Congregants at the conclusion of early afternoon prayers inside Lackawanna’s Masjid Alhuda Guidance Mosque on Wednesday were told to brace themselves for unwanted community attention.
At the Yemen Soccer Club, youths gathered around a television in the basement recreation room, learning about the Lackawanna man arrested on suspicion of promoting terrorism.
Over at the family-owned Amani Food Market, concerns arose that Lackawanna’s Yemeni community would be unfairly painted with a broad brush because of the actions of one person.
The arrest of Arafat M. Nagi for trying to recruit fighters for the Islamic State overseas came 12 years after the Lackawanna Six were arrested and eventually convicted of visiting an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan. Some community members fear the backlash the Yemeni community received at the time could occur again, even though Nagi was said to be a peripheral member of the Lackawanna community who had been largely absent for years.
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“I’m pretty sure this will be a black mark on our community, but I’m sure we’ll get through it. I just don’t want anyone to prejudge us,” said Naef Abdul, whose family runs Amani Food Market on Wasson Avenue.
Lackawanna’s Yemeni population stands at about 7,000 – one of the largest concentrations of Yemenites in the United States and more than one-third of the city’s population. They mostly live in worn two-story homes, with few shade trees, in the First Ward south of lower Ridge Road.
Despite the arrest, the streets were quiet Wednesday. Women wearing headscarves or veils that allow only their eyes to be seen walked together in small groups or with young children.
That changed at 1:20 p.m., when the first calls rang out for prayers at the mosque on 154 Wilkesbarre Ave. About 140 men and boys assembled, with prayers starting 15 minutes later. They knelt on the soft olive carpet with red, gold and black ornamentation.
Immediately afterward, Dr. Khalid J. Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York, reminded the congregants of the fallout after the Lackawanna Six case, when media converged from around the world on the small and insular community.
Qazi advised them to let community leaders – rather than individuals – speak to the media. He later defended that by describing misinformation by individuals after the Lackawanna Six arrests and said that comments from people falsely claiming to be from the community presented problems he hoped would not be repeated.
“I don’t even want to think what we went through during that time,” Qazi said.
Qazi, a medical doctor at Sisters Hospital, also praised efforts by the council and the community to help law enforcement.
“The Lackawanna community has been under a microscope for quite a while. Despite that, it has been in the forefront making sure homeland security is not compromised in any way,” he said.
Inside the Yemen Soccer Club’s clubhouse on Ingham Avenue, talk turned from soccer to terrorism.
“We’ve been talking about this all day,” said First Ward Councilman Abdulsalam K. Noman, a volunteer chaperone.
He said his daughter woke him up at 5:45 a.m. to the sound of helicopters overhead.
Noman is concerned the arrest would overshadow progress made by the community.
“At the time of the Lackawanna Six, things were tough for us. … Is it going to be that way again?” he wondered.
“There are a lot of good Americans who understand this is an isolated situation. But some picture everyone the same, and that is wrong. If Mr. Nagi committed a crime, he did it by himself,” Noman said.
“It’s a bad situation in the community because this reflects on all the Muslims,” said Abdul Albaneh, 15, soon to be a sophomore at Lackawanna High School. The Yemeni community takes pride in its soccer club and in the travel team that last year won the prestigious Queen of Sheba Cup in Ottawa.
“I want to make something clear: If someone from our religion does something, it does not reflect on everyone. That person is responsible for what he did,” Abdul said.
After prayer services, Anwar Alkalai, the mosque’s president and leader of the Imam Council of Western New York, said Nagi was on the periphery of the Yemeni community.
“He has not attended the mosque in Lackawanna for easily over three years,” Alkalai said.