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IN WARTIME, UGLINESS HITS HOME

They moved to Buffalo from Binghamton a month ago, knowing no one.

Lex and Amy Liberatore found a quiet place on the West Side, near Richmond Avenue. The next day, a 12-year-old neighborhood boy stopped by. He took Amy to meet his brother, his two sisters and their mother. The women had coffee. Soon the Liberatores' 13-year-old daughter, Laura, was walking with their kids to school. The mothers got closer.

"I'd go over, we'd talk and have something to eat," Amy Liberatore said. "Then she'd send me home with soup or something."

The new friends made the Liberatores feel at home, less uncomfortable in a new city.

Now it is the friendly neighbors, not the Liberatores, who feel like strangers in a new place. Suddenly the Abdallahs don't quite fit.

On Sept. 11, America changed. It changed in New York City. It changed on these West Side streets, in the way some people look at Fawwaz and Muna Abdallah, Muslims born in Palestine, and their four children.

The kids have been called "terrorists" by schoolmates and told to "go back to Arabia." A neighbor made what sounded like a threat.

Tragedy brings unity, anger, grief. It also reveals ignorance. Across the country, there is news of mosques being fired upon and Arab-Americans shot dead or beaten.

The Abdallahs are Americans. They've lived here for more than 20 years. He owns a small grocery store, works a 50-hour week, pays taxes. The house is spotless. Their kids introduce themselves to a visitor. Muna Abdallah doesn't let her boys, 13 and 11, play with toy guns.

Like all but a few Muslims, they aren't religious fanatics or political extremists. They think Osama bin Laden is evil, that what happened last week is despicable. Indeed, the word Islam means "peace" or "surrender."

"(The Abdallahs) have shown my family," said Amy Liberatore, "the true face of Islam -- hospitality and understanding."

In return, they have seen an unpleasant face of America.

A neighbor asked Muna if she was happy about what "she" did, saying their house will end up like the World Trade Center.

Some kids at school called 11-year-old Mohammad a "camel jockey" and a "sand n-----."

"It made me feel sad," he said. "Broken up inside my heart."

People look at them differently.

"Now," said Muna, "I feel the tension."

It isn't everyone. Most neighbors have been kind. The principal at their kids' school, School 45 -- where Muna is a teacher's aide -- reminded students that all but Native Americans came here from somewhere else.

But reason is the first casualty of fear, and ignorance knows no boundaries. Japanese-Americans were put in camps during World War II. Arab-Americans took heat during the Persian Gulf War. Now there is the chance, given how the Sept. 11 terrorists lived among us, that every Muslim will be seen as a potential airplane hijacker.

"We came to the land of freedom," said Fawwaz Abdallah. "We thought we had nothing to fear."

What happens in the coming months defines us as a country, a people. How well we balance fear with logic, whether we stop caution from morphing into paranoia, will be a test of our strength and greatness.

Will we shun those who wear a headdress or worship at a mosque, or will we reach out? That's the battle we'll fight, maybe as important a battle as the one against bin Laden and his cohorts.

Because of the venom of a few, the Abdallahs feel like strangers in a familiar land. Fawwaz Abdallah suggested his wife not wear her veil and scarf in public. She won't violate the tenets of Islam to defuse the ignorant. So instead of going to the mall, they stay home.

"It is not," he said, "a good time for going to the mall."

We all feel the pain and grief of Sept. 11. The heaviness we carry inside conveys a message, makes a point, better than words ever could: There have been enough innocent victims.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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