Her Marriage to a Muslim Cost her a US Government Career,
and Now She Fights a Legal War
By Ramzy Baroud
July 29, 2002
Though the passing of the Anti Terrorism Act in 1995 was in response to the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building by Caucasian Americans, Arabs and Muslims have been a nearly exclusive prey to the terror-phobia that has swept the US thereafter. But the anti-Muslim policy that has been initiated since then, reaching its highest points of injustice with the Secret Evidence Act, is not touching only Arabs and Muslims, but also those associated with them, individuals like Wendy Ghannam.
Ghannam, who was born and raised in New York State and who currently resides in Washington, is an American woman whose dedication and hard work rewarded her with a respected job in a place that she always pledged loyalty.
In 1988, after years in US government civil service jobs, she began her career with the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Her credential as a good and productive employee can be best observed through the evolvement of her position with the agency, as she worked her way up to human resources and personnel. But even such a shiny résumé was barely enough to protect Ghannam from a fate that she could have never anticipated.
In the mid 1990s Ghannam was subjected to a "ruthless and vagarious investigation," she told iviews.com. Although the investigation was routine, and often conducted when one remains with USAID for over five years, for Ghannam the investigation was quite different, and the nature of the questions asked was simply shocking.
First, Ghannam was called onto the Inspector General's (Jeffery Rush at the time) office so the routine check could be completed, or so she assumed. But the short session turned into days of interrogations and harassment.
"We have a problem with you Wendy. Your husband is a Palestinian Arab," stated one of Rush's office investigators, whose name she preferred keeping anonymous due to the nature of the case. Dismayed by his remarks, Ghannam replied, "I have been married to him for 25 years, and there has never been a problem." However the investigator's reply came quick and sure, "you are the only one working in this agency who is married to a Palestinian," adding," I am gonna [going to] be honest with [you] Wendy, they just don't want you here."
The investigation continued with more vicious questioning concerning her reason for marrying a Muslim, whether her husband attended the mosque regularly and if his Zakaat (charity) money went to the Islamic movement Hamas.
Yet the end of what seemed like a never-ending interrogation was not the end of the nightmare, says Ghannam. "I was constantly watched. My computer was looked at," Ghannam told iviews.com. Even her supervisor became actively involved in the 21/2 years of harassment, following the investigation. "How could you be married to an Arab? How could you go to bed with an Arab?" Ghannam illustrated a small portion of harassing questions that she was asked by her supervisor.
In 1996, Wendy Ghannam was fired from her job at USAID. She was told that she was a "surplus."
Ghannam told us that her grievances with the agency began even earlier as she was battling for her rights as a working woman with a disability. Her case, which was handled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), produced nothing, which led her to pay a visit to Jeffery Rush himself. Rush's response to her concerns contained little sympathy according to Ghannam. "If you make a stink about this, you'll regret the day you ever came here," Rush screamed at Ghannam, who was accompanied by a friend. "I will personally see to it that you're ground down into a pulp like the cement sidewalk outside and you'll never get up again," Ghannam was warned. Iviews.com repeatedly attempted to get in contact with Rush to hear his side of the story, but failed to get hold of him.
Constant attempts to learn of USAID's stand on the issue were little successful. The only reply we received was from the Office of General Council, Mr. Jan Peter. Peter, who is representing the agency in this case told us that to protect the secrecy of the case, he would rather not comment.
Now, Ghannam is fighting a massive legal battle to attain rights that she was denied for simply being married to an Arab Muslim. Her legal fight is probably the boldest of its kind since it's a combination of three lawsuits, which were eventually combined by the federal judge. The lawsuit is against USAID for discrimination and mistreatment, Rush for his verbal abuse and threats, Janet Reno and the Foreign Service for failing to live up to their legal responsibilities (since USAID is the responsibility of the Justice Department and since the case was left untouched on Reno's desk for 60 days).
Ghannam's legal battle still rages, and the woman's determination to continue this years long dispute against one of the richest and most influential US agencies, seems nowhere near closure. But Ghannam's case is by no means an exclusive and isolated incident, at the USAID level or at the national level. Arab and Muslim Americans continue to be targeted and perceived with suspicious eyes, as religious discrimination at the workplace remains one of the Muslim community's greatest concerns in this country. "If you are an Arab or Muslim American, all documents and records about your life are closely reviewed by the government," declares Ghannam from an expert's position. She concluded our interview with a word of advice, "watch your back," she passionately exclaimed.