Eleven-year-old Christopher Bateh isn't afraid to heave a fourth-down pass. He doesn't flinch at taking a last-second shot or throwing a 3-and-2 pitch. Last week, however, Christopher was scared to go to school.
As he watched the telecasts of the devastation at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with his fellow sixth-graders at Jacksonville's Mandarin Middle School, Christopher knew his life was about to get tougher. Within hours some classmates were no longer identifying him as the quarterback of the regional champion YMCA football team, the point guard on the regional champion YMCA basketball team and the ace of a remarkably successful Little League team. To them Christopher had become "the Arab"—or worse.
Christopher, his two sisters and their parents are part of an Arab-American community that numbers an estimated 25,000 people in northeast Florida and nearly 3.5 million across the U.S. More than 4,000 of those in Jacksonville, including the Batehs, can trace their roots to the town of Ramallah on the West Bank. It's the commercial capital of the Palestinian people. It's also where a group of Palestinians were shown on U.S. television celebrating in the streets after word of the terrorist attacks reached the Middle East.
"I cringed when I saw the pictures from Ramallah," says Christopher's father, Sandy. "I rushed home to try to prepare Christopher and his sisters, but they had already been taking grief all day. My heart sank when Christopher told me what it had been like. One kid even called him—and he didn't understand it—a 'sand-nigger.' That's a tough one to explain to your son. I'm furious that these terrorists did what they did to America and that they've done what they did to my children."
Christopher and his sisters—who, like their parents, are U.S. citizens—have never been to Ramallah. They did take a trip to New York City in July and visited, among other sites, the World Trade Center. "It seems if anything goes wrong in America these days, it gets blamed on the Arabs, all the Arabs, not just the crazy people who did it," Christopher said last Friday, a quiver in his high-pitched voice. "Nobody wants to hear that I was born here, my parents were born here. I'm an American. I'm Christian. But because I'm proud of where my family came from, I'm now the terrorist, the suicide bomber, the crazy Muslim. I try to tell them I'm as upset about this attack as they are. I've cried like everyone else. But it gets hard. It makes getting up every morning pretty tough."
Sandy, who is the chief administrative officer for information technology for the city of Jacksonville, agonizes as he watches his son lose his innocence. "A week ago everything was great," Sandy says. "The kids are doing great in school. Chris is loving every minute of his sports. Now...." His voice trails off.
"As I drove home a couple of days ago, an idiot on the radio was saying, 'Let's round them up and deport all these A-Rabs,' making sure to stress the A. I started thinking about all the Arabs they'd be sending off—Doug Flutie, Jeff George, Mario Thomas, Donna Shalala, Casey Kasem, U.S. senators, congressmen. We're Americans, and like nearly all other Americans we came from somewhere else. This country went through this with Japanese-Americans in World War II, and I'm disappointed that 60 years later, it's not much better. When I see the television pictures of people in America burning mosques or shooting out windows in Arab-American-owned businesses, my heart sinks."
Christopher looks forward to picking up a football again—his team's practice last Saturday was canceled because of Tropical Storm Gabrielle. "Maybe sports can make people forget where my family is from and just like me for me," he says. "Maybe they'll learn that not all Palestinians are terrorists."
Then, proving his childlike innocence is not altogether lost, he adds, "I still want to play in the NBA one day. They're going to cheer for me."