It was that one autumn way back in 2001 where everything went downhill for me. A day after the 9/11 attacks, I had been eating at some Chinese restaurant in Buffalo, New York State. After I had finished my meal, I, Kardel Mohammed, was given a fortune cookie. While carefully cracking open the cookie of tradition, I widened my eyes at the sight of the message. In some legible font, it read: “BEWARE, YOUR LIFE IS IN DANGER. YOU MUST FLEE FROM THE CITY AND SAY NOTHING.”
Upon reading it, I was constantly ruffling my goatee and adjusting my mustache. Luckily, I had already paid my bill and was waiting for the waiter to come pick it up. Upon hearing the voice of a reporter, I peered on the screen that was broadcasting about the 9/11 attacks.
The news anchor warned the viewers about any possible people who could be associated with Al-Qaeda. “After airplanes were grounded due to the Twin Tower attacks, authorities have been scavenging the country for anyone that has to do with the perpetrators,” the reporter stated. “The TSA checks in airports will be massively upgraded. They are now performing more thorough baggage checks to ensure there is no weaponry.”
After witnessing the newscast, everyone gasped as they rotated their heads towards me. I gulped as it occurred to me that they were already skeptical of anyone who may have looked Middle Eastern. Especially with my turban and robe, I could be deceiving to some folks around here. I reflected upon my past from the suffering in Iraq, the kidnapping of my spouse and children, and having no contact with my other relatives. I faintly remember my cousin Hammed, who is rumored to have made his way to America, about two years before me.
In truth, I absolutely despised Al-Qaeda’s ideologies. As I was a non-extremist, they forced me to emigrate out of Iraq to seek refuge. When hearing about the disaster and the tragedy they had caused, I knew just how disgraceful the terrorists were to not just Americans, but to us Muslims too. They have demonized all Muslims and caused everyone on the American streets to stare at me, then look away if I met their eyes. As soon as I heard the sound of silence followed by the image of the patrons’ mouths agape, I knew I had to leave. I nonchalantly paced toward the door and out into the parking lot, my heart racing. I unlocked my car, trying to stay calm as I hopped into the driver’s seat. As I ignited the engine, I could hear the shouts of police officers outside as they spotted my vehicle and my clothes.
I was sweating as I saw police muttering under their breath. “After him, he’s a terrorist!” the tall one yelled. “Yes, he must be arrested!” the shorter one replied.
As I kicked my car into forward thrust, I wanted to explain to the officers that I was truly innocent and they had mistaken my identity. There was a moment of hesitation as I tried to roll down my window to convince the officers, but they were charging towards me with handcuffs and one had a pistol. I just couldn’t negotiate though; sirens were blaring behind the rear of my car. Both of our cars drove out of the parking lot into the continental highway. I knew they were hot on my tail, so I swerved to the right to avoid having my tires spiked. If I had not done that, I would have also slammed into a tanker truck, which could have caused monumental damage. When I realized I had approached an old, rickety and derelict bridge, I inferred it was my only chance at maintaining my innocence. Oh, if I could just have a prayer after all the traumatic happenings I have been through this past week from refuge and accusation.
One thing I disliked about this new country is that there are barely any praying grounds for Islamists. While I had been thinking about praying, however, I realized that there was an unattended pothole about ten feet away from my car. Desperately trying to swerve away from the deep pothole, my car’s tires screeched on the burning asphalt and I violently got ejected from the cracked windshield. My body could not tolerate the pain I had experienced, and before I knew it, I slipped off the bridge balcony.
The contact with the bottom knocked me out cold. I must have been very fortunate, as the place I landed was a grove filled with mossy bark, so I evaded death. There were still sirens sounding off the bay as the police cars determinately tried to find a detour. They had seemed to assume I was deceased when finding that it was almost impossible to leap off the bridge unscathed. While laying in the moss with my heart racing at maximum beats per minute, there was the eerie distant sound of a train whistle. Off to my left, there was a freight train station, labeled:
NorthEastern Railroad Co.
I took a sigh of relief as I trotted toward the railroad. The only chance I had to keep safe was to escape Buffalo, perhaps to some town in the vicinity. The train, which had braked to a stop, released steam from the locomotive engine as I felt the sooty haze rub against my body. I briskly dashed across the field of lilacs and boarded a freight car component that had been finished unloading and reloading. Sweat trickled down my neck as I wedged myself in between the lumber crates and made my way towards a small compartment. The location acted as discomfort, but it was one of the only possible spots for hiding in the cart. As I concealed myself, two railroad workers came walking in. It seemed telling by their voices they were having a minor dispute.
One man said in a rowdy, Southern voice: “Dis locomotive will be arriving in Rochester at 10:00 A.M, my suh’. Y’all have limited time to load this babe up and get ‘er going.” As this guy sat down on one of the crates, the stench of body odor intertwined with the fresh, new scent of leather arose. This guy seemed to be a railroad worker and the other a conductor. “But the station desires more cargo on this load. I spoke with them and they said they didn’t care if the train was delayed,” stated the conductor with a huff, “We must have a sufficient amount of– uhh.. cargo,” he said in a thick, gravelly tone. “Well, let’s have a good ol’ look around here shall we?” offered the railroad worker. The conductor agreed as they started inspecting the train, one man coming an arm’s length away from me. I held my breath as they started shifting crates within my reach. As they were peering through the cracks of the crates, a woman’s voice sounded somewhere in the vicinity of the station.
“Hmm, somethin’ smells fishy around here, eh, Simon…” the overalled worker said before getting distracted by murmuring going on outside. “Raul and Simon, the train is ready for departure! Get in your positions!” a posh, woman secretary announced. “Ok ma’am, we’ll be right there!” they replied in unison. Their footsteps were audible as they jogged to the cabin. Phew, that was a close one, I thought in my head. I could have been easily been caught and wrongly made of a stowaway. Just as the train departed, a final station bell sounded. I fell asleep in a trance, as I was tired from about everything I had witnessed.
I’m not entirely sure how long I slept because the train has started braking and halted to a stop. Stepping out of my crook, I took a look outside the car, looking side to side and parallel to view the scene. I unraveled my turban and brushed my mustache to a more ordinary position. Perfect, now I look more American, I joked in my head. There was a crowd of people up ahead, and I gasped when seeing an almost identical person, in even more ordinary clothes. As his eyes locked with mine, we opened our mouths and rushed towards each other. It was Hammed, my long lost cousin.
“Kardel, is that you? Where’ve you been? I need to talk to you!!” he exclaimed in Arabic as we approached each other. “I was in Buffalo and escaped here, long story made short,” I replied. “Oh, you can tell me all about that at my family’s house. I should escort you away from the murky chambers of this station,” my cousin said, “I’m sure they’d be happy to see you.” “I’d certainly be happy to see them too. I’ve been living in a cheap rental condo for my tenure in New York State,” I said. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s hit the road!”
In the span of the half hour drive, I told Hammed of my experience and how we somehow reunited. He patiently listened as we drove through the town of Rochester, passing a sign saying CEDARVILLE AVENUE. I asked my cousin how in the world he got this house, and apparently, his parents knew a kind man from Rochester who would soon proceed to give them a grant. The reason he was at the train station is that he had been working for the railroad’s operation department.
“We immigrated from Iraq two years before the turn of the century in search of a new lifestyle,” he added. “So when did you decide to immigrate here?” he asked me. “Shortly after my wife and children were taken away from me, I moved away in search of refuge. Before the 9/11 attacks, I was not judged for my origin, but that soon changed thereafter,” I said. “Yeah, I had some tough moments through the process.” he elaborated. We walked into the kitchen to find the girls. However, there was a bulky, buff police officer standing by. “Is your name Kardel Mohammed by any chance? It’s okay if it is you, we just need to ask you some questions,” he told me. “Ok, I will be willing to -uh.. answer some questions,” I hastily replied. I knew things could go either way as I bit my lip, but I assured myself it would be all okay. This officer seemed quite tolerable and empathetic to me, despite his body build. Keep calm, take a deep breath, I instructed myself.