Mus­lims in Michi­gan

The boys’ bas­ket­ball team at Ford­son High has 11 play­ers who ad­here to Is­lam.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - KENT BABB BY IN DEAR­BORN, MICH.

The first time he tried it was three years ago. The high school bas­ket­ball coach looked to­ward the scorer’s ta­ble be­fore a home game at John H. McIn­tyre Gym­na­sium in suburban Detroit and re­al­ized he didn’t rec­og­nize the ref­eree. ¶ The coach ap­proached the game of­fi­cial for pregame in­tro­duc­tions and ex­tended his hand. ¶ “I’m Sam,” he said, but he fum­bled the words; the name left his lips awk­wardly, like a man pre­tend­ing to be some­one else. ¶ The of­fi­cial said noth­ing, just kind of looked at him, and the coach spent the next few min­utes fig­ur­ing the of­fi­cial hadn’t bought it. A few weeks later, he went for it again. Over time he be­came more con­fi­dent, the names more nat­u­ral. He be­gan won­der­ing, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the past year, whether it would ever be pos­si­ble for him — and his play­ers — to truly blend in, es­pe­cially dur­ing such an un­set­tling time in Amer­ica. ¶ Be­fore some games these days, he oc­ca­sion­ally in­tro­duces him­self as Ozzie. Other times he is Oss. Some­times he is Steve. He likes be­ing Steve. ¶ Any name would be bet­ter, he finds him­self think­ing more and more, than the one he has.

‘I live in a bub­ble’

There isn’t much to see out the bus win­dow, the city and its con­crete long be­hind them. Osama Abul­has­san sits in the sec­ond row, pass­ing the fi­nal miles on this early January evening by al­ter­nat­ing be­tween the night’s game plan and Twitter: the “Jay­hawk” of­fense and Ford­son High’s plan one mo­ment, the words and sprawl­ing in­flu­ence of Don­ald Trump the next.

“In the last week­end, some­one said: ‘Go back where you came from,’ ” Abul­has­san says over the hum of the bus. “You can’t re­spond to it. You’ve got to let it go.” He keeps scrolling. “I would hope my kids would tell you: ‘I was born in Amer­ica.’ ”

Abul­has­san used to hear the same kinds of things years ago, back when he played point guard at Ford­son dur­ing the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of 9/11. Now he is 31, emo­tion­ally cal­loused af­ter all he has been through. This Fri­day evening, he is lead­ing his team out of Dear­born — of the city’s nearly 100,000 res­i­dents, more than a third are, like Abul­has­san and his 11 var­sity play­ers, Arab Amer­i­can in an­ces­try and Mus­lim in faith — into a ru­ral stretch of Washt­e­naw County: a bus of Mus­lims head­ing into Trump Coun­try.

This is Ford­son’s first road game of the new year, an early January con­test at Lin­coln High near Yp­si­lanti. More than that, this is the group’s first trip out­side the cul­tural fa­mil­iar­ity of Dear­born, a city with the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of Ara­bic peo­ple out­side the Mid­dle East, and deeper into a state that — by a ra­zor-thin 10,704 votes — turned red for Trump, who had promised a Mus­lim reg­istry and tem­po­rary ban on im­mi­grants from Mus­lim na­tions.

“It’s too early to tell if any­thing will change,” Abul­has­san says. “But I live in a bub­ble. Noth­ing will change in Dear­born. Be­cause it’s us.”

For years, Abul­has­san avoided leav­ing Dear­born’s bound­aries. There, his cul­ture was shared, not feared.

He did leave Dear­born 10 years ago, and those days away changed him, though none of the young men on the bus know that story. They don’t know that, while Dear­born and the en­tire na­tion ad­just to an ad­di­tional layer of un­cer­tainty, those days still might be af­fect­ing him.

In his mind, though, one thing has re­mained the same, and it’s why he can’t just dis­ap­pear like he some­times wishes he could: He be­lieves that when noth­ing else can, sports has the power to unite and in­spire, and even if just for a while, games can ease the most re­lent­less bur­dens — for the play­ers and those who coach them.

As the bus eases over rail­road tracks, nar­row roads and sprawl­ing fields all around them, Abul­has­san checks Twitter again.

“Am I con­cerned about my kids?” he says, re­fer­ring to his play­ers but also his two sons. “Un­til I see the direc­tion change, I won’t worry.”

He pauses, look­ing out the win­dow.

“What’s the worst that can . . .” he says, stop­ping him­self as he re­mem­bers his own an­swer.

He knew how it looked

He came in wear­ing shack­les, and on the other side of the glass were his par­ents. Abul­has­san saw his fa­ther’s eyes well with tears. He was not used to see­ing his dad cry.

Four decades ear­lier, Abul­has­san’s fa­ther had — like thou­sands of Mid­dle Eastern im­mi­grants who moved to Michi­gan to work in the au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try — left Le­banon in search of the Amer­i­can Dream. In Au­gust 2006, he opened the Detroit Free Press and saw his 20-year-old son’s mug shot. Abul­has­san’s mother asked how this had hap­pened.

Why, she asked, had he even ven­tured out of Dear­born? Years ear­lier, he had planned to at­tend col­lege 100 miles away, maybe walk on to Sag­i­naw Val­ley State’s bas­ket­ball team. But when his par­ents said they wouldn’t sup­port it, Abul­has­san went into his bed­room and cried.

“The turn­ing point of my life,” he would say much later.

Here was an­other one. He at­tempted to ex­plain: Abul­has­san and Ali Hous­saiky, a friend and for­mer team­mate at Ford­son, earned ex­tra money by trav­el­ing to neigh­bor­ing states and buy­ing pre­paid cell­phones, re­turn­ing to Michi­gan to sell them for a profit. Abul­has­san would say later that he was pay­ing for his own col­lege ex­penses and needed cash for tu­ition and books.

On one trip they stopped at two stores in Ma­ri­etta, Ohio, and af­ter the sec­ond, they no­ticed the first po­lice car. Be­fore long, a half-dozen had ar­rived, and they found them­selves amid a haze of bark­ing search dogs and swarm­ing news trucks.

Months ear­lier, the FBI had an­nounced an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a pos­si­ble link be­tween pre­paid phones and sus­pected ter­ror­ism. Now of­fi­cers found a dozen phones, $11,000 in cash (money to be used to buy the phones, he said) and a se­cu­rity guide for a Mid­dle Eastern air­line un­der the pas­sen­ger seat. (Hous­saiky’s mother worked for Royal Jor­da­nian Air­lines, Abul­has­san said, and they had bor­rowed her car.) It didn’t help mat­ters that Abul­has­san ini­tially lied to an of­fi­cer, say­ing his fa­ther had sent them to buy the phones.

“A per­fect storm,” Abul­has­san said re­cently, but he knew even then how it looked.

Still, he tried to calm his pan­icked friend that first night in jail. Abul­has­san was a strong stu­dent with plans for at­tend­ing law school and some­thing of an ide­al­ist: The le­gal sys­tem, he be­lieved, couldn’t screw up this badly; the law ex­isted to un­tan­gle knots like this.

The next morn­ing a judge as­signed felony charges, in­clud­ing money laun­der­ing to sup­port ter­ror­ism. Abul­has­san thought it was a mis­take, but then he saw their faces on tele­vi­sion — “TIES TO TER­ROR­ISM” along the ban­ner — and by the time his par­ents be­gan the five-hour drive from Dear­born, a na­tional de­bate about racial pro­fil­ing had erupted — and Abul­has­san’s will had be­gun erod­ing.

They waited in jail for a week, with in­mates taunt­ing them and guards laugh­ing at them, be­fore the county prose­cu­tor’s of­fice dropped the charges. Abul­has­san said there was nei­ther an apol­ogy nor an ex­pla­na­tion; more than a decade later, the prose­cu­tor who over­saw the case said he doesn’t re­gret hold­ing the men in jail.

“Maybe be­cause I’m hard­hearted,” said Jim Sch­nei­der, who was the county prose­cu­tor for 10 years. “It’s al­ways re­gret­table if some­body is de­prived of their lib­erty and charges are un­founded, but I don’t know that charges were proven un­founded.”

Abul­has­san re­turned home, but he dis­cov­ered that some­thing within him had died that week in Ohio. He skipped classes and stopped study­ing, aban­don­ing his dream of a law degree. He blew off friends and fam­ily func­tions, the only way to avoid re­liv­ing the story and re­new­ing his de­spair.

“Ev­ery­thing kind of didn’t mat­ter any­more,” he said. “What else can hap­pen to me? I just lost faith in the sys­tem, and the sys­tem is ev­ery­thing.”

List­less one day in De­cem­ber 2006, he called his for­mer bas­ket­ball coach at Ford­son. He asked whether he could vol­un­teer as an as­sis­tant coach while he de­cided his fu­ture.

“It was pure,” he said of his rea­son­ing. “Some­thing that was un­af­fected by the ug­li­ness of the world. My only an­swer was to go to the youth and reach our kids. I wanted it to be our kids.”

‘If you re­spond, they win’

Three hours be­fore the game at Lin­coln, the team bus parks. Abul­has­san waits in his seat, ask­ing each player the same ques­tion. “What’s the rule?” he says. They an­swer, and Abul­has­san nods.

“What’s the rule on the road?” he says again and again, and one player can­not re­mem­ber. Abul­has­san is­sues a hint: “Don’t go any­where . . .”

The player re­mem­bers: “With­out some­one else!” Abul­has­san lets him pass. few years ago, Ford­son was play­ing a road game, and an Arab Amer­i­can player wan­dered off alone. A group of stu­dents from the host school con­fronted the player, Abul­has­san says, and though the in­ci­dent did not es­ca­late, Abul­has­san for­bids play­ers from go­ing any­where with­out a team­mate.

And so on this day, as they wait for the ju­nior var­sity game to con­clude, that’s what they do: two-bytwo to the re­stroom, to the con­ces­sion stand, into the boys’ locker room for the sun­set prayer.

Houd Mashrah and Hashem Al­jahmi, both Ford­son ju­niors, open their stalls, and Mashrah touches the “Is­lamic Stuff” folder on his smart­phone. He un­furls a prayer rug, laying it on the mo­saic tile, and opens an app with a com­pass that shows him the direc­tion to Mecca. Then they re­move their shoes, and Mashrah prays for for­give­ness and health and for a good game against Lin­coln.

Last year, Mashrah says, the mother of an op­pos­ing player called him a “ter­ror­ist,” and he was dis­heart­ened un­til the player him­self ap­proached Mashrah and apol­o­gized. Trump’s cam­paign was stress­ful to his fam­ily, Mashrah says; his mother speaks of­ten about be­ing de­ported, and the 16-year-old says he wor­ries for his sis­ters.

But on the bas­ket­ball court, a most Amer­i­can and po­lit­i­cally neu­tral place, he says he fo­cuses on the game, his team and its op­po­nent — so much hap­pen­ing he can ig­nore most any­thing.

Mashrah says he feels the stares some­times, hears the re­marks about go­ing back to where he’s from. He says he is try­ing to be a bet­ter lis­tener. Try­ing to take the high road and un­der­stand those un­like him. But more than any­thing, dur­ing this pe­riod of un­cer­tainty, he is try­ing to heed the words of his coach: that it is okay to feel anger and nat­u­ral to ex­pe­ri­ence anx­i­ety. But it is never ac­cept­able, he says, to al­low emo­tion to over­take them.

“If you re­spond, they win,” the coach likes to say. “They’re not go­ing to re­mem­ber you as Ford­son. They’re go­ing to re­mem­ber you as ‘that damn Arab.’ ”

Not long be­fore the var­sity game, Mashrah qui­etly col­lects his rug and reties his shoes. Team­mates fil­ter in, and play­ers form a semi­cir­cle around Abul­has­san, who speaks quickly and tells them to avoid turnovers and to dis­trib­ute the ball swiftly.

Then the most im­por­tant thing: “Don’t let them light any fire,” Abul­has­san says. “You’ve got to light the fire.”

They clap and come in close, form­ing a clus­ter around the coach. “To­gether on three: One, two, three — to­gether!”

By any other name

On that September morn­ing in 2001, Abul­has­san was in class when the first of the planes hit. It was a half-day at school, and af­ter the bell, a clus­ter of sopho­mores piled into a car and flipped on the ra­dio. The voice was pan­icked: New York and Wash­ing­ton were un­der attack.

That, he says, was his 9/11 mo­ment: the im­age for­ever seared into his mind like most Amer­i­cans old enough to process that day. But a short time later, Abul­has­san ex­pe­ri­enced an­other mo­ment that took his breath away: hear­ing he shared a name with the mas­ter­mind of the attack, Osama bin Laden.

“What am I go­ing to do now?” he re­mem­bered think­ing. “I’ve got the name of the worst per­son on earth, and I’ve got to go back to school to­mor­row.”

He never did like the name. Even in the Dear­born en­clave, it made him dif­fer­ent — he said he was the only Osama in his grad­u­at­ing class — and strangers had trou­ble pro­nounc­ing it, though af­ter 9/11 he never had that prob­lem again.

Ford­son played a road game a few days af­ter the attack, and dur­ing pregame in­tro­duc­tions, he heard the crowd gasp. As the months and years passed, some snick­ered when they heard it; oth­ers paused. He braced him­self when he said it, and even now, Abul­has­san low­ers his voice and tenses when us­ing his full name.

It be­came eas­ier to in­tro­duce him­self as “Oss,” and af­ter join­ing the Ford­son staff full time he be­came merely “Coach Oss.” In coach­ing bas­ket­ball and foot­ball, he re­dis­cov­ered pur­pose, con­nect­ing with a dozen or so young men who re­minded him of him­self. He out­lined post-grad­u­a­tion plans and found him­self en­cour­ag­ing them to leave the psy­cho­log­i­cal safety of Dear­born — to go search­ing for their true selves some­where out­side the bub­ble.

But oc­ca­sion­ally he re­treated into his own mind, lost in it some­times, and felt trapped. Was this all he was meant for? What if Ohio had never hap­pened, tamp­ing down his am­bi­tions?

He tamed his re­grets by study­ing coach­ing the­ory, read­ing books by North Carolina bas­ket­ball Coach Roy Wil­liams and for­mer New York Gi­ants coach Tom Cough­lin. He stud­ied how New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots Coach Bill Belichick an­swers ques­tions from re­porters and paid at­ten­tion to how the great ones deal with adA ver­sity.

No coach made sense to him like Jim Har­baugh, the for­mer Michi­gan quar­ter­back who in 2015 took over as coach in Ann Ar­bor. Har­baugh was skilled, in­sa­tiable, a bit of an odd­ball — a kin­dred spirit, as Abul­has­san sees it.

“I felt like he was equally crazy,” he says, and he be­lieves Har­baugh be­ing 40 miles away is the uni­verse telling him some­thing.

A few years ago Abul­has­san wrote a list of goals, list­ing them in a way only he could de­ci­pher. “Cal­i­han Hall” meant Ford­son’s bas­ket­ball team reached the state quar­ter­fi­nals; “POTD” was short for “Prac­tice on Thanks­giv­ing Day,” sig­nal­ing the foot­ball team had reached the state cham­pi­onship. Then the most mean­ing­ful one: “WWJH,” and it was one he found him­self think­ing about all the time: “Work with Jim Har­baugh.”

Last year he re­searched how to be­come a grad­u­ate as­sis­tant at Michi­gan, think­ing about how he would in­tro­duce him­self to the Wolver­ines coach. Then — and he hates this about him­self — he felt the re­gret and un­cer­tainty creep­ing in again.

What if Har­baugh liked Abul­has­san’s pas­sion, his com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, his work ethic — and then Googled his name? He would see the broad-stroke run­down of those four days in 2006 — “sus­pected ter­ror­ism” and “pre­paid phones” and “Osama” — and, no, he de­cided he could not ap­ply. The 10-year-old stain on him was per­ma­nent.

So he spoke with his brother, an at­tor­ney, whis­per­ing at first about legally chang­ing his name. Then, the idea grow­ing louder, he men­tioned it to his wife, Jouhaina. He said his faith re­mained strong, but he trimmed his beard close, prayed in pub­lic less of­ten and oc­ca­sion­ally tried, as he puts it, to “look less Ara­bic.”

He be­gan ver­bal­iz­ing the names he was con­sid­er­ing, of­ten to bas­ket­ball of­fi­cials dur­ing pregame in­tro­duc­tions — “Sam,” “Ozzie,” “Steve” — and lis­ten­ing to how each one sounded, whether he could say it with con­fi­dence, whether it fit.

“Steve” felt right, so plain and un­mem­o­rable, and so he de­cided that if he ever left Ford­son, he would go all-in: “Steve Has­san,” a man with no past. Osama, and ev­ery­thing that stood for, would dis­ap­pear for­ever.

The time to tell

The sounds had be­gun shortly be­fore the game started. A man in cam­ou­flage trilled his tongue when Ford­son play­ers jogged onto the floor. A young man in the stu­dent sec­tion mim­icked play­ers when they oc­ca­sion­ally spoke Ara­bic.

With Lin­coln beat­ing Ford­son by dou­ble dig­its in the sec­ond half, turnovers col­lect­ing and the “Jay­hawk” and “Bay­lor” and “Mem­phis” of­fenses fail­ing, the crowd was chirp­ing at play­ers. Amid the jeers, a sopho­more player had enough and did the one thing Abul­has­san tells his play­ers not to do: He re­acted.

The young man turned to­ward the stu­dent sec­tion and be­gan shout­ing, and team­mates hur­ried to re­strain him. An of­fi­cial is­sued a tech­ni­cal foul, and Abul­has­san tried to fig­ure out what had been said and by whom. (Later, he said he still wasn’t sure.)

Lin­coln beat Ford­son, 55-40, and the coaches and play­ers shook hands, the stands emp­tied, and the teams re­treated to their locker rooms. Abul­has­san was fu­ri­ous. “What­ever you are, you are. What­ever they are, they are,” he told his team. “Let them say what they want to say. They earned that right.”

The sopho­more, Abul­has­san would say later, was smart and ma­ture, thought­ful and filled with po­ten­tial. He also had a short fuse, and his grades had plum­meted to the point they threat­ened his sports el­i­gi­bil­ity. Abul­has­san had tried to get the player’s at­ten­tion, at first by shout­ing and then with love, but noth­ing seemed to work.

He won­dered whether it was time to de­ploy his last re­sort.

A few years ago, a stu­dent en­tered Abul­has­san’s of­fice and threat­ened sui­cide. An­other time, an ath­lete ap­proached him to dis­cuss his poor grades, say­ing he was on the verge of giv­ing up. In each case, Abul­has­san took a breath and be­gan a story he tells al­most no one: how he wan­dered too far from Dear­born and found him­self locked away and accused of be­ing a ter­ror­ist — ev­ery Mus­lim’s worst fear.

Over time, it has be­come Abul­has­san’s “scared straight” story, a tool he has re­pur­posed for kids he other­wise can­not reach. If they think this is rock bot­tom, he would tell them to imag­ine be­ing named Osama and spend­ing seven days in Ma­ri­etta, Ohio.

They are stunned, and they seem to dis­cover a new per­spec­tive. If Coach Oss hadn’t been bro­ken by that, surely they wouldn’t be beaten by this.

“Ev­ery time I get a kid to walk out of my of­fice like, ‘I’ve got a shot,’ ” he said, “that’s why I do this.”

On this Fri­day night, play­ers dressed and even­tu­ally trick­led out of the locker room and into the park­ing lot, where the team bus waited to return them to Dear­born. Abul­has­san greeted par­ents and a few old friends, and when he even­tu­ally made his way out­side, he saw the sopho­more stand­ing on the black­top.

He walked to­ward him and put a hand on the kid’s shoul­der, won­der­ing whether the time had come to tell him about Ohio.

‘I’m not the same any­more’

Back in Dear­born, Abul­has­san sits on the sofa and watches his 2-year-old son draw on the folder that usu­ally con­tains his le­gal doc­u­ments. He can’t bring him­self to throw them away.

These pa­pers have, for so long, de­fined and lim­ited him — even as the years pass and the story dis­solves. He can’t help but think of a life be­yond the safety, for bet­ter or worse, of Dear­born.

“It’s not so much want­ing to know what’s out there,” he says. “It’s — I want to know what’s out there for me.”

His wife walks in, just home from a gath­er­ing with friends, and leans against a door­way. They have had this dis­cus­sion many times: the re­grets and the am­bi­tion, along with Abul­has­san’s strength­en­ing de­sire to shed his own skin.

“I don’t see you leav­ing here,” Jouhaina says. “This was your dream: to coach and have in­flu­ence and be a role model for kids and change who you can.”

It’s what he needed a decade ago. He’s un­cer­tain this is what he needs now. Some­times the dream changes.

“A lot of what you’re talk­ing about is where I’m telling you I’m not the same any­more,” he says.

She asks about the kids at Ford­son: Imag­ine if young Osama had had a Coach Oss so many years ago — a man who had trav­eled the dark­est of paths but knew the way back.

“I mean, you’re great at what you do,” she says. “You re­ally are, you know?”

He stares ahead, and she walks to­ward the kitchen.

He is si­lent for a long time, and dur­ing mo­ments such as this, his mind races. Abul­has­san, with a young fam­ily and a mort­gage, won­ders whether he owes it to him­self to be self­ish. He also won­ders whether stay­ing at Ford­son, dur­ing the most un­cer­tain time for Mus­lims in a gen­er­a­tion, is his call­ing — even if he’s no longer sure he wants it to be.

He won­ders whether a man with his her­itage, with this name, at this mo­ment in time can make it in Amer­ica with­out giv­ing up a ma­jor part of him­self: his dreams or his iden­tity.

Abul­has­san leans down fi­nally, tak­ing the folder from his son and slid­ing into it a stack of doc­u­ments, an im­por­tant chap­ter of who he was and who he’s still wait­ing to be­come. He glances at a page and sees the name at the top.

“It still is mine,” he says. “I’ve car­ried it through the mud and dragged it out. I guess I can say I’ve built it up. The peo­ple I care about, they know who I am, by name. You can’t say Steve Has­san is the same as Osama.”


TOP: Ford­son High var­sity play­ers Hashem Al­jahmi, sec­ond from right, and Houd Mashrah say Fri­day prayers as the fresh­man team en­ters the locker room af­ter a game ear­lier this month. ABOVE: Ford­son’s Jamiel Ab­del­latif drives against Lin­coln’s Juwan Pittman dur­ing a game in Yp­si­lanti, Mich. The Ford­son bas­ket­ball team is com­posed of 11 play­ers of Mus­lim faith.

TOP: Fa­dia Farhat hugs her son, Yousuf, a player on the Ford­son bas­ket­ball team, af­ter a loss at Lin­coln. ABOVE: Ford­son Coach Osama Abul­has­san takes his team through a drill ear­lier this month. Ford­son is lo­cated in Dear­born, a city of about 100,000, more than a third of whom are Arab Amer­i­can in an­ces­try and Mus­lim in faith.


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