For immigrants from war-torn countries, terrorist attacks in New York, D.C., hit hard

Saturday, September 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Sergio Barahona's mind reeled back two decades this week, to an explosion that scattered blood and bodies on a San Salvador street as he and his mother looked on.

It was the kind of terror Barahona thought he had left behind when he emigrated from war-torn El Salvador.

``What happened in New York immediately filled my mind with images of war, of buildings destroyed, streets bombed, shellings by helicopters,'' said Barahona, 31, speaking in Spanish. ``And it made me feel that you're not safe in any country of the world, no matter where you go.''

For the millions of immigrants who fled war or political violence to take refuge in America, Tuesday's terrorist attacks held a special horror. The violence stirred terrible memories and raised new questions about the safety of an adopted homeland.

``Yesterday my little daughter told me, `Mommy, I was born during the war, and now do you think we will have war again?''' said Nonna Arustamova, 41, an ethnic Armenian from Azerbaijan who fled her country in 1988 at the outbreak of war with Armenia. She made her way to Los Angeles.

``I feel really sorry for those people. Because I know what that is,'' Arustamova said of Tuesday's victims. ``And not only me, my family. My husband, he told me, `Nonna, I can't imagine that after 15, 16 years we see the same thing in America.'''

Immigration is often viewed in terms of a search for political freedom or economic gain. Less often discussed is the simple safety and security that America has long represented for countries where upheaval and chaos, said Roberto Velasquez, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

Velasquez counsels refugees from the Vietnam War. For some of them, Tuesday's terrorist attacks raised one question, he said: ``Where are they going to go, now they know there is no safety?''

Velasquez and other counselors say many immigrants suffer from post-traumatic stress, and the attacks are likely to exacerbate symptoms like flashbacks and feelings of isolation and helplessness.

For Haider Koussan, 31, a Dearborn, Mich., store owner, the attacks brought memories of a classmate in Lebanon who died when a toy blew up.

``It's haunting,'' said Koussan, who left Lebanon when he was 14. On Thursday, he hung an American flag on the front of his store.

Barahona is now a legal services coordinator for the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles.

``It worries me when I hear the government say that war has been declared against the United States,'' Barahona said. ``Hearing the word `war' completely destroys my nervous system. It's terrible to see so many dead people, and to know you could be next.''