Those hoping to learn why a group of local Muslim-Americans was detained in December at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge didn't get the answers they sought Monday.
About 50 people assembled for a forum at the University at Buffalo to hear a top adviser on civil rights with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security address their concerns about that incident and to clarify U.S. policies. Daniel W. Sutherland, officer for civil rights and civil liberties, spoke at length on the government's good intentions but said he was unprepared to address specifics of the incident.
"There are multiple pieces to that puzzle," Sutherland said. "If you're looking to me to give you the answers from A to Z on that, you're going to be disappointed."
Indeed, Dr. Sawsan Tabbaa, a Syrian-born dentist and UB instructor who was among those stopped and fingerprinted when returning from the Toronto conference, was not mollified.
"After four months, I was expecting an answer to the main question: Why?" Tabbaa said after the 90-minute forum. "I thought he should be more prepared, I guess."
Her husband, Basem Maddah, was not among those detained, but he was equally perplexed.
"We just had a very nice sandwich with lots of lettuce and tomatoes, but where's the beef?" he asked.
Local Muslim-Americans have been outraged and frustrated over the interrogation and fingerprinting of about 40 people who were returning to Western New York on Dec. 26 and 27 after participating in an Islamic conference in Toronto. Those in the group said they were detained at the border for up to six hours.
Dr. Ismael Memon, 70, a native of India and a naturalized U.S. citizen, was among those detained. Memon, who suffers from arthritis, had a friend read a statement from him during Monday's forum, in which he described how his chronic knee and back pain were exacerbated by having to sit in an uncomfortable position for hours during his detention.
"We were treated just like criminals," Memon complained.
Sutherland tried to explain how the Department of Homeland Security is seeking to learn from the incident and forge stronger ties with local Arab- and Muslim-American communities across the country, particularly in Dearborn, Mich., Chicago and Washington, D.C. Efforts are under way to recruit more Arab- and Muslim-Americans to work in federal agencies like the FBI, Sutherland said.
"In the federal government, there's a real deep interest in hiring people from your community," he said. "We don't know enough about Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs; We don't know this terrain very well."
Earlier in the day, during a meeting with the Editorial Board of The Buffalo News, Sutherland said this case has raised questions in Washington.
"The concerns they (local Muslims) raised were listened to in Washington," he said. "Their concerns have been heard."
While Sutherland did not comment on whether the detaining and fingerprinting was wrong, he said the situation has helped facilitate further discussion about proper procedures at the border.
He said he wanted to dispel concerns that the fingerprinting was a "back door" federal effort to establish a national registry on Muslims in America.
"I don't want people to think what happened was a pattern," Sutherland said. A few weeks later, many Muslims had to cross the border during their journey to Mecca, and they did not encounter problems, he said.
Sutherland said the situation shows the need for more dialogue.
Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the local chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, arranged the forum and accompanied Sutherland to Editorial Board meeting.
After Monday's forum, Qazi said that "despite the fact that he was not able to give specific answers to pointed questions, the answers he gave us provide a road map for the future."