The following essay is lightly adapted from “Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five” by Miko Peled (Just World Books, 2018), which is available for purchase now.
In July 2004, federal agents raided the homes of five Palestinian-American families, arresting the fathers, who had been leaders of a Texas-based charity called the Holy Land Foundation (HLF). Until 9/11, the HLF was the largest Muslim charity in the United States, but in December 2001 the federal government shuttered the organization and seized its assets. The first trial of the HLF-5, held in 2007, ended in a hung jury. The second trial was marked by highly questionable procedures including the admission of testimony from anonymized Israeli security agents. It resulted in very lengthy sentences for the men—for “supporting terrorism” by donating to charities in Palestine that the U.S. government itself had long worked with. The men remain in prison.
This excerpt from Injustice is published here under a Creative Commons license by kind permission of Mr. Peled and Just World Books. Please reuse this material only with explicit acknowledgment of the foregoing publication details, and in a not-for-profit context.
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Shukri Abu-Baker was the first of the HLF-5 with whom I communicated, and the first I visited in prison, although that would be much later. He loves to write and he does it well. His words are evocative where mine fail me sometimes, so I asked for permission to reproduce his letters for this book. I keep them all; some are handwritten in beautiful penmanship. I also learned how to use Corrlinks, the Bureau of Prisons email system, to correspond with him.
His letters are remarkably optimistic, considering the indignities he has undergone. He speaks of his family with love, pride, and joy, and of his trials with forbearance. Here is one from May 2012, that mentions his 25-year-old daughter Sanabel, who was chronically ill:
We’re out of lockdown this morning. I took advantage of my solitude to finish up some important readings that included revising my memorization of the Quran and an introduction to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). The first book I read in my first month of incarceration (I was put in the solitary for the first three months) was Man’s Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl. He illuminated his secret to holocaust survival; how to “turn one’s predicament into a human achievement,” and how “man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but to see meaning in his life.” In his treasured book he taught me that “unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment . . . man’s freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand towards the conditions.”
Dr. Frankl taught me how to suffer and survive suffering. From the beginning of the whole ordeal, I knew it was going to be tough on my family as much it was on me. With Sanabel out there fighting three chronic killers yet holding as strong as she could waiting for her daddy to come home, was heart wrecking. I knew I wasn’t coming home any time soon. Survive prison I must, for when I come out I would hold no grudges, or hate, or resentment. My belief system tells me that whatever comes upon me is a matter already decreed by Allah. He knows better.
I know, Sanabel might not be able to make it till I had the chance to come home. She is rapidly weakening, her lungs functions at 24 percent now. I don’t know for how much longer she’ll be able to wait. Cystic brosis and thalassemia-beta and diabetes are at work, but so is her ghting power and her resilience. I know one thing, though. My years in prison won’t go wasted.
I’m growing a little taller and prouder every day. My family is growing a little stronger every day. We all are getting to the point of no return; no more shall we fear the unknown, and no more shall we succumb to the bitterness of injustice. This is how I had conducted myself and this is how I brought up my family. I encouraged my girls to be open minded to the world because this is the only way the world could open up to them. I carry the pain of the Palestinians in me. I have visited the refugee camps in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza, and I have stories to tell. It isn’t a pretty sight to watch children climb garbage piles foraging for any edible remains!
I will write you more later, Miko. Enjoy your days under the sun. Surprise your loved ones with an act of love or kindness. Make little things happen in their lives allowing for bigger things to manifest in them.
And always, Let Love Live.
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Shukri’s father, Ahmad Abu-Baker (colloquially pronounced Abu-Bachir), was born in 1930 in the village of Silwad, near Ramallah, in a part of Palestine that would later be known as the West Bank. Shukri recalls his father speaking little of his childhood, except in vague terms and isolated anecdotes.
When the Nakba took place in 1948, Ahmad believed that Israel would not be satisfied for long with the boundaries established by the United Nations, and he was determined to leave. The West Bank, which came under Jordanian rule as a result of an agreement between the newly established Kingdom of Jordan and the (also newly established) state of Israel, was desolate and poorly managed. There was little work for Ahmad other than farming his father’s olive grove and doing other small jobs in the village. As a teen he sold ice cream in Jaffa. When he was twenty-two he travelled to Beirut and boarded a ship to Colombia. Then, from Colombia, he traveled overland to Catanduva, Brazil, seeking new opportunities.
He began working as a salesman, moving about in the hot, humid weather, selling mostly garments. Once he could afford to purchase a truck he did so and began selling on a larger scale, traveling the two hundred odd miles between Catanduva and Sao Paolo.
It was in Catanduva that Ahmad met Shukri’s mother, Zaira; the two were married in 1957. Jamal was their oldest. Shukri, born in 1958, was their second child. Kamal was third.
In 1964, the family decided to leave Brazil and return home to Silwad in Palestine. Shukri’s youngest brother, Ramzi, was born there and still teases his family about being “the only true Palestinian” brother.
Two years later, Ahmad and Zaira left to seek employment in Kuwait. They took the youngest children, Kamal and Ramzi, with them, leaving Shukri and his older brother Jamal in Silwad with their grandparents, Haj Mohammad and Haja Sadiqa Abu Baker.
In the summer of 1967, Israeli forces invaded the West Bank. Haj Mohammad, like many Palestinians, placed white flags on the roof of his home and then took his wife and the young grandchildren to hide in nearby caves. A year later, Jamal and Shukri traveled to Amman, Jordan, where their father met them and together they travelled to Kuwait. From that point on, Kuwait became the family’s permanent home.
During the 1960s, the Kuwaiti government granted the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) unusual autonomy rights, including the administration of special schools for Palestinian children.
Professor Shafeeq Ghabra of the Department of Political Science at Kuwait University says that Palestinians helped shape Kuwait’s social, economic, and political development. They played a formative role in the development of Kuwait—the length of their residence, the size of the community, their dedication to work in both the public and private sectors, and their consequent entrenchment in the bureaucracy, economy, professions, and the media enabled Palestinians in Kuwait to develop one of the most cohesive and active Palestinian communities in the diaspora.
Like the vast majority of Palestinians, Shukri lived in Hawally, the suburb of Kuwait City that became the center of Palestinian life. There the Arabic accents outside a bakery on Tunis Street were more Palestinian than like those of the Gulf Arabs. Even the pastries displayed inside on huge, round trays were like the ones from Jaffa and Haifa and Nablus.
Before the First Gulf War, Hawally was the largest Palestinian neighborhood in Kuwait. About 400,000 Palestinians lived in the tiny sheikdom, and it constituted one of the largest, richest, and most influential Palestinian communities in the world, second only to those in Jordan and Lebanon.
Shukri loved Kuwait. He loved the pluralism of Palestinian political and cultural life, spanning everything from the author Ghassan Kanafani, who represented the intellectual left, to Sufi Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. Shukri developed a passion for the Arabic language and for the arts and a taste for activism.
“I was a member of the executive committee of The National Union for Palestinian Students (NUPS), which was predominantly Fatah,” Shukri told me. The PLO headquarters was only a five-minute walk from Shukri’s house. “I would camp there for long hours every time I got the chance in hopes of seeing Yasser Arafat in person.”
Arafat, also called Abu Ammar, visited Kuwait often. Active members of the NUPS like Shukri had notice of his schedule, and Shukri was excited to meet his hero. Arafat, too, was enthusiastic about meeting young leaders like Shukri. They met at least three times, and Shukri listened raptly to Arafat’s vision for the PLO and the services he wanted to provide for displaced Palestinians.
Arafat was known for his good memory and particularly for remembering people he met. He remembered Shukri from the first time he met him, and even though Shukri was not a member of Fatah proper Arafat gave him the nickname Shukri El-Batal (Shukri the Hero) for his outstanding activism and enthusiasm.
“I think he saw that I loved Palestine and I wanted to serve my people,” Shukri observed. “Abu Ammar was very humble; he ate with his hands in the old fashioned Arabic style and invited others to dig in with him. Though I never joined Fatah, I looked up to him.” Many Palestinians did.
In 1977, Shukri graduated from high school and decided to go to the UK to continue his education. He travelled to Sunderland in the very northeastern part of England and enrolled at Monkwearmouth College to study civil engineering. The dark, cold, and dreary climate of northern England was a far cry from the sunny, warm climates he had known in Brazil, Palestine, and Kuwait, but he persevered. At Monkwearmouth he also met another Palestinian who would become renowned for his writing and activism, Dr. Azzam Tamimi. Like Shukri, Dr. Tamimi had lived in Kuwait before coming to the UK to study.
Shukri’s life in the UK was his first direct encounter with Western culture as an adult. He was impressed by the freedom, and he was exposed to people from other parts of the Muslim world, parts he had not yet encountered. While in England, he continued to advocate for Palestine and he began to teach Islam.
In 1980, Shukri came to the United States. He stayed with relatives in Florida, where he completed his studies. Again he became active with Palestinian and Muslim causes and was swept into activism, speaking around the country for Palestine. In 1982, he married Wejdan, and in 1983, while serving as president of the Islamic Society of Greater Florida, he had his first visit from the FBI. “They wanted information about the activities of Iranian students,” he told me.
That year, 1983, was also the year their first child, Zaira, was born. Shortly afterward, Shukri graduated and began working with a variety of non-profit organizations, including the Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA) in Indianapolis.
MAYA helped students from across the Arab and Muslim world who reside in the United States with cultural, religious, or other needs. The organization held an annual convention around Christmastime each year that would attract thousands of Muslim and Arab students. These conventions focused on the issues most central to Arabs and Muslims, and naturally Palestine was front and center. Religious figures as well as political and civic leaders from around the world would come to speak at this event, and Shukri was right in the middle of it, meeting and networking with everyone. Shukri’s work with MAYA opened up possibilities and connections for him that helped with the success of his later work with The Holy Land Foundation.
He was also involved with the Islamic Association for Palestine, IAP, an organization he had helped found back in 1981. IAP grew quickly, particularly in large cities with significant Arab and Muslim communities who, naturally, cared deeply for Palestine.
“I kept suggesting that we change the name,” Shukri told me, “because I felt that the ‘Islamic’ part of the name was limiting our ability to reach out to people who care for Palestine as an issue but are not religious.”
In 1984, Wejdan gave birth to a boy that they named Mohammad. Sadly Mohammad passed away after only five months.
In 1987, two events were to take place that influenced Shukri deeply and made him determined to dedicate his life to charity. Shukri and Wejdan had another child, a girl they named Sanabel. Later that year the first Palestinian uprising, the Intifada, broke out.
Soon after she was born, Sanabel was diagnosed with two life-threatening diseases: cystic fibrosis and beta-thalassemia. This required her to be constantly under medical care, including lengthy periods of hospitalization. The expense was enormous.
Sanabel was initially hospitalized at the non-profit Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. This was where Shukri got his first glimpse of the real power and capacity of the non-profit world and the work that is done through charitable giving. As he and Wejdan were trying to do all that was possible to save Sanabel, and receiving the best care possible, the troubling images of the First Intifada were coming from Palestine: children being beaten by soldiers, young Palestinians armed with rocks being gunned down by Israeli tanks.
Shukri credits Sanabel with inspiring his charitable work: “I want[ed] to do the same for other children around the world, to utilize the tools of charitable giving for children who do not have the opportunities that we had . . . for Sanabel.”
Shukri’s third daughter, Nida, was also born in a time of tremendous turmoil in Palestine. On February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an American-Jewish settler who emigrated from Brooklyn to Hebron, took a semi-automatic rifle into the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and sprayed the crowd of worshipers who were praying at the time with live ammunition. He murdered twenty-nine people and injured dozens of others before he was taken over and killed. The following day, on February 26, Nida, which in Arabic means “a call for help,” was born.
I was fortunate enough to meet Shukri’s family, including Sanabel, on several occasions. The first was when I met the HLF-5 families at the Muslim Community Center in Richardson, near Dallas, Texas, in May 2012. A few days after the meeting, Shukri passed on to me an email he received from Sanabel, telling him about the meeting:
Today all the families met with Miko . . . He wants us to tell our stories and he is going to do some research and get some contacts in Palestine to interview the people, see hospitals, schools, and orphanages that received the aid. It’s going to be a big project, but I am soo happy this is going to happen, inshallah [God willing].
. . . Inshallah, Inshallah this will be a great project. He mentioned you talked to him yesterday and how excited you were. That’s so good; I’m happy you talked to him . . .
Yallah talk to you tom. inshallah.
Sanabel was like her father—warm, intelligent, and a real fighter—but her life was not easy. She was constantly in and out of the hospital. On May 12, 2013, Shukri sent me the following email:
Sanabel is on her deathbed fighting for her life . . . Please keep her in your thoughts. Her mission on earth is about finished. She says she won’t go before she can see me. I said, “Baby, I’ll always be with you no matter when or where you go.”
May Allah have mercy on all living things.
A few days later, I received another email.
In the name of Allah the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate
Sanabel passed on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 2 AM. She went peacefully and gracefully. She will be buried today.
I praise Allah for what He had allowed me to keep: my remaining daughters, Zaira, Nida, and Shurook and my wonderful wife Wejdan.
The prison authorities did not permit Shukri to leave the prison to see his daughter before she died.