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Discrimination hits local businesses

Akhtar Durrani doesn't like to answer the phone at his Pakistani restaurant right now.

Since the WTC and Pentagon terrorist attack, he receives four to six anonymous calls daily at the Taj Mahal Restaurant on Rio Hill Circle. The callers hang up as soon as he answers.

"I think all restaurants are having trouble right now, but we have a sign on our window that says 'Pakistani food'," Durrani said. "We've had absolutely no business lately."

The tension exemplifies national concern over Muslim-American safety. In the past week, violence and arguments involving Muslim citizens has erupted in Washington and New York City as well as places like Dearborn, Mich., Houston and Los Angeles.

Although the terrorists' identities are unconfirmed, citizens of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent are bracing for backlash nationwide. Mistaken identity and racial stereotyping make both groups potential targets for conflict.

Members of the Charlottesville community, especially business owners, are no exception.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, minority-owned businesses account for nearly 10 percent of Charlottesville and Albemarle County companies. With an estimated 500 Muslims and 800 South Asians in the area, ethnic business- owners are making efforts to prevent problems.

At the Ramada Inn off Route 64, owner Kiran Patel says he'll try and stay in the back office.

"If I'm not at the front desk, I'm not as exposed," he said. "But it's still a risk - all brown-skinned people aren't the same, and people are just assuming we are."

Besides hotels, other common Indian and Middle Eastern-run local businesses include convenience stores, gas stations and ethnic groceries.

"We haven't heard of any problems so far," said William Harvey, director of minority business affairs for Charlottesville. "I don't think we will either. We're too far from ground zero."

But at the Econo Lodge North on Holiday Drive, owner Arun Patel isn't so sure that he won't encounter any hostility.

"I hope there are no problems, but my wife works here too, and we're always interacting with the general public," he said. "It's unfortunate foreigners have to suffer in times like these."

Besides problems for South Asians and Muslims, the crisis of mistaken identity has also led to animosity for local Sikh businessmen. Although Sikhs are neither Arabic nor Muslim, the recurring image of Osama Bin Laden wearing a head wrap on television has sparked misdirected attacks at Sikh men, many of whom wear turbans for religious reasons.

"It's irrelevant if people are mistakenly attacking Hindus and Indians instead of Muslims," said Ninad Athale, a fourth-year College student and the vice president of the South Asian Leadership Society. "The point is no one should be attacking Muslims in the first place."

Efforts at the University to prevent conflict include informational meetings and a teach in sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Students and ethnic organizations such as the Muslim Student Association and the Arab Student Organization.

While the events mainly involve University members, they also are meant to inform the larger community. So far though, no local business owners have attended these activities.

"These programs aren't limited to students," said Asst. Dean of Students Ajay Nair. "Everyone should be mobilizing and getting educated."

But this message has not effectivelyreached beyond the University quite yet.

"If things got really bad, I'd probably just call the police," said Quick Pick owner Bhal Patel.

The convenience store does not stay open 24 hours like some others in the area, and Patel says that's a good thing right now.

"Business has been the same so far, and I would be surprised if it changed."

Other Arabic and South Asian business owners also remain hopeful. Arun Durve, owner of Maharaja Indian restaurant on Route 29, says he doesn't expect any trouble.

"I know hundreds of my customers by face," he said. "Those of us who try and assimilate and talk to people are probably less susceptible to conflict."

For Muslim and South Asian students right now though, the sentiment is clear.

"I'm just so sad when I hear about local businesses getting hurt," said Sana Khalid, president of the Muslim Student Association.

Khalid is a member of the Islamic Society of Central Virginia, which draws hundreds of University and city residents for prayer.

"We all know each other, and no one wants this to happen in their community"

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