Keeping a Changing America Safe

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Sherif Almiggabber is an officer within the Community Engagement Unit at the Montgomery County Police Department, where he has worked for 13 years. Montgomery County, Maryland — right outside of Washington, D.C. — is one of the most diverse counties in America.

Hear his conversation with Ali about how, as an immigrant from Egypt and as a Muslim, he gets to know the people in his county’s Muslim communities and how cultural awareness builds trust, in turn keeping all of us safer.

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Episode Transcript

Welcome to Only in America, I’m Ali Noorani.

This week, how one police officer gets to know the people in his county’s Muslim communities. And how cultural awareness builds trust:

[Sherif soundbite: “People sometimes they give you a little look that, are you, are you for real? Are you one of us, are you one of them? You know, the answer is, it will take them some time to build the trust and I think that time is based on how often you stop by, that you can just stop by and say hi once and forget about everything and you cannot just do it once a year because people forget about you. How frequent you stop why is really important. So it was not earned from day one. Let’s just say it will take, took them some time.”]

From the National Immigration Forum, I’m Ali Noorani. In a political context, we hear a lot about changing demographics these days. Who is going to vote, what do they look like, where do they live, which party are they going to side with? But our majority minority future is much broader than that — and has implications that go far beyond politics. Our demographics define identity, our workforce, and the ways we relate to each other.

The U.S. is projected to become a majority minority country by the year 2045, according to Axios. With a rise in Latinx and Asian immigrants and a lower birth rate among white Americans, non-Hispanic white people have become the minority in 32 more U.S. counties since 2010. Next year, the entire under-18 population will be majority non-white.

Late last year Pew Research found that Generation Z is our most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet.These realities leave us with the option to either embrace these changes or allow racism and xenophobia to intensify. I’m a firm believer that America is better than the racism and xenophobia that course through our society; in these changes lie an opportunity to help us grow as a nation.

In analyzing the data from our nation’s most recent Census, William Frey of Brookings discussed the future of America’s ethnic diversity — and how, ultimately, that’s driving growth as white Baby Boomers are aging.

[William Frey soundbite:”If we didn’t have the minority growth this decade, we would’ve had a much, much lower growth in the United States population. The Hispanic population accounted for half or more of the growth in 18 states, and that was only the case for nine states in the 1990s. And as far as cities are concerned and metropolitan areas are concerned, those metropolitan areas in the older, whiter part of the country are benefitting more from the new minorities more than Florida or Texas or California or someplace like that because these are the places that really have to sustain that growth and are really aging rapidly. In a way, they’re a gift for the country this decade because demographically we would be on the road to Japan, which has a very slow-growing, aging population.]

Of the three fears people have when it comes to immigration, culture, economy and security, we’ve found anxieties around safety and security to be the most deeply held.

People worry: Are immigrants and refugees threats or protectors? Are they national security or public safety threats, or do they make positive contributions to communities, even serving in law enforcement and in the military? So then, how do we keep a changing America safe? How do these demographic trends affect local policing? Are police officers equipped to ensure the safety of all residents?

Picture this: You’re a male police officer called about a domestic violence incident between a husband and wife, both of whom are Muslim. You hear there may have been physical assault, which needs to be reported within 48 hours. But you need evidence. The woman claims she was hit in the back of the head by her husband. And she’s wearing a hijab that she refuses to take off in front of you because she’s devoted to her faith. What would you do? How would you pursue justice — while respecting religious and cultural sensitivities?

I chatted with a police officer for this week’s episode who faced that very situation. And as an immigrant and a Muslim himself, he knew how to find a solution quickly. Diversity in law enforcement helps build trust in communities, in turn keeping all of us safer.

Similarly, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with police chiefs and sheriffs throughout the U.S. about the ways demographic shifts are changing their approach to local policing. As part of the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force, they are collaborating on ways to build trust and safety in their changing communities. You can find more information about their approach toward a path to public safety on their website, https://leitf.org/

Montgomery County, Maryland — right outside of Washington, D.C. — is one of the most diverse counties in America and has about 1 million residents. As the community is diversifying, law enforcement leaders are working on building a force that better reflects the community they serve.

Sherif Almiggabber is an officer within the Community Engagement Unit at the Montgomery County Police Department, where he has worked for 13 years. He grew up in Egypt, where he later studied and trained to be a police officer in the Cairo Police Department. After having the opportunity to come to the U.S. as a wrestler, he later decided to pursue a career in law enforcement here, going through training in his mid-30s.

As an immigrant and as a Muslim, he’s not only a police officer to the Muslim residents of Montgomery County. He’s the guy who prays with them every Friday and speaks at the local mosque. I recently got to chat with him about the differences between being a police officer in Egypt and the U.S. — plus, instances where he’s used his cultural awareness to solve conflict and fight crime.

Sherif – Born in Cairo, growing up in Alexandria, and following my father’s steps. Dad used to be a federal police officer in Egypt. So part of being a police officer is that they don’t keep you in one spot. They keep moving you, and the Federal Police is one big academy that dumps in an academy session of a thousand to eleven hundred people every year, and you get to move them between different cities. I came to the U.S. in 1989, September 1989.

Ali – Why did you come to the US?

Sherif – I used to be a part of the national wrestling team and got to travel around the world and a part of my travel was coming here to the US. I went to the US a couple of times. Prior to coming over to stay, I came in 1980, 1982, 1984 for wrestling. And you know I had my aunt here in Maryland actually. In 1989, I felt like I’d been working as a police officer for almost three years In Cairo after living in a police academy for four years because the Academy’s a little different than what we have in the US. Academy overseas. Similar, the closest picture to it is the Naval Academy that we have here. So you finish up your high school, you get your high school diploma, and you’re getting your college degree while you live in the academy. Again like the Naval Academy. So I graduated with a law degree and a police science degree from the police academy in Egypt.

Ali – And why did you want to become a police officer in Egypt?

Sherif – You know a part of it was that I liked what Dad did because he was my role model and everything and he was my wrestling coach in wrestling. And he’s my father at home, and he’s the police officer that I get to see in uniform once in a while and you know. Somehow I also like being in uniform.

Ali – It cuts down on the shopping choices and it makes it so much easier to get dressed in the morning.

Sherif – Yeah it’s great. Plus, I was following my older brother who was also a police officer and is still a police officer back in Egypt. He was a year ahead of me. So I’m like let me just do the same thing like everyone else. That was the the short answer and then after that reality check and I felt like I can do better than this. And that’s why I wanted to start somewhere else. You could start in the same place and just you know leave the job or just change your job and change the place. That’s why I decided to come to us.

Ali – And so you came to the US, and you came originally for wrestling, right?

Sherif – Yes.

Ali – So then what led you to the decision to join the force in the States?

Sherif – My first 14 years in the U.S. I was working in the security field and it was all done in New York City for family reasons. You know a part of the 14 years was seven and half years of marriage that did not work out. And then after the marriage, I got divorced, and I got three kids you know. But after the marriage broke down, I was in the process of getting through a lot of federal jobs. And my ex-wife at the time, she told me you know this is not good for the kids and you know your days with a badge and gun are gone, you know, when you left Egypt, and you shouldn’t be doing it. So I started the process and I always ended it. As a result of the divorce, I felt like I’m going to be doing what I want now. So I applied and I wanted to be an NYPD, but they had a problem because their cut off age is actually 34. I was 36 at the time, so I could not be a police officer almost than what they call the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut because they had almost the same rules. I had to go down south to this area. I loved the job. I came from the background of having a police family. I wanted to come here to the states for the wresling reason but now let me put the law enforcement back and play again and was not able to do it during the marriage, like I said, you know since I felt like I’m solo again maybe that contributed to me going for it.

Ali – Is there a difference? What are the differences between being an officer in Cairo versus here in the states?

Sherif – It’s funny you are asking me this because literally this last trip to Egypt— when I went there, it was so weird because I tried to get in touch with my old academy class. I find out that they had a WhatsApp group. I’m sure you’re familiar with the WhatsApp. So they added my name to the WhatsApp group and so I told one of them that I’m going to Egypt and right away they told me that they have monthly meetings that I was not aware of.

Ali – There is an alumni network you had no idea.

Sherif – Yeah! But the monthly meetings are not just for the people who retired, not just for the people who left. It’s for all the people who graduated in 1987. So they put me in and we get to sit down and talk and I get to meet some of them that they actually went all the way to Australia and have jobs there. Not in the law enforcement but they actually decided to leave the country and some of them were retired there. Some of them had their own restaurant business, but two hundred and twenty eight of them are currently generals, high rank officers. They are almost ruling the entire country because they are the chiefs of police of almost every single city or assistant to the chief of police of those cities. So I thought it was great.

Ali – So Montgomery County is certainly one of the most diverse, one of the more diverse counties in the country. What was it like going through the training process here?  What was that first day on the job like at the Montgomery County Police Department?

Sherif – So you get to join a police academy for six months in Montgomery County, and you got to go through the training for six months, similar training that you have in a lot of other police academies. Then, day one when you finish up your graduation you partner with what they call a field training officer, and you will be with the field training officer for another three months. The field training officer, he or she, get to evaluate you. The first day in that academy I felt like, oh this is great. My academy here is seven to three, Monday through Friday. I get to go home at the end of the academy day at 3:00 p.m. I get to eat what I call a civilian meal. And what I’m going with this is that I stayed in a police academy in Egypt for four years, live-in, where you’re cooking. If you picture this, to almost 5000 people who are living behind walls in a boot camp of 45 days that they’re not even allowed to leave or see the streets. When they are allowed to leave, they leave Thursday afternoon. They come back Friday night, and you are supposed to rush up and just wash your clothes and get ready to say hi and bye to your family. And then you have to go back right away.

Ali – And go to the Friday prayers and turn around.

Sherif – And you go to Friday prayers and turn around, exactly. So the academy here felt much easier. The only difference is that you know I was doing an academy a little older age 36. Some people were younger, but I felt like I was in good enough shape to do it. And it was easy.

Ali – And then what about the first day, you know, as a sworn officer?

Sherif – First day as a sworn officer was interesting because you feel like, oh, that’s a completely different treatment than the academy days. You still had to deal with you know seniority. You still had to deal with the field training officer. I was getting introduced to a completely different area because the academy and the whole the training of the academy was in Rockville. I was not familiar with the Wheaton District. Wheaton is a very busy place, if I can call it that in a nice way, in Montgomery County. So it was very interesting. So I felt like I came in with the background of a country that have no probable cause to arrest someone, Egypt hint hint, and I’m coming here to a country that better have a good reason, a probable cause, to actually arrest somebody, so it was an adjustment. Some people thought I was a little too aggressive in the beginning. Well, this is the wrestler guy, Egyptian, with that background, and some people think, well, this guy is great because he can actually not only protect himself but can help us out in some other scenarios. It’s always like wearing different hats.

Ali – Kind of going to that point around the diversity of the community, of the county.

Sherif – Yeah.

Ali – How was that helped? How was that hurt, in terms of your background and being able to engage with residents?

Sherif – I thought it actually helped more than hurting. A part of the diversity of the county was that the county made what they call a language bank, and the language bank means that anyone who speaks a different language the county was willing to provide him even give him he or she extra money. Then, we will use that language to help the community. So I speak Arabic, I’m fluent in Arabic, so they added me to that part and part of that also is relating to people. So I’m the Muslim guy who can actually relate to all the mosques within the community, so they added me to that part. Of course you will be within the Wheaton district will have five mosques. Stop by and say hi in either of them and that’s all what they can tell you, you know. So I say hi in my own way I just go around and blend in and pray the Friday prayer like what you said with them and other prayers.

Ali – At that time, was there another Muslim cop or officer in Wheaton?

Sherif – There was only one other Muslim officer in Montgomery County Police Department at that time. Funny you ask because his name was also Sherif. He’s also Egyptian. And so as we happen to be two Sherifs working within the same district, and they both have the same background. The only difference is that he came here at the age of 3. I came here a little older at age 23.

Ali – So then, in those days when you were, would go meet with the imam and with the leadership in the community at the mosques, where people surprised?

Sherif – People sometimes they give you a little look that, are you are you for real? Are you one of us or are you one of them? The answer is, it will take them some time to build the trust, and I think that time is based on how often you stop by, that you can’t just stop by and say hi once and forget about everything and you cannot just do it once a year because people forget about you. How frequent you stop by is really important. So it was not earned from day one. Let’s just say it took them some time.

Ali – And then you had mentioned that other officers felt like you could help them out in other situations.

Sherif – Yes.

Ali – What did you mean by that?

Sherif – What I meant by that is that how many people are there that you can say have a wrestling background, the community-related help, the Arabic translation. We get called for domestic violence, and I’m just giving a quick example. In a domestic violence, huge discussion, a heated argument — verbal, thank God — between two couple. A couple happened to be Muslim, and they were actually from Pakistan. The whole big deal was that the husband brought a dog, and he is married to a very traditional Pakistani female. She was born and raised in Pakistan, to give you a little more background. And he was, you know, he was born and raised in the US. There was a little cultural difference and difference of how strict you are following the religion. So she in the Muslim faith you know raising a dog might cause some issue because he should not be around an area that they pray in and all of this stuff. For the husband who’s like really? You know I just bought a dog, you know it’s, what’s the big deal? I bought a dog for the kids. For her she’s like oh you shouldn’t be doing this and that’s how the argument started. And when you get police officers coming in because neighbors report the argument and didn’t get to hear, what are they talking about? You know they really didn’t have any clue. I’m just giving you the background.

Ali – Well, you have the context.

Sherif – But I have the context. So I start laughing and explain it to them. They were like really, wow. Then, they understood what was going on. And another quick example when I use the language. This one was a real domestic case between a Syrian guy and a Palestinian lady. The Palestinian lady complained that she was hit by the Syrian husband. And a part of what the police department does if they actually see a sign of physical assault, they have no choice if that assault happened within 48 hours, and it is being reported within 48 hours. They have no choice but to arrest the primary aggressor, which in that case was the husband. The only issue is that the female, the Palestinian female, was wearing a hijab was covered. She claimed that she was hit in the back of her head, but she is not willing to expose the back of her head to any of the male officers that actually responded. And they really don’t understand what’s the reason. You know because maybe we’re not well educated when it comes up to understanding other people’s faith. So I show up and I said, “Oh this is a simple solution. It’s get a female.” And you get a female on the spot, and you just have solved everything else.

Ali – And so do you feel like the cultural awareness of the department has changed over time?  In the way the people, your fellow officers, interact with a very diverse community?

Sherif – I’ve been on the job for 15 years now. I think there is a complete change, maybe  not enough. Maybe it will never be enough. Maybe it’s not fast enough to do that change. Maybe there is a lot more could be done. But yes there is a change, and I think a part of the change was who is in the police department. There’s a lot of different immigrants from different countries. If I want a Spanish speaking officer, if I want a Russian speaking officer, if I want an Arabic speaking officer: you have all three of them. If I want to understand the Spanish culture, I have the part. If I want to understand the Muslim culture, I have the part. If I want to understand the Jewish culture, I have the part. And I think that diversity is what makes us able to live together. But I think it’s also afflicting the population of Montgomery County.

Ali – So how many Muslim officers are in the department now?

Sherif – Three.

Ali – Three.

Sherif  And you know, since you ask, the fun part is they added a third Egyptian and her name is Shireen. You got Sherif, Sherif and Shireen. Just a quick joke. We’re hoping for more, but it’s very difficult. And when I say difficult, I get involved in recruitment events and in their community events you know some of them especially females, had some females from Pakistan and had some females from Bangladesh. Some of them are very strict. At the same time, they think that this is not the best job for them, but they studied criminal justice and they wanted to be police officers. So you want someone Muslim to explain to them what is involved and how I’m going to be praying during six months in the academy. No one talks about that part because that’s affecting. I mean already, right. That’s the thing. So during my academy I ask I said, “Hey I need to go out and pray Friday to my prayer.” So they said well wait a second we need to investigate literally what I was taught 15 years ago to investigate that part, what to investigate? So they called the imam at the Islamic center of Maryland, ICM in Whitfield and did a Google search and all this stuff. At least they educated themself, to give them the credit, and then they came to me and explained to me listen there is a limited hours of curriculum that we need to provide to you for the police academy. And if you shorten those hours because you’re going to be leaving every Friday, there might be a problem. I said, I understand but this is a problem my faith and something that I need to do. So they said OK well we’ll let you go but maybe not every week. Then, at the end, they said you know what’s the problem? And I said, what is the problem? The problem is that we have people like you before, but they never asked. So there are no set rules about what you can provide to a certain group of people but they have to ask. Most of the people, they don’t want to bother about asking. Let me keep my mouth shut and just go through the academy.

Ali – So now when you’re participating in recruitment and if it’s a Muslim woman who wants to join you, she feels comfortable asking you.

Sherif – Oh I’ve been through many discussions, and we had emails from Muslim guys they said hey can I get exempt for a full beard. Literally that’s what they asking for. I’d like to be a police officer. I think I’m qualified. And before applying, they are asking. So I think there is more awareness and interest in learning: what can they ask for, what they can have, what they can do? But I also think that part of it is on them to ask because if they are not asking, no one will give them that information.

Ali – And then do you feel like when somebody asks you that question, is another part of your role then to help the institution, the Department, understand the issues, right?

Sherif – Not only that but this is really a great department to work for and being a police officer is a great job. There is a concern about practicing certain faith or a concern about religious issues that we need to encourage those people to come over. For example, I had the Captain of our recruitment department said, “what can we do Sharif to get your people to become police officers?” This is a great approach because that’s his job. His job is to recruit more police officers. And you know he noticed something when I was helping him out and stuff and he came and he asked me. Not many people ask the same thing. When they ask you something, you need to have the answer ready for them, and it’s always educational.

Ali – So then as you were in the field, were there times where you had to explain to the resident of Montgomery County who was not Muslim, who kind of looked at you and said something that was potentially mean, bigoted. Has there ever been anybody who’s questioned whether or not you were fit to be an officer?

Sherif – You know I’ve been in this country for 30 years, and maybe I still have some accent and some people do kind of wonder why you have an accent. You know some other people that might even make fun of it. It may not be faith related. It may not be related to anything but just the fact that you have an accent. Some people can tell you, go back to your country,” regardless to what country it is just because you are not a fully bred American yet. But then again what is a fully breed American? I think we all came from somewhere. Did I have some challenges? Yes, I did. But I think a part of the process is being able to stand your ground. At the same time, I think that there are two parts. There is a responsibility on me also to educate that other person. Was I able to use a lot of things to my advantage? Yes. I had an African-American gentleman one day say to me I’d like to have an African-American officer to come to me right now. And there was none in the District of Wheaton working at the time, so I said I’m African-American and I’m going and told the dispatcher, I’m going, I’m African-American. OK. So when I went to the guy and he looks at me and he said I asked for an African-American officer. I said, sir, I was born and raised in Egypt. And if you really look at the map Egypt is in Africa. So I’m not lying to you. I’m African American. And the minute that I said Egypt to the guy, they said, “the land of the pyramids, really? You’re Egyptian?” And we de-escalated the whole situation down, and I get to help him out, and I get to listen to him. And I had three other officers that they felt like oh this is crazy. Maybe this is a crazy call, we need to give him some backup. And you know they were assessing the situation. He liked it and we managed.

Ali – What point did you feel you had become, you were American? Or do you even feel that yet?

Sherif – I just came from Egypt yesterday. So I’m going to tell you the long answer and then I’ll give you a short answer. Long answer is when I go to Egypt to get into Egypt I give them my passport. In the past, I had the American passport and they look at me and they give me that suspicious look like, Oh so this guy is hmm, American but you are Egyptian. They ask me what I do for a living. So I told them I work as a police officer. And then they get a little suspicious again. Is he, is he an FBI agent? Or is he, what? When I come to the U.S. and say hey what do you do in Egypt? I got family there. I was born there, visiting my parents. Oh well you do a lot of traveling. You go there every year. I said, “Yeah. How often do you see your parents? At least once a year? Maybe Christmastime, maybe in Thanksgiving? Maybe in one holiday a year? That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m just doing the same thing back. So to get back to you and I think we need to define what is an American. I think an American is a person who came from any other country in the world. And that’s how I want to look at it because the American could be with German roots. And American could be with British roots. Or American could be with African roots. If I can relate to Africa, so maybe I’m one of those Americans. So I’d like to be an American. I always feel like I’m an American person, but also am someone who is a little open minded, who can relate to other people. That’s how I would define myself.

Ali – So my last question for you is the name of the podcast is Only in America. I ask you to finish the sentence: Only in America…

Sherif – Only in America you can come over and redeem yourself and get rewarded for actually what you do. This does not happen in many other countries. I know it did not happen in Egypt, where I came from. At age 23, on the lift, there was no sign for it to happen. Only in America when you come over and redeem yourself and show some hard work you actually feel like you are going somewhere and you get rewarded. Only in America.

Ali – Thank you Sherif.

Sherif – Thank you.

Ali – I really appreciate it.

Sherif – Thank you, Ali.

Sherif Almiggabber is a police officer in Montgomery County, Maryland. You can find more information about Sherif on our website, https://immigrationforum.org/

While you’re there, please subscribe to Only in America.

“Only in America” is produced and edited by Emily Chow, Joanna Taylor, and Magen Wetmore. Cathleen Farrell is the Executive Producer.  I’m Ali Noorani. Thanks for listening to “Only in America.”

 

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