This article originally appeared in MuslimMatters.
Adama Bah’s story begins at Fajr time on March 24, 2005.
That morning, agents from the FBI, the New York Police Department and immigration authorities knocked on the door of her family’s apartment in Harlem. Adama was 16, the oldest of five children of Guinean immigrants.
“They woke us up. They pulled our blankets off,” Adama recalls. The agents assembled the family in the living room.
“Sitting in the living room with strangers with guns and logos on their uniforms – for a 16-year-old that was very traumatic.”
She and her father were led handcuffed out of the apartment into a black SUV. For years after their arrest she would panic at the sight of a black SUV.
“What are they going to do? What are they going to do?”
Her mind repeated that thought as she and her father were driven to an unknown place for unknown reasons.
HOW LONG AM I GOING TO BE HERE?
Adama is now a 25-year-old wife and mother of two small children. She speaks about that morning calmly and factually as she has done many times before in interviews but even 11 years later she cries when describing seeing her father in handcuffs. She talks about the experience as she saw it then, looking through the eyes of a 16-year-old.
The voice of that 16-year-old can be heard in a documentary entitled simply Adama, directed by David Felix Sutcliffe. In the film we see much of her story in real time.
It is a story of naiveté and perseverance, of family and freedom and of the post-September 11 view of immigration and religious freedom.
AN EMPTY PLACE
Adama was detained with another 16-year-old girl, a Bangladeshi national named Tashnuba Hayder. Both had been brought here as young children by immigrant parents. Adama says that until the day she was detained she had no idea that her parents – and thus she – lacked legal resident status.
According to a New York Times report from April 2005, a government document provided to the newspaper stated that each girl was “an imminent threat to the security of the United States based on evidence that they plan to be suicide bombers.” No evidence was provided and federal officials would not comment to the Times reporter, Nina Bernstein, who followed the cases of Adama and Tashnuba closely.
Adama and her father were taken to a federal detention facility in lower Manhattan, where they sat and waited, still handcuffed on a bench. Within a few minutes Tashnuba joined them and Adama watched as her father was led away, to where she did not know.
The two girls were driven to a federal juvenile detention facility in Pennsylvania. Adama did not know where she was being taken.
She had started that day with an arrest in the early morning, then watched as her father was taken away in handcuffs, then driven in a dark van to an unknown destination, and now was delivered to an unknown building in an unknown place.
“I wanted to scream to the officers don’t leave me here,” she says, recalling the irony of turning for help to the officers who had driven her to this place, as though they had become her companions as they rode together in silence. Perhaps she was thinking of her father. She had no way of knowing when she would see him again. However, she expected to return home herself that day.
“I was fingerprinted and had photos taken, so I figured I am going home now,” she says.
She was wrong, just as she was wrong in thinking that having done no wrong would spare her from the next trauma, the strip search.
In the film, she describes the strip search as “the worst thing in the world.”
“They took our clothes one by one off,” she says. “They had to search through them. Stand and turn around. All this stupid stuff. Spread your b#%t cheeks. Let me see between your toes. Lift your b##bs up, do this, do that. It’s disgusting.”
Next came a lecture about the rules of the detention center.
“Keep your hands down at all times, keep your eyes forward, strip searches, no fighting, no this, no that. We had to take off our hijabs because we weren’t allowed to have the scarves in the room,” she says.
“The next morning we saw all the other inmates, the other area. It was an empty place.”
She began to think: I’m going to be here forever. They’re not going to let me out.
She describes that moment as the most religious she has been in her life.
“I was just praying praying praying that this was over,” she says.
ONLY THE FBI AND ALLAH KNOW WHY
There are many theories from many sources as to why she was taken – perhaps because she briefly wore niqab, whom she associated with, which masjid she attended, fallout from other immigration cases; there was even speculation that a simple salaam exchanged between Tashnuba and Adama led to suspicion.
However it happened, Adama ended up answering FBI agents’ questions without an attorney or parent present. She describes them as very friendly, but they asked open-ended questions that she did not know the answers to. She reports they asked if she knew people whose names weren’t familiar, and they asked her about Tashnuba, the other teenager who was detained with her.
The FBI agents told her Tashnuba had signed Adama up for a “list” of likely suicide bombers.
“I was like, is there a list?” she says.
In the film Adama reports that she asked Tashnuba if she signed her up.
“Tashnuba said they told me you did. That’s when I knew everything was bullshit.”
Tashnuba and her family returned to Bangladesh, which appeared the only remedy to her case.
Adama was released from the detention center with orders to wear an ankle bracelet and maintain a 10 p.m. curfew. When she returned, her father remained in Guinea.
“When I got home I took the longest shower ever and cried because I felt like I could cry now,” says Adama. “You could tell my dad wasn’t there. It was home but it wasn’t home. With my dad gone, there’s no food, no money, no nothing,” says Adama.
Her mother spoke little English and had to rely on Adama to be the head of the family.
“I don’t have a job,” her mother says in the film. “I don’t have any relatives here to help. My husband always handled the bills, the phone. Everything.”
Adama became the family’s support, in virtually every way her father had. She left high school and took work as a babysitter. In the film you see her again and again returning home smiling as she embraces and jokes with her younger siblings, now her wards, the people for whom she holds responsibility.
Adama also reveals the chaotic nature of her family’s life. There is a series of scenes where her siblings count down the time till 10 p.m., her curfew, frantic that she will be late and face another detention or, like their father, deportation. They don’t all seem to understand what exactly will happen if she doesn’t make it on time; they only know that they will be lost again. She arrives barely in time to dial a number and hold the phone to her ankle bracelet, which makes a loud electronic beeping noise to acknowledge that she has checked in.
During this period, Adama’s role was relieved to great extent by Maryland activist Mauri Saalakhan.
“Because the oldest boy was not going to school – there were a lot of pressures on him and the little brother and sister and on the mother of course – he was on the verge of being taken out of the family home,” says Saalakhan. “They asked if I would take him with me. He stayed with me for a couple of years. During that period I would get his little brother and sister from time to time and we were doing what we could to help the family make ends meet.”
Saalakhan also worked to bring her case to the attention of the public and press. Adama remains grateful for his help.
“I’m telling you he was sent for a reason,” Adama says.
Adama had seven immigration hearings before she was granted asylum on the basis of her likely undergoing female genital mutilation on return to Guinea. While they were waiting in federal detention her father warned her of this and said she couldn’t allow herself to be deported.
“When we were first arrested my father and I were sitting on a bench in the federal building and my dad said don’t go back to Guinea because they’re going to circumcise you there,” says Adama. “He said you can’t go back. There’s nothing for you there.”
She says in the film that she attended one immigration hearing without wearing a head scarf.
“I changed myself so the judge can let me stay in the country, so I can prove I look like you guys – normal – but after I took it off I was still treated like shit,” she says. “This time I knew why and it’s never coming off again. It’s not me. I am a Muslim woman.”
Upon receiving asylum, her ankle bracelet was removed. In the documentary she passes her new ID card around to her friends and family, reveling that at last she is free.
“Only the FBI and Allah know why I was detained,” says Adama.
What seems clear is that as a teenage girl she was compelled to become the head of her family because she was detained on the basis of her immigration status, and quite possibly because she is Muslim.
“If they don’t have proof they can’t touch you but if you’re an illegal immigrant they can,” says Adama in the documentary.
EVERYONE IS COLLAPSED INTO A SINGLE IDENTITY BLOC
For the film’s director, David Felix Sutcliffe, Adama’s case gave him an opportunity to express his passionate opposition to anti-Muslim bigotry and the type of injustice he sees in Adama’s case.
Adama was the first extended film he made upon completing graduate school, and it gave him the opportunity to highlight through her story what he sees as a chronic disparity in justice.
“Without a specific accusation there will always be this cloud over Adama. She was never given a chance to tell her story,” says Sutcliffe.
He points to cases such as that of Robert Doggart, a Tennessee man who made savage threats of violence against a community of Muslims in New York state. He was released on bail and his crime was not described as domestic terrorism. He also cites the takeover of a federal facility by extremists in Oregon, which was not met with immediate force and not characterized as terrorism, as another example of what he describes as a “separate system of justice.”
“It’s disgusting and it’s shocking to see what’s happening in terms of Islamophobia we see occurring right now,” says Sutcliffe.
He points to a lack of accurate representation of Islam in the mainstream media. Terrorist imagery fills the void.
Current media coverage reinforces the unrealistic expectation of the larger community.
“Everyone is collapsed into a single identity bloc,” Sutcliffe says.
He says there is no access to stories like Adama’s and that it behooves the media industry to compensate for that. He also notes that the media needs to be more inclusive.
“The mainstream media is saturated with white males, making a sort of patriarchy,” says Sutcliffe he points to a series of media analyses which demonstrate the racial makeup of newsrooms as low as 5% non-white staff.
He calls for proactive changes among media professionals including filmmakers like himself.
“We need storytellers of our society,” Sutcliffe says.
He often went home and cried after filming with Adama and her family. During a scene from Adama, her younger brother takes over the camera to share his opinion about his sister’s upcoming immigration hearing.
“If 9/11 never, ever happened, never, ever happened, no one would take our family, we would’ve had a better life,” he says. “And that’s what I want: a better life.”
Those are a child’s words, not analysis of the state of anti-terror activities, but the way in which those policies impact families. That’s the kind of story Sutcliffe seeks to tell in his films.
Sutcliffe says the media industry needs to be inclusive and more diversified, and that those of us in the narrative business need to tell stories like Adama’s, those that put a human face on issues of the day, such as immigration, FBI surveillance and extremism.
“The young sisters did nothing wrong,” says Saalakhan. “It was an issue of guilt by association and then a manipulation of fears and anxieties around the threat that Muslims are supposedly becoming.”
TRUMPISM IN THE WINGS
At the time of this writing the possibility that Donald Trump will become the Republican presidential nominee strengthens and nears inevitability.
Make no mistake: Trump is a dangerous man, for minorities, for Muslims, for our foreign policy and for basic standards of civility.
He has proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States and enthusiastically shared a myth about a general who shot his Muslim enemies with bullets dipped in pig blood. He demonizes the media. He is narcissistic, unkind and vulgar. It has been quite some time since anyone approaching his level of danger has come so close to the presidency.
Adama shares pictures from her smart phone of her small children. She worries about them, she says. She feels Trump is dangerous to her and her kids.
“Now you’re not talking about just me but my children too. He’s going to destroy our country and I can’t let that happen,” she says. “He’s against blacks, against Latinos, everything our country is. I hope, and I’m making a lot of dua, that he not win. It is the responsibility of every black, every Latino, every Muslim, every color to vote.
“Adama shows what fear can do to you. They put my family thru this ordeal for what?”
Filmmaker Sutcliffe has a similar take.
“With Trump a segment of the American population has become emboldened,” he says.
Eleven years after Adama’s experience, Islamophobia is reaching unprecedented levels. She knows well where it can lead when people are not given the chance to defend themselves.
“There needs to be a forum of all of us, different colors, different nations,” says Adama. “I think it’s our responsibility.”
Adama should know. She has known since the moment she was led handcuffed into a black SUV how it feels to be a victim. She knows how strongly people of conscience have to fight.