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
"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, Marlo
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."
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES