship on the stop sign outside on the street and I was like, oh, my God. So I’m trying to imagine how high that water is my house. You know, we’re a few feet off the ground.
So I started to panic a little bit, but I was like, okay, you need to get out of there and he was like, no, I can wait and see what I can do. Maybe I can help people. I’m like, no, you need to get out of there. He was like, how am I going to get out now? The streets are all flooded. There’s no way to get out. I’m like, okay, then just tough it out and we’ll play it by ear, I guess.
But I did want him out of there. I was worried about him, but I did want him out of there.
Tavis: As we all recall, at that particular point, with the waters rising and people on top of buildings, on top of roofs, any person who has a canoe is pretty much sought after. So I’m sure a lot of people who wanted to see you coming.
Abdul: Yes. This is what happened. When I left my house, I no see anything yet because I’m headed in this direction and I find people in my way.
First stop, I see a couple from maybe two or three blocks away sitting outside with his wife and like water up to his neck. He said, “You have a cigarette?” I said, “No, I don’t smoke.” He said, “Can I buy cigarettes?” I started laughing. I said, “Where to go to buy cigarettes to see what’s going on?”
Tavis: He’s about to drown. He doesn’t want a ride. He wanted a cigarette (laughter).
Abdul: (Laughter) I said, “There’s no place open for cigarettes.” I started to keep going to where I’m going and I saw an old man with his wife sitting on his porch. He have like a white sheet holding, you know.
Tavis: How many people can you hold in your canoe?
Abdul: I can go two or three. You can’t have anyone injured or can’t swim or somebody older because it’s easy to flip. If you flip around, you go be drowned.
Tavis: But for folk who were in relatively decent shape, you were rescuing some people.
Abdul: First day. Nobody in the city, you know, no helicopter, nobody fly around. I go few blocks away and I hear deep voice, “Help.” I start going closer and closer and I spied the house.
Soon as I got to this house, it has a living room like this area here and have a table. This lady, she have a table leaning it and her dress around her look like a flower. The first thing, you know, I saw my grandma. The only thing I see is I see my grandma and this house.
I come straight to her and she said, “Please get me out of here” and I say, “I will get you where you will be safe.” I started walking outside and, when she see me, I say, “Hold to this.” She have a metal railing and I say, “Hold this. I will get you some help.”
She say, “No leave me for long because my feet not good. I can’t stay long on my feet.” I say, “Okay, I will be as fast as possible.” I look like four way. I see two young guys and I go to them and say, “Look, I have a lady here need help.” He said, “Let’s go.”
We tried to figure out to put her in the boat and I asked her if she had a ladder somewhere in the house and she said she had one in the back garage. We swam to the garage and we got the ladder and I put the ladder against the boat and I want her to climb. She said, “No climbing. I can’t lift my foot.”
What I did, I lay her back on the ladder and I dive under the water and the guys in the boat I push her underneath and slide her in the boat.
Tavis: You got her out.
Abdul: Yeah. Also on our way back, we hear other couple calling for help like four very short street behind us. Same rescue, we got six to eight of them.
Tavis: So you’re out rescuing people, saving people, literally saving lives with your canoe and with other persons in this neighborhood you come in contact with.
But here’s where the story gets interesting. It takes a strange turn. So you’re out trying to rescue people with some other gentlemen and you end up in jail?
Abdul: I feel like I want to run, you know, someone doesn’t like me, doesn’t like where I come from. This is how it happened. Just as soon as he say my name, I mean, when these guys walked to my house and asked what we’re doing here, I said, “This is my house.” He said, “Give me your I.D.”
I show him my I.D. and I have my address next door because I own both houses. He never asked me anything. “Just get in the boat.” I asked him why and he say, “You can talk to my boss.”
Before we left the house, I have a piece of paper. I have the phone number where my wife is staying because my cell phone is dead and no other way to reach her.
He looked to his friend with the machine gun facing me and had some kind of signal between each other and he said, “No.” He never let me take the piece of paper off the table. I would try to see what the guy would do and he raised to shoot. That’s why I left.
Tavis: So they’re rounding certain people up, to your point, people who look like you or sound like you. Why do you think you? You think it was because you’re not born and raised here?
Abdul: These guys come here to like war zone. I mean, not coming to rescue people. These guys coming for war zone and this is the way being [unintelligible]. Some of them come from Iraq or Afghanistan because this was a similar scenario.
These guys saw, you know, Iraqi person, terrorist, or he saw someone – I don’t know what his vision. He treated me like he catch big head, you know, somebody important. I don’t how he felt because the way the guy dealt with us is weird. You know, I never see it.
Tavis: They force you into the boat. They take you to like a makeshift prison and take you where?
Abdul: They take us to like station by St. Charles and Napoleon, some kind of like few areas like people gathering there, military and medical. As soon as we got there, three or four of us, each one of us like five or six guys jump on him, like I said, a big catch, in handcuffs and pull us in the van.
As soon as we got to the van, like when we’re waiting, one guy comes behind the wheel and I ask him what’s going on. The only thing he can tell me is “We’re from Indiana; we’re doing our job.” That’s it. That’s all he had to say.
After a few minutes, the van take off and they brought us to the bus station. The bus station, as soon as we got there, also full of military like a base. We got there, like lined us up and they wanted us to sit. We sit in chair and opened our legs. They have one guy with a machine gun over our head.
Tavis: Kathy, how long did this ordeal go on? Obviously, he’s not being allowed to use his cell phone. What’s happening to you and the kids and the rest of his family who can’t communicate with him for days?
Kathy: That’s when we went into nervousness in overtime drive, I guess. I was really worried at this time. I didn’t know what was happening to him. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead.
You keep hearing all these things on the news and on the television and it definitely played havoc in the household because I was nervous. Every time the phone would ring, I’d run to the phone knocking everybody over trying to get to it first to see if maybe that’s him.
On the second day after I didn’t hear from him, we went and filed a missing persons report. We gave them, of course, pictures and stuff like that so, if anyplace that he goes, they have a searcher, they’ll be able to contact me.
It affected my daughters horribly, especially the youngest one. I think she just turned five and she’d say, “We have ten feet of water in the street, and we can’t find my dad.”
Every time the kids would ask me at night – we’d try to calm down and have a little family time and they’d ask me so many questions that were really hard to answer. His family, of course, they’re extremely worried and nervous as well. They’re like, “You should be doing more. You should go down there and you should try to find him.”
I’m like, first of all, there’s no way I can get down there. Second of all, how am I going to find him? If I go down there by myself, I mean, what’s going to happen to me? Then my kids are going to be without two parents. The hardest thing I’ve ever done was wait.
Tavis: Homeland Security called you when? How many days had passed before you heard from them?
Kathy: It was almost two weeks before I’d heard from them. It was actually the beginning of the third week.
Tavis: So you’ve gone for almost three weeks without hearing from or knowing where your husband is.
Kathy: Well, I never heard from him, period.
Kathy: I didn’t hear from him until after we got him out of jail. But Homeland Security called me in the week, at the beginning of the third week, and they told me, “He’s here. Don’t worry. We believe the charges are going to be dropped. We have no interest in him. We’ve never had any interest in him.” I was like, well, that’s great. They let him out.
So that’s when we called the prison trying to get the information so we can try to get him out and they didn’t have any.
So I was like, okay, maybe somebody just got really scared or really nervous or, you know, freaked out or had a bad memory and just maybe shot him in the back or just shot him period and he’s laying in some kind of morgue waiting for his body to be identified.
And again, it’s like his family is calling me constantly trying to find out. He’s got 13 siblings and that’s a lot of phone calls (laughter). I’m already nervous and sick and I have my own kids asking me questions.
Tavis: How did you navigate this?
Kathy: It was hard. I had so much anger. I’m not an angry person. I’m pretty much a pacifist, for God’s sake. It’s like it takes a lot, lot, lot to make me angry and then, when I finally get angry, it’s like over in five or ten minutes and then like it’s done. But I couldn’t get over it. You know, I couldn’t get over the anger. I couldn’t get over the frustration.
Every time I had to bring my kids to school in the West Bank and I’d have to drive past that Camp Greyhound, this horrible rage would consume me. I really feel I had a nervous breakdown and whatever kind of breakdown whenever I was trying to find the address for the courthouse and they wouldn’t give me the address.
I’m like, “Why won’t you give it to me?” The lady is like, “That’s private information.” So I’m like, how are people are going to go and pay their tickets if it’s private information? I’m having this dispute with her, but I’m trying to keep my voice as patient and as calm as I can, which was extremely difficult.
I was like, “How are people going to pay their tickets if you won’t give them the address to the courthouse? That’s public information.” She’s like, “No, ma’am. That’s private information. We can’t give you that.”
So I hung up and I called right back again. I as like, “I need to talk to somebody else.” I kept thinking somebody else was going to answer the phone, but they must have had only employee that day because I swear I kept getting the same lady.
Finally, I think on my third phone call, I snapped and it did not end as nicely as the other ones had. I remember just crying my heart for the first time. I don’t think I’ve eve wailed in my entire life, but I think that day it just felt like my soul was being ripped out.
Tavis: From the time that you and the kids left to go to Baton Rouge to seek safety to the time that you saw Abdul again, how long?
Kathy: It was 23 and a half days.
Tavis: You’re saying that you know exactly what that was?
Kathy: I know exactly.
Tavis: 23 and a half days.
Kathy: If should have only been 23, but they didn’t file the paperwork. They sent the paperwork to release him on the 23rd day and they sent it early enough to release him on the 23rd day, but they didn’t do it.
Tavis: Let me ask a personal question and you don’t have to respond to this, although I hope you will. What did that specifically do for your marriage?
Kathy: It did a couple of different things. One, he was very bitter with me because he thought I was out having a good time and I forgot about him. He thought I was having so much fun going to the movies and going shopping and enjoying my time with my friends that I’ll get him out eventually.
I mean, he had no idea about the system and he truly thought – and it broke my heart. It really did break my heart in a million pieces that he would think this thing about me considering how long that we’ve been married. I mean, we were married 11 years at this time.
I think it was more the fact that it wasn’t so much towards me as the fact that he lost all hope when he was in there. I think just before he got out, he truly lost all hope that he was ever going to get out. So I think I just got the butt end of that.
I feel like it’s my duty to protect him. I became like more of a mom than a wife, like if anybody is going to say something to him, I’m gonna be right there and like, “What? What is that? You have something to say, you say it to me, bud, because I’m not having it.” (Laughter) You know, it’s more like a defense thing.
Tavis: Abdul, when you look back on this now – it’s been five years. When you look back on it now, did the turmoil, the tumult, that you had to go through make you think differently about America?
Here you were out doing your part as a citizen trying to help other people, trying to rescue other people, and I’m listening to Kathy tell me that not only were you trying to help people then when you were wrongfully detained for 23 and a half days, it sounds like you haven’t changed a whole lot on the inside, but has it changed your views about America, about the country?
Abdul: You know, one thing I would like everybody to know, we are almost like a billion Muslims in the world. I don’t want to have like same mistake the Western media or Western people think about the Muslim, okay? You have few terrorists in the Muslim world that’s damaged American [unintelligible]. Most people look to all of us same. We, just a few terrorists.
Kathy: We are stereotyped, horribly stereotyped.
Abdul: Exactly. If I go give the same look to America, I mean, we be same. I mean, a few guys harm, but it’s not all America, not all Western. I mean, two or three guys make mistake and I have wonderful neighbor. We here are Jewish, Christian and Muslim together. We work together, we have neighbor, we read together, we have very wonderful relation.
Kathy: Yeah, but it’s not because we look at them as, oh, there’s my Jewish neighbor. No. We look at them, oh, there’s my sweet neighbor who has a good heart.
Tavis: As a native New Orleanian, when you look back on what happened five years ago and the government’s response or lack thereof, depending on how one views it, as a New Orleanian, it makes you feel how?
Kathy: Disappointed. If feel that they were misled. I truly feel in my heart and I did a lot of soul searching on this. I truly feel in my heart that the soldiers that came here were totally misled. I believe that they came here with the intention of having the same situation as what was built in Iraq maybe or Afghanistan.
I think they should have been on a search and rescue mission instead of let’s get everybody off the street and send them in a cage. So I think, other than the information that they received, I think everything could have been a little bit more different.
God willing, the good thing that comes from all of this is that maybe next time they will be a search and rescue instead of a hunt and destroy kind of thing.
Tavis: You mentioned that you went to Washington and he was on the phone talking. Can you reach that?
Tavis: So you were going to Washington for what?
Kathy: For an award. It was an honor banquet and there were like five or six people being honored and he was one of them for his actions during Katrina.
Tavis: Wow. And Susan Rice, our Ambassador to the U.N., personally thanked him.
Kathy: Personally thanked him and gave him some really kind words.
Tavis: So, Abdul, after all that you had endured, it ends up with you being invited to Washington to be honored at a banquet at the request of our Ambassador to the United Nations. Not a bad ending?
Abdul: No, it was a very good feeling and also I would like to mention something. Anything I done here not because for this ending, I done it because this is how we grow up back home, to help, to give hand to somebody who needs it.
I mean, we have coming back home, you can’t be believer, to go sleep your home and your stomach full and your neighbor hungry. I mean, how I go feel, go to relax and have somebody need my help? I can offer my help to someone.
This how we grow up back home. This is our way. Muslim mean peace. Everything about peace and help, nothing about kill or destroy are separate. I mean, if you have bad intention about someone, you’re not Muslim. I mean, somebody have to know about Islam.
Now we have like a dictionary right now, Islam mean terrorists. Islam means killers. Muslim is disaster. I mean, this is bad picture about Muslim. To be a Muslim, you have to be a very good believer. If anyone harm anyone, he’s not Muslim.
Tavis: The Zeitoun’s inspirational story caught the attention of best-selling writer, Dave Eggers, last year and became the subject of his acclaimed book, Zeitoun.
Despite their frightening ordeal, the family continues to live, work and thrive in New Orleans. When I asked Mr. Zeitoun if he would stay in New Orleans to help out in the event of another storm, without hesitation Mr. Zeitoun said, “Yes.”
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