By Anjali Enjeti
One day this past January, upon returning to her home in Mason, Ohio, a quiet suburb 25 miles northeast of Cincinnati, Rawd Saleh learned that fliers accusing her of having a terrorist connection had been distributed to her neighbors.
One side of the flier contained images of Saleh and her home. It listed her first and last name and her address. A Google map image pinpointed the exact location of her residence.
Neighborhood terrorist warning, it began. We have someone linked to terrorism living in our neighborhood.
On the back of the flier was a copy of a 2003 Cincinnati Enquirer article which stated that Saleh’s father, Omran Saleh, may have funded terrorist bank accounts in the Middle East. Though a Hamilton County judge later cleared him of any terrorist connections, he was eventually sent to jail for one year for defrauding the state of tax funds. “That was an awful time,” said Saleh. “The worse thing we’d ever been through.”
Saleh was stunned that someone could be so cruel as to dig up her father’s 15-year-old false accusation, attack Saleh for having links to terrorism herself and paper the neighborhood with a lie.
“I am busy with life, home and work,” she said. “I’m not out there to hurt or offend anyone. I do what I can to help others. I couldn’t believe someone could do something like that.”
She was scared for her safety and angry that someone could put her or her children — ages 21, 15 and 12 — in harm’s way. For weeks afterward, she found it difficult to sleep at night and would often look outside her window if she heard a noise to make sure the perpetrator hadn’t returned.
“I don’t know who was out there thinking I’m evil or anti-American — what process they go through before they commit a hate crime. I was shocked someone could go through all the trouble to do this to me.”
Saleh, who is Muslim, moved to Mason in 2014 with her three children. The town of 30,000 is made up of approximately 17 percent racial minorities. And some 25,000 to 30,000 Muslims live in the greater Cincinnati area. Saleh, who was born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian father and a Turkish mother and immigrated to the United States when she was 6 years old, had come to love the “diversity and welcoming feel” of her community.
Saleh’s neighbors demonstrated an immediate “outpouring of support.” Saleh was sent letters that condemned the flier and offered phone numbers in case she ever needed help. Nearby neighbors redirected the lenses of their security cameras away from their own homes toward hers so they could catch the perpetrator if he or she decided to return. “It was heartwarming and reassuring,” Saleh said.
The flier was posted to a neighborhood Facebook group, where Sarah Martin, a Mason resident, first saw it. “I was outraged,” said Martin. “I wasn’t sure what to do at that point, but I knew I needed to take action.”
Martin redacted Saleh’s personal information and re-posted the flier to her own Facebook page. Cyndi Ritter, a Cincinnati native and former co-worker of Martin’s, saw it and left a comment. The two friends discussed the need to take action.
Ritter reached out to Saleh on Facebook and asked if she wanted to meet with Ritter and Martin for coffee to discuss the flier. Saleh agreed. Martin explained, “I wanted Rawd to know that even though she had never met me before, she has a safe and supportive person on her side if and when she needed me.”
At the meeting a few days later, Ritter and Martin made it clear that though they wanted to help Saleh, they didn’t want to overstep their bounds. If Saleh wanted to walk away and forget what happened, that was fine. “I didn’t want to do anything Rawd was not comfortable with,” said Ritter.
At first, Saleh was hesitant to go further. “But then I started thinking that so many people must be going through something like this. We’re an all-American Muslim family, but someone else didn’t think so.” Saleh decided that the best way to respond to the flier was with a rally.
Ritter took the next step of securing the Mason Community Center for a rally on January 29th and created an event on Facebook entitled, “Calling All Activists: A Rally to Promote Inclusion, Peace and Solidarity of our Muslim Brothers and Sisters.”
Ritter, Martin and Saleh were astounded by the turnout, especially since they’d planned the event only three days earlier, one week after the flier was distributed to Saleh’s neighborhood. “We hoped to get 50 people at the rally,” said Ritter. Instead, an estimated 300 people turned out.
Residents of the Cincinnati metro area assembled alongside Mason-Montgomery Road, a busy thoroughfare, with signs calling for solidarity and tolerance. “We wanted to show that we were not going to tolerate that kind of behavior in our community,” Ritter said.
Ritter had no prior experience organizing. “I’m not a professional,” she said. “This rally was the first thing I’ve ever planned.” But she had attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. the day after the Inauguration and felt inspired. “The March is what gave me the courage and ability to stand up and make an impact.”
To date, the identity of Saleh’s perpetrator is still unknown. And at times, Saleh feels nervous about what could happen to her in the future.
“If I’m walking in the neighborhood and say ‘hi’ to someone, I wonder if this could be the person that did this to me,” she said. “Do I let my guard down? What if I let my guard down and then something happens?”
There’s a world of difference between the community’s reaction to her father’s false accusation in 2003, said Saleh, and the community’s reaction to the flier in January of this year. “In 2003, people cut ties with us. One of the boys in our Cincinnati neighborhood called my oldest son, who was then only 6 or 7 years old, a terrorist,” she said.
This time, the community rallied around her and her family. Saleh feels “really blessed” to live in a diverse city like Mason.
“There are so many things going on in the world that make you feel alone. There are mean, hateful people,” said Saleh. “But the ones who are kind outnumber them.”
Anjali Enjeti’s articles, essays and criticism have appeared in Longreads, Vice, NPR, Quartz, NBC, the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and elsewhere. She’s a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and can be found on Twitter: @anjalienjeti
Photos by Lori Pike.
Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.