Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, a man from Burundi walked into Pramila Jayapal?s office. He explained that he?d left his African home and walked across deserts for 16 months to get to America. And now he wanted to go back home. When she asked him why, he told her he didn?t feel safe here.
?It was one of the saddest moments for me,? recalls Jayapal, founder and director of the Seattle-based Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington, a leading national voice against the civil rights abuses that threaten immigrant populations around the country. ?It?s a real dilemma for people,? she says. ?To see the breach of America?s promised freedoms is such a shock, and then they?re wondering ?Where will I go? This country doesn?t want me.??
Many of them are turning to Jayapal?s organization, which last September held the nation?s first public hearing on hate crimes and government profiling in the wake of 9/11 and more recently played a critical role in blocking the Justice Department?s effort to deport about 2,700 Somalis nationwide to a homeland where anarchy awaited. And in May, while the U.S. Senate holds hearings on the issue, Jayapal and her organization will gather public testimony for a similar forum in Washington, D.C., requested by Senator Edward Kennedy.
?We can?t possibly respond to all the requests we?re getting from around the country,? Jayapal says, somewhat amazed at her organization?s high profile. ?The national climate continues to be extremely oppressive, but in the middle of that, we seem to be a little enclave of hope.?
This was not exactly what the India-born Jayapal, 37, expected when, fresh from college with a degree in English literature, she went to work on Wall Street in the 1980s. (?My dad?s dream was that I become the chairman of IBM,? she says.) She soon soured on the ?unreality? of high finance, and after a stint counting chickens in Thailand refugee camps as part of a rural economic development project and a yearlong job selling medical products in Indiana and Ohio, she grabbed her backpack and took off for Africa and India. ?It was a real coming home for me,? she recalls. ?I met a lot of activists and realized that was what I really wanted to be doing, working with issues of social justice.?
She worked for international development organizations in India and Seattle, had a baby, wrote a book (Pilgramage to India, Seal Press, 2000), and settled into what she hoped would be a calm life of writing, consulting, and motherhood. Then 9/11 hit, two days after she and her family moved into a new house, and everything turned upside down. The phone started ringing with requests for assistance from people whose husbands and friends had been detained by immigration officials or whose children had been taunted and threatened at school. ?It wasn?t a choice whether to start Hate Free Zone,? she says. ?I couldn?t help but do something, because all these people were calling me.?
And in the middle of it all, her marriage collapsed, throwing her into the frenetic world of the single mom. It is, she says, both a blessing and a curse. ?My son has the benefit of exposure to some incredible people and some real issues,? she says. ?He goes back to school and starts writing speeches??Heck no, we won?t go. We won?t fight for Texaco!??
But the balancing act remains daunting. ?I?m struggling with that now, trying to work one-and-a-half times more than I should be working, trying to be a writer?and doing laundry would be nice,? she says.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department is appealing the case prohibiting deportation of Somalis and threatening to introduce even harsher limits on constitutional rights in the follow-up to the Patriot Act. ?They?re very tenacious,? she says of Attorney General John Ashcroft and his cronies. ?They don?t let go.?
But neither will Jayapal, who sees America?s tolerance for ever-harsher security measures and privacy invasions beginning to wane. ?I have had conversations with people we would classify as conservatives who have said in one way or another, ?We are very concerned about what is happening with civil liberties in this country,?? she says.
?The power of the story is critical? she adds ?We have to be telling stories, showing the broad picture. We need to be doing a much better job of connecting the dots for people?that?s the part that is driving people to participate, to want to make a difference.?
For more on the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington, visit www.hatefreezone.org or call its helpline at 866/439-6631.