Arab deli workers in Buffalo live dangerously, sometimes paying with their lives for a chance at the American dream.
In the last year, three deli workers, all of Middle Eastern descent, have been slain. Dozens more have been killed, beaten, threatened and robbed over the last several years.
The most recent victim, Ali Alshaheri, 42, was fatally shot two weeks ago when he resisted a robber in his deli at 777 Sycamore St. What happened to him, police said, is all too common.
Yet these inner-city entrepreneurs refuse to quit, despite the hazards of doing business in a country they say is much more dangerous than their distant homelands.
"I can't think of a more hazardous occupation," Buffalo Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske says.
Nasr M. Alshaibi came to Buffalo from Yemen in 1992 after seeing television shows promoting the American way of life. He sold all of his possessions to buy an airline ticket.
In March 1995, he found out just how expendable he was in a country where he thought "the streets were paved with gold."
It was 9:30 p.m. and he was closing the family-owned deli at 1293 Sycamore when a masked man walk in and pushed the barrel of a .38-caliber handgun into his face.
"What do you want?" Alshaibi asked.
"Don't say nothing, man," the robber replied.
Alshaibi reached out and yanked off the gunman's mask.
"It's you!" he said.
He recognized a young man whom he had ordered out of the store earlier in the day "because he had a bad attitude." The man had left, but not without promising revenge. Now he had returned.
The two men fell to the floor and fought. Then, there was a blast from the handgun.
"I was so angry I didn't feel anything," Alshaibi recalled.
But a bullet had ripped through the front of Alshaibi's right shoulder. The fight was over. The gunman fled.
"Look," the 28-year-old Alshaibi said, pausing from his story to pull back his shirt and sweater and show a smooth lump of scar tissue where he was shot.
Last year, when Alshaibi went to the Erie County Holding Center to visit a friend, by chance he spotted the man who had shot him.
"You're still walking? You didn't die?" he recalled his assailant saying.
The deli worker contacted Buffalo police, who charged 24-year-old Nathaniel L. "Pumpkin" Myers in the attack.
"The judge gave him six months and five years' probation and told him to stay away from our store. That's what he got, and I could have died," Alshaibi said. "The guy showed no remorse. He told me that when he gets out he's going to shoot me again. I just said, 'OK, man.' "
Myers, who pleaded to a reduced charge of attempted criminal possession of a weapon, was released from the Erie County Correctional Facility three weeks ago.
Mohamed Kaid, 32, says he still feels the pain of losing his 54-year-old father, Karim, who was fatally shot March 27, 1997, as he worked inside the family deli at 1522 Genesee St.
"The gunman came in and fired five times. One shot hit my father in the head, the other in the leg," Kaid said, pointing to bullet marks in the tin ceiling and the wall of a refrigerated meat case.
"Everybody respected my father," Kaid said. "We work hard, 12-, 14-hour days, seven days a week. This store supports 18 family members. Nobody is on welfare, never."
He blames drugs and unemployment for the dangers deli owners face. And, he says the violence is not just aimed at Arabs.
"They pick on black store owners, too," he said.
In the last three killings, quick responses by patrol officers and intensive follow-up investigations by homicide detectives resulted in arrests, according to Capt. Joseph Riga.
"The circumstances in all three killings were very similar," said Riga, chief of the Homicide Bureau. "Young men go to the store with the intent to rob the clerk or owner and wind up shooting him to death. The motive is an opportunity to get their hands on some fast cash."
Authorities said they admire the deli operators for opening up businesses in buildings long abandoned on commercial strips of the inner-city. In the same breath, police are quick to point out that illegal activities at some delis have tarnished the overall image of the food stores.
Last week, several East Side deli workers were arrested for allegedly misusing food stamps and selling drug paraphernalia, including crack pipes. About two years ago, the city formed a special Deli Task Force to closely monitor the stores, prompted by reports of unsanitary conditions and overpriced goods.
There is some neighborhood hostility to the Arab businessmen. "Arab delis rule in this neighborhood. They're the only ones here, and they figure they can treat you any way they want," said one young woman who lives near 777 Sycamore, where Alshaheri was slain.
Alvin Baines, a customer of Mohammad Mohammad, the clerk killed Feb. 6 in the deli at 1346 Broadway, thinks criminals are jealous of the economic niche deli workers have carved for themselves.
"They think they can just rob them and the deli workers are going to give it all up, but these delis, that's all these people have," Baines said. "It's their life."