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Sunday, October 7, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Muslims in America find they have friends

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Shortly after last month's terrorist attacks, two bricks ferried handwritten notes with crude, racist remarks through the front window of the Old Town Islamic Bookstore in Alexandria, Va. Store manager Hazim Barakat was angry and frazzled. The Palestinian immigrant also was unprepared for what happened next.

About 15 bouquets of flowers and more than 50 cards — some with money — arrived at his store. People from as far away as Tennessee and Nebraska called with condolences. A local businessman, who would not give Barakat his name, paid for a new window. Christian ministers and a rabbi dropped by to express their support.

"The people in the neighborhood were so nice you don't believe," said Barakat, 44, who runs the store for the American Muslim Foundation. "This is like another family I have. This is my big family. I want to thank everybody."

Terrorism and bigotry, it seems, can have unintended consequences.

Across the nation, many Muslims say that since Sept. 11, they have been encouraged and comforted by unexpected acts of kindness from communities and individuals. In subdivisions, stores, restaurants and offices, non-Muslims have approached them with hugs, handshakes, moral support, even the sanctuary of their homes, as well as apologies for attacks by others.

"The love and support we got from the community was overwhelming," said Mohamed Magid, 36, imam of All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Herndon, Va., describing the response after someone spray-painted anti-Muslim obscenities in the hall outside the mosque's prayer room.

Neighboring churches wanted to pay for the damage. Members of Shorshim, a Jewish congregation in nearby Reston, hand-delivered a poster of support. Local women volunteered to shop for Muslim women too afraid to go out. Magid was invited to speak at nearby churches.

"My appreciation for my neighbors, my country and people of faith has increased," said Magid, who is from Sudan. "I think we came out of this stronger, more caring, more appreciative of one another. And even more tolerant."

Many reports have suggested that tolerance was a casualty in the devastation at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Middle Eastern-looking men have been ejected from airliners on concerns by nervous pilots and passengers, and Muslim women wearing Islamic head scarves have been forced off roads by other drivers.

Still, a stream of e-mail to the Council on American-Islamic Relations based in Washington, D.C., reveals another kind of story.

Nada Hamoui, who lives near Tampa, wrote that after the attacks, she found a red rose on her office desk with a card that said, "From one American to another." It came from a patient of her physician husband. "I held it," she wrote, "and I cried."

The Islamic Center in Athens, Ohio, reported being mailed a $100 check from a non-Muslim couple who wrote that "we are all one people." In San Diego, the Islamic Center said it was "flooded with letters and cards of support." And Olga Benedetto, 27, a student at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute, e-mailed an offer of "help for those in the Chicago area needing groceries or other needs. ... I understand that some of you are afraid to leave your homes."

Four days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Adisra Jittipun, a Muslim woman who wears a head scarf, stopped at Chason's Country Buffet in Winchester, Va., with two non-Muslim girlfriends.

About 10 minutes after they began eating, a waitress came over. "It was kind of our first assumption that she was possibly going to kick us out," recalled Jittipun, 23, a senior at George Mason University. Instead, she handed them the $30 they had paid for their food, saying the restaurant wanted to give them a free meal.

"She knelt by our table and was very sympathetic ... saying that she didn't want us to go to war," Jittipun recalled. The waitress also "said she was very proud that I had the strength to wear the Islamic attire. ... I was very happy about that," Jittipun added. "And once she left, she was actually in tears. She just walked away in tears. And everybody was silent."

Patricia Morris, of Falls Church, Va., said it was a walk with her son the day after the attacks that got her wondering about her Muslim neighbors. As they passed Dar al-Hijrah mosque, "it was the first time I ever saw the iron gates closed, and I wondered what kind of threats they were feeling," she recalled.

Morris called a Palestinian neighbor. "She told me, "We're not doing too well. We're all very scared,' " said Morris, 48.

So when President Bush declared the Friday after the attacks a day of mourning, Morris went into action, leafleting her subdivision with invitations to a 7 p.m. candlelight vigil of solidarity outside the mosque. More than 30 people attended. In appreciation, a few Muslims who had been at evening prayers there distributed white roses to the vigil's participants.

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