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Job Fair Caters to Muslim Immigrants

Years After 9/11 Attacks, Bias Is Still Perceived

By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 26, 2005; Page D12

His name is Muhammad. The name appears nowhere on his résumé.

He arrived on Dec. 22, 2001, to a post-Sept. 11 America. Fearing a backlash, he turned the prophet's name into a lone letter.

Yoko Uchida, left, a volunteer from Virginia International University, helps Shembil Basit register for the job fair sponsored by the Pakistan American Business Association. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

And so "M. Ayaz Qureshi" is what he became, a Pakistani immigrant who found a job at Wal-Mart, who converted dollars earned to rupees sent home, who wondered if he'd ever wear a suit to work again.

Yesterday, surrounded by country brethren doing the same, Qureshi handed out résumés and explained his situation to prospective employers assembled at a job fair in Falls Church for immigrants like him.

At a time when Muslims are filing more religious discrimination complaints than any other group, the Pakistan American Business Association sponsored the fair to link Pakistani immigrants with companies eager to hire them. Two years ago, the association held the first such event in response to complaints about workplaces hostile to hijabs, beards and praying five times a day.

"The people felt very nervous and scared," said M. Siddique Sheikh, the president of the Burke-based association and owner of five service stations in Northern Virginia. "It's not as much as it was then. If back then, it was 90 percent of people facing discrimination, now maybe it's 15 or 20 percent."

Data provided by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show that complaints spiked in the year after the terrorist attacks and have since leveled off.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the EEOC grouped together complaints by individuals who are or are perceived to be Muslim, Arab, Afghan, Middle Eastern or South Asian into a category known as "Code Z." Between Sept. 11, 2001, and March 11, 2005, nearly 1,000 complaints were filed, most of which were dismissed.

The commission does not track complaints specifically filed by Pakistanis, but judging from the Code Z complaints, "anecdotal evidence shows that filings by Pakistanis probably increased post-9/11," said David B. Grinberg, an EEOC spokesman.

Many of the 24 recruiters assembled at the job fair represented Pakistani-owned companies; others represented mainstream firms such as BB&T Corp. and RadioShack Corp. They said it makes good business sense for them to employ the faces of a Washington redefined by immigration. According to the American Religion Data Archive, an estimated 150,000 Muslims, Arab and non-Arab, live in the Washington area.

"We want to be a part of the community in which we have offices," said Linda Romero, a BB&T group employment manager who drove from Frederick to Falls Church to recruit.

Shakeel Tufail, president of Insyte Computer Education, said his Alexandria information-technology training company co-sponsored the job fair because he wanted Pakistanis in the region to apply for jobs in a supportive environment.

"Business brings people together," he said. "There is some apprehension in the community right now. . . . This makes them feel more wanted and that there are others like them."

Still others looking for work said they have not noticed any difference in their workplaces.

"I have never felt discriminated against in any way," said Nizam Faruqi, who lives in Arlington and works as a clothing consultant at Hecht's in the District. The chain's recent acquisition by Federated Department Stores Inc. sent him looking for "more options" yesterday. "But then, since 9/11, I have not applied for any job."

More than discrimination he might face as a Muslim, Faruqi is frustrated that he has worked in a series of retail jobs for which he feels overqualified. He holds a bachelor's degree in accounting, but he said the financial services industry wasn't hiring when he immigrated in the late 1980s.

"My colleagues that work with me will say, 'What are you doing here?' " Faruqi said. "I feel underemployed."

It's a feeling Qureshi shares. Before he immigrated, Qureshi worked for the United Nations as a logistics officer. He now works in the photo lab at Wal-Mart.

"I always have this thing in my mind," said Qureshi, who lives with a cousin in Springfield while his wife lives in Houston and his children live in Pakistan. "I look at where I was there. I was on the top. And then I look at what I am doing now. . . . My resolution is that I should keep trying."

As he looked around the room, he brightened. Nobody would flinch if he introduced himself with his given name.

"Here," he said, "everybody's Muhammad."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company