In the face of Obamacare dismantling, one man faces an uncertain future
Lew Barnes, 62, eases back into the wicker chair, sipping coffee in the frigid morning wind, and informs me matter-of-factly about how the new government will soon be leaving him to die.
Barnes, a surfboard maker and former businessman from Crescent Beach, is now in the fifteenth year of his bout with Leukemia. When he was first diagnosed back in 2002, doctors generously estimated that he had ten years to live; but thanks to four rounds of chemotherapy, he is still alive and well, talking to me here today beneath the oaks at Harry’s Café.
This, however, is by no means the end of his struggle with cancer. Surviving the disease has come at a costly price: paying for such expensive treatments meant losing $700,000 over ten years- nearly his entire net worth- draining both his bank account and his day-to-day energy.
Barnes has borne the full brunt of America’s convoluted health care system, his insurance company having abandoned him immediately after his first treatment. “I was no longer a profitable customer to them,” he says. “I didn’t even know they could do that.”
The next two sets of chemo, alas, had to paid for out of his own pocket.
When he received his fourth round in 2012- a new treatment that utilized pills instead of an IV – the Affordable Care Act, instated by Obama in 2010, covered the hefty medical bills when he was incapable of doing so himself. In his words, it was a “breath of fresh air.”
But now that Congress is hell-bent on dismantling the ACA- widely known as Obamacare- Barnes faces the possibility of losing the federal support that he will need for the next bout of chemo- that will keep him alive, in essence.
“They’re trying to completely throw out the system without creating a solution for people like me,” he laments. “They’re trying to save a few bucks at the expense of people like me.”
After a years-long political siege, November’s election of a majority of Republicans to the House and Senate has tipped the scale in the congressional battle against Obamacare.
Detractors of the program, mostly conservatives, argue that the program was inefficiently bureaucratic and that eliminating it will allow people to individually purchase their own health insurance- that its benefit to a minority of Americans, who could afford exorbitantly priced but lifesaving medical treatments, isn’t worth the damage to the majority, who were collectively forced to pay more for their health premiums.
Supporters say it gives low-income people access to lifesaving treatment that would normally be out of their price-range. Many, including Barnes, can attest that it has kept them alive in situations that would’ve likely killed them.
Against the corrosive drift of widespread public indifference, voices like Lew have been fighting to insert their stories into the national dialogue about Obamacare. Since the movement to remove the program began, Lew has become active in local politics; just recently, he gave a pained speech about his journey before a sprawling crowd at the St. Augustine branch of the National Women’s March.
“It’s not right,” he tells me. “So I’m not going to go own without a fight.”
Lew concedes that Obamacare had its flaws. “But instead of trashing the program,” he says, “fix it!”
Considering the gravity of his predicament, Lew is an astonishingly stoic man. He speaks with a relaxed optimism, and seems more interested in discussing his former exploits as a captain chartering sailboats in the Bahamas and Cuba than weeping dejectedly over the current political situation.
He doesn’t know what the future holds for him. Instead, he focuses on his immediate plans, like expanding his business building wooden surfboards. Anything past that is beyond his control, not worth worrying too much about.
Before we leave the café, I ask if he has any final reflections on his cancer, his treatment- his life, his fate.
“What happened to me could happen to anyone,” he responds, matter-of-factly as usual. “I was healthy before my diagnosis: I was a gym rat, had an active lifestyle.
“You never know what could happen.” He takes a last, tentative sip of coffee. “You never know.”
Islamophobia on the rise in America
For the family of junior Yasmeen Anis, 9/11 was a day when the entire world seemed to pause.
As with most American families, they knew the day the 19 Muslim extremists crashed two jumbo jets into the World Trade Center would irrevocably alter our society. But as a Muslim family, the attacks and subsequent “War on Terror” exposed them to a threat most Americans wouldn’t have to deal with: anti-Islamic discrimination, a pathogen which would infect our society with increasing virulence over the next 15 years, boiling to an all-time high in 2016.
Almost immediately after the attacks, more than a decade ago now, Anis’ parents began feeling the first ripples of Islamophobia. In the months following Sept. 2001, the couple—Sunni Muslims who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan and ran a gift shop in Kissimmee—experienced a stark decline in traffic at their business. People were suddenly suspicious of the middle-eastern looking couple—especially the mother, who wore the traditional Islamic hijab. Over the coming years, an alarming number of customers would begin avoiding them because of their religion.
Anis recalls how her father was glad to have put her through a private Islamic school, sheltered from religious bullying in public school systems. Her parents tried to isolate their kids from the poisonous rhetoric directed towards Muslims after 9/11, but doing so was exceedingly difficult. Even today, more than a decade since the attacks, her mother still can’t walk in public without making people uncomfortable.
Anis’ family is not alone in their experiences. Fears of terrorism following a string of highly publicized attacks- such as the Boston Marathon bombings and the shooting massacres in Paris, San Bernardino, and Orlando-, coupled with endless political saber rattling has led to immense antagonism of the American Muslim community. This atmosphere of fear has only been exacerbated by the election of Donald Trump, who famously enunciated at a Dec. 2015 rally his desire to ban all Muslims (a global religion of 1.7 billion people) from entering the United States. While the proposition garnered immense criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, it drew a frightening amount of support amongst white Americans. To add to that, there’s been an astronomical rise in the amount of Islamophobic hate-crimes: according to the Center for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the number of attacks against Muslims has increased 600% percent in the last year alone. Just three weeks ago, three men in Kansas were arrested after attempting to bomb an entire apartment full of Somali Muslims.
The Islamic Center of St. Augustine is an inconspicuous white building nestled back amongst the foliage along State Road 207, smack in the pine forest between the ocean and I-95. Asides from the sign bearing it’s namesake and the wooden rack where shoes are placed before entering (a traditional custom), nothing about this place suggests that it is an Islamic place of worship.
I’ve arrived early. There’s a Saturday community dinner tonight, buttressed by two evening prayers, Arab food, and a group discussion on topics surrounding Islam. I’ve come here to find a first-hand perspective on Islamophobia from the people who’ve experienced it directly and, this being my first time at a mosque, or masjid, I’m not sure what to expect.
When the first of the Imams arrives, we introduce ourselves tentatively, and after putting our shoes away, small talking for a moment, he leads me inside the building. The interior is surprisingly simple. A narrow hallway leads into a broad empty room with a deep, luxurious Persian carpet. Lining the walls are several small posters, scrawled upon with elegant Arabic lettering, and in the corner is a bookshelf with numerous Qurans in multiple languages. The men begin to materialize over the next twenty minutes. “Salaam aliq” they say to one another, shaking hands and patting shoulders, congregating in the center as they wait for the proceedings to start.
And then, the call to prayer begins. The men line up at the far end of the room, standing uniformly erect as the imam begins his recitation. Suddenly, in that moment, the room falls silent. The loneliness of the Imams prayer is haunting- it has that distinct Arab musicality often associated with the Middle East, with the sun, with deserts. He’s reciting the same lines, they later inform me, that Abraham uttered three thousand years ago. I watch for the next few minutes, suspended in time.
When the song finishes, they all fall to their knees, pressing their noses to the floor as if to kiss the Earth. Allahu akbar– they each whisper, periodically rising and falling to the floor with one another. After ten minutes of the ritual, the line of praying men gradually disintegrates- evidently, the prayer has finished- though a few still linger, spiritually locked in communion with Allah.
Following the prayers they drape a tarp over the floor for the meal, and lay out several boxes of pizza, water bottles, and homemade tins of Moroccan chicken. “Come, brother” a portly man says, inviting me to eat with them. They are surprisingly affable men- most have preadolescent kids running in circles around us- and for the next half hour we sit cross-legged in a square as they regale one another with stories from back home, discussing the current state of Muslims in American politics.
“One of the big misconceptions amongst Islamophobes is ‘The Muslims are coming!’” the main Imam, Anas, tells me, licking chicken grease from his fingers. “They think we’re coming to cut people’s hands and heads off. But what people don’t know is that the Quran emphasizes peace. Even the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that there is no compulsion in religion.”
“Islam is not a new thing,” one man, a graying IT Technician from Jacksonville, adds in. “Muslims were amongst the first Europeans to see the Americas. The sailors who took Columbus to America were Moorish Muslims from North Africa.”
According to the men, political involvement was not normally encouraged amongst American Muslims, but the rise of discrimination ended that pattern. Originally, most Islamic jurists deemed it unethical to vote, as doing would perpetuate an inherently corrupt system, but the 2016 election has changed everything. Throughout the conversation, I hear iterated several times a quote by a certain Islamic scholar: “If you give up your rights voluntarily, no one will give them back to you.”
It’s a perplexing phenomena for Amal Soukarieh, a Lebanese-born, Saudi educated Muslim who’s lived in the United States for barely over a year now. She’s in St. Augustine studying as a freshman at Flagler College, and already, she’s caught whiffs of the anti-Islamic pathogen. “When we first moved into our house, it was interesting, because our neighbor was a fervent anti-Muslim who used to protest at mosques,” she said.
To her, it’s strange to see the social stigma Americans place on women who opt to wear their hijabs publicly. And it’s strange for her to see how Americans perceive Muslims- and Middle-Easterners in general, for they are often mistakenly lumped into a single group- as an ignorant race of brutal tribesmen. “In the Middle East,” she said, recounting her cosmopolitan education. “We grow up knowing about the whole world- Asia, Europe, Africa. Usually Westerners are not as informed about us as we are about them.”
Western ignorance about Middle Easterners, she says, is a part of a feedback loop: the more white Americans assume all Muslims are suicide bombers, and the more they are reinforced in this notion via the media and rumors, the more likely they are to discriminate against others in the first place.
I ask Amal about ISIS, the terrorist organization largely responsible for the negative image of Islam in recent years. Fringe groups like ISIS, acting since the late 90’s, were the ones that sparked Islamophobia, after all. “It makes me want to cry,” she says. “They (groups like IS) are not motivated by political beliefs. They claim to be religious, but it’s only to gain power. It’s all about power for guys like them, nothing else.”
I ask Anis the same question, who has been sitting with Amal and I in the student center. “People always forget that Islam is the Arabic word for peace. In the Quran, peace and love are emphasized. People need to stop portraying the whole religion based on the one bad apple.”
“We have a quote in Lebanon,” Amal interjects. “We always say that ‘They (the terrorists on 9/11) didn’t just hijack the planes. They hijacked the whole, entire religion.’ ”
Before the night is over, back at the Islamic center, I pick up a few flyers hanging on the wall. Civil rights pamphlets, informing Muslims of their constitutional rights. In bold letters, one says “Know your rights to worship freely and safely.” Another asks if the reader has been harassed at work for their hijab, threatened with a weapon, or solicited by the FBI.
Out front, the center always keeps an American Flag flying, as a way of showing that it’s possible to be both American and Muslim.
Even then, Anas still cautiously locks the fence with a wrought-iron chain whenever he leaves at night. The threats of vandalism and possible hate crimes have led to an ineffable sense of paranoia. He tells me how, a few months prior, a group of anti-Islamic activists (members of a larger umbrella organization) drove all the way from Orlando to protest at the St. Augustine mosque. It was only when the authorities intervened that the demonstration was brought to an end
“All the way from Orlando!” he muses sadly. “Can you believe it? How could people have so much hate in their hearts that they would drive three hours to protest at a little, small town mosque?”
The end of the nights activities is capped off with the final prayer of the day. Despite the time, I opt to stay to watch the hypnotic ritual one last time. Everything about it is beautiful: the call, the men falling to the floor in unison, the the mournful music of the Imams’ voice.
The imagery often used to evoke Muslims nowadays- wild eyed extremists bearing clubs, suicide vests, and AK-47’s- is sadly inaccurate. Now, as I watch them whisper their devotions with their noses pressed to the floor, they are quiet. Quiet, and serene, and peaceful.