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Thursday, Oct. 21, 2004 02:13 pm

The challenge

Photo by Jane Adrian

It's a beautiful fall day, better than any remembered or even imagined. The Sangamon River lazily winds its way to the Illinois. The maples and cottonwoods are discovering their color. The birds are loud and jubilant. As we -- my husband, a friend, and I -- cross over a bridge, local folks slow their vehicles. Most wave; others stop to chat.

Then we notice the graffiti on the bridge. Most are words and symbols with no readily apparent meaning. There's one jarring exception. Spray-painted in black capital letters across one of the bridge's steel rails is this message: "SAVE YOUR COUNTRY -- KILL AN ARAB." The message strikes home like a karate kick to the gut.

If caught, most of the people who write graffiti on the Young Road bridge would face a misdemeanor charge for defacing public property. The "kill an Arab" message is different: Under state and federal law, the message constitutes a hate crime.

My first reaction is to buy a can of paint and spray over the hateful call to murder. But hiding the words wouldn't erase the feelings, the fear, the hate, the misunderstandings, and the misinformation embedded in the message.

I decide instead to talk to a local leader in Springfield's small Muslim community. Elamin Elamin, MD, associate professor of internal medicine at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, is a native of Egypt and a naturalized citizen who has lived in Springfield for nine years.

Though he arrived here in 1995, just two weeks after arsonists destroyed the Islamic Center, Elamin says his experience here "has been very, very positive."

Indeed, Elamin is one of those cup-half-full optimists who believes it's possible to "get a lot of good" out of "everything bad."

He's convinced that if the author of the hateful graffiti actually met an Arab and had a chance to talk and share experiences, he or she might be convinced "we are all the same people." Indeed, Elamin is extending an invitation to that person to come to an event that he says will prove his point.

In 2003, of 272 documented hate crimes in Illinois, Arabs were victims in 7.7 percent of the cases. Among groups victimized because of national origin, Arabs were the most likely to be targeted, according to the state's Uniform Crime Report.

It's likely that 9/11 had a lot to do with Arabs' being victimized, Elamin says.

Coverage of the terrorist attacks pointed "to a specific ethnicity as 'Those are the bad people,'" he says, and Muslims were scared.

"Sept. 11 was a wake-up for everybody."

But not all the experiences were negative.

Elamin remembers going to the Islamic Center three days after the terrorist attacks.

"As I am approaching the place -- and I will never forget this as long as I live -- I found a big crowd in front of the place. And I thought, 'Oh, here we got it.' And as I got closer, I found people standing in front and in the parking lot, front and back, with banners: 'Support Arabs.' 'Support Muslims.' 'We are all brothers and sisters.'"

Elamin describes the experience as breathtaking. He was overwhelmed that members of the interfaith community from all over central and southern Illinois had come to protect them with their bodies and their faith.

That spirit of ecumenism continues with the House of Abraham, a Habitat for Humanity project that is being built by the interfaith group here in Springfield [see Dusty Rhodes, "The other Abe's house," Sept. 2]. The house will be dedicated on Sunday, Oct. 24.

Elamin says that when he goes to work on the house, to drive nails or lay insulation, he does not know the ethnicity or the religion of the person next to him. He just knows that they are working together to help somebody.

"So you see," he says, "when someone writes this [hate message] on the bridge, he or she is misinformed or never informed. And I think a big part of this might be that we did not have a chance to meet that person or he or she has never had a chance to see actually what is happening around here.

Elamin wants the person who spray-painted the bridge to come to the Oct. 24 dedication. The person does not have to identify him or herself.

Just come and see what we have done as a community, he says.

Jane Adrian is a Springfield freelance writer who specializes in science, health, and education. Her last story for Illinois Times examined child murder ["Killing our kids," June 10].

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