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DON'T even know what an American is," Seema Ahmed said, somewhat
exasperated. If you aren't born here, she wondered aloud, does that mean
you're not an American? If you speak English with an accent? If you eat desi
food with your hands? (In Hindi or Bengali, "desi" is used loosely to
describe that which is of home -- in this case, the Indian subcontinent.)

Seema is 18, fresh out of high school. Born in Bangladesh, she has spent
nearly half her life in this country, in Woodside, Queens. She's small,
serious and, as the eldest of three children in an immigrant family just
this side of survival, she is, by her own admission, also a worrywart. Every
move she makes, she said, she worries about how it will affect her family.
It sounded familiar, but it struck me as a lot of weight to carry on such
tiny shoulders. Seema's English is all Queens, but a hint of Bengali comes
through. She is a United States citizen. But truth be told, she said, she
can't really think of herself as an American. "Bengali first," she said,
before offering her puzzlement on what makes an American.

The conversation was prompted by a video that Seema and a dozen other Queens
girls had made under the auspices of South Asian Youth Action, a community
group housed in an Elmhurst church basement.

They called themselves Desi Girls on Da Rise.

The story goes like this. One girl's boyfriend disappears on the heels of
Sept. 11. We learn later that he's one of the hundreds of South Asian men
corralled by federal officials on immigration charges; we learn, too, that
she's pregnant. Another girl pounds the pavement with fliers to get people
out to protest the detentions. Two other girls -- Seema is one of them --
feel the heat of anti-Muslim bigotry. On the street, they are taunted as
Osama bin Laden's sisters.

It is a fictional treatment, but it is the stuff of their lives. The girls
wrote the script. They turned the video camera on themselves. "This is us,"
they seemed to be saying. Look. Listen. Step into our shoes.

It seemed to be directed as much at the adults in their own communities as
it was to those outside.

Desi girls, after all, aren't supposed to get pregnant before marriage. They
aren't even supposed to have boyfriends. These are the rules that Seema has
grown up with. It has been drummed into her: to disobey would ruin the
family reputation. Her parents haven't seen the video yet. She worries what
impact it might have. "Maybe they'll control me more," she said.

Questions about what makes an American have always hovered over girls like
her. It's just that Sept. 11 and its aftermath have brought them into sharp
relief.

For weeks after the attacks, Muslim girls she knew took their head scarves
off. (Seema is Muslim, but she doesn't cover.) Boys shaved their beards.
Others were beaten up because they wore turbans; they weren't even Muslim.
Her father, a restaurant worker, feared losing his job. Her mother was
afraid to walk home from the subway in her loose-fitting salwar kameez
suits.

School could be worst of all. Once, when a teacher cheered the bombing of
Afghanistan, Seema recalled raising her hand to say something about the fate
of Afghan civilians; she was laughed at by classmates. Another teacher said
something about how John Walker Lindh, the alleged Taliban sympathizer from
California, had fallen under the spell of Islam. Seema cringed.

"Islam is not a witch, or some kind of a magic spell," she said. Desi Girls
used the anecdote in their video.

Anecdotes like these make up the background music for Seema's coming-of-age
tale, and that of many girls like her.

Racism is no longer someone else's cross to bear. "We wanted to show people
we have to change this, the way were being treated," Seema explained.
"Obviously, I do get mad sometimes."

If anything, the last 10 months have helped Seema come out of her shell.
She's been to demonstrations to protest the detentions. Last week, at the
screening of the Desi Girls video, she was up on stage with the rest of her
crew, taking questions at the microphone. It was the first time she spoke in
public, she said, certainly the first time she's done anything political.

I suggested to Seema that, perhaps, Sept. 11 had made her more of an
American.

She didn't buy it. She is just being herself, she said.

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