Buffalo-area Muslims detained, interrogated and fingerprinted at the U.S.-Canada border in December still do not know why they were held for as long as six hours.
About 40 Muslims, most of them American citizens with valid passports, were stopped at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge and the Peace Bridge on Dec. 26 and 27 while returning from an Islamic conference in Toronto.
University at Buffalo freshman Hassan Shibly, 18, recalled being led by three armed officers into a separate room for questioning and fingerprinting.
In the room, he was told to stand face-first against the wall and spread his legs apart for a pat-down search.
"I was just forced to go along," Shibly said. "I refused, but they said legally I had no choice. We weren't treated as American citizens. We were treated as suspects."
Border agents initially told Shibly that his vehicle was being stopped as part of a random check. But when he stepped inside the Border Patrol offices, he noticed that the other people there were also Muslims who had been at the conference.
Shibly's mother, Dr. Sawsan Tabbaa, an orthodontist and UB instructor, described the fingerprinting experience as humiliating.
"This was something I thought was only for criminals," said Tabbaa, who also had her three other children -- ages 14, 11 and 3 -- with her at the time.
Abeer Rizek, seven months' pregnant and suffering from the flu, was crossing into the United States to visit her parents in Williamsville.
During a search, she said, border agents lifted her blouse to make certain that she was pregnant.
"They patted everyone down. The whole thing was embarrassing, the whole ordeal," she said.
Dawn Stefaniak and her husband, Dr. Zulkharnain, were stopped at the Peace Bridge late the night of Dec. 26, fingerprinted and held for about 90 minutes.
The day before, they had returned to Buffalo from the Islamic conference without incident, she said.
"This is dangerous -- singling out Muslims," said Dr. Othman Shibly, husband of Tabbaa.
Shibly was not with his family at the time of border incident, but he worries that such detentions could become more common if objections are not raised. "What's going to happen in the future? This is un-American," he said.
Representatives of the Western New York chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council met earlier this month with Michael D'Ambrosio, U.S. Customs & Border Protection director of field operations for the Western District of New York. But the government so far has not fully explained its reasons for the detentions, said Dr. Khalid J. Qazi, president of the local chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
The organization will be discussing the issue tonight during its annual meeting, on the UB North Campus in Amherst.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs & Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has said that agents stopped anyone who attended the three-day convention, "Reviving the Islamic Spirit," based on information that such gatherings can be a means for terrorists to promote their cause.
But Qazi said the Toronto conference was open to the public and featured well-known and well-respected Muslim leaders, many of whom have had discussions with White House officials.
"There wasn't anyone radical coming from overseas or anything like that," he said. "This was a very open, and I thought very constructive gathering of Muslims in Toronto."
Department of Homeland Security officials were invited to attend the Muslim Public Affairs Council meeting, Qazi said.