It was some 40 years ago that Aref Assaf was a skinny boy living with his family in a Palestinian refugee camp. He saw something no boy should see — his 11-year-old brother shot to death, a few days after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War ended.
Now, living a comfortable life in the suburbs, married and the father of five, Assaf can often be seen in Paterson, front and center of any issue facing the Arab-American community.
At the moment, he is spearheading a battle to keep a prominent Muslim leader, Imam Mohammad Qatanani, from deportation. He has used the Web site for his organization — the American Arab Forum — to rail against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for trying to deport the imam. He has helped raise about $100,000 for legal bills. And following an eloquent appeal before the New Jersey Commission on Civil Rights, Assaf persuaded the agency to draft a resolution in support of the imam.
This is the same man who has been a central figure in the push for the creation of a state Arab heritage commission. He was a force in getting a mosque built in Rockaway. And it was Assaf who led a protest aimed at a Wildwood boardwalk vendor who created a game called "Wack the Iraq," in which players shot paintball guns at Iraqi figures. The operator shut the game down.
Assaf, who is 49 and lives in Denville, says he has a "need to be out there."
"I feel obligated to address civil rights abuses and misrepresentation of our culture and religion," he says.
Saved by a late bus
On Sept. 11, 2001, Assaf waited for a chartered bus to take him to a business breakfast at the World Trade Center.
The bus was late. Then word of the terrorism attacks spread and the trip was canceled.
"I questioned why God didn't make me one of the dead," says Assaf, with the deliberate tone that characterizes the way he speaks. "My life was spared because of a late bus."
Assaf, a man who constantly analyzes, concluded that he had been spared for a reason, that he had a mission to fulfill.
But what was this mission?
Two months later, Assaf found himself among the thousands of Arab and Muslim men who received unannounced visits from the FBI. "They said, 'We want to speak to you,' " Assaf says. "They said 'You're a Muslim, you're Palestinian, you're Arab and you pray in Paterson.' They said that because I was all those things, I must know something about 'what lurks under the surface.' "
It was, he thought, what other Muslims and Arabs were encountering: The view of them and Islam as threatening and connected to the horrors that had befallen the United States.
"My own government was questioning my loyalty," says Assaf, who arrived in 1977, thanks to a college scholarship. The attacks made him — like many Muslims — angry and nervous.
But Assaf says, "We could not mourn like the rest of the country. We were treated with suspicion; we were held in contempt." (MORE)