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SAN BERNARDINO, California — Wednesday’s mass shooting that killed 14 people and injured 21 has shaken this community to the core. But for the thousands of Pakistani Muslims in southern California, many with ties to the San Bernardino area, the revelation that the married alleged shooters were not only Muslim but also Pakistani was devastating.
“It’s figuratively and literally close to home,” said Ahsan Khan, a physician who lives in Orange County. “When you see the name is a Muslim name, it’s frustrating and unfortunate.”
Ahsan Khan, 39, and his brother, Amjad Mahmood Khan, 36, grew up in nearby Chino Hills in San Bernardino County after their parents left Pakistan more than 40 years ago.
Most of the Pakistani community on the West Coast is concentrated in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties in Southern California, according to the website of the Consulate General of Pakistan in Los Angeles. The estimated 150,000 in this region are predominantly professionals — lawyers, doctors, engineers — small-business owners of motels, gas stations and travel agencies. Many, such as the Khan brothers and one of the shooters, were born in the U.S.
Ahmadiyyas are a Muslim minority that has suffered persecution in Pakistan. Most of them in Southern California are of Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi descent.
Local chapters organized a Thursday night vigil at the largest mosque in San Bernardino County, Baitul Hameed Mosque in Chino, to condemn “this senseless and horrific act of violence in the strongest possible terms.” About 200 people attended to send a message that Ahsan Khan described as “love for all, hatred for none.”
The shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27, who were killed by police, have no affiliation to Ahmadiyya, said Ahsan Khan. Other mosques of various affiliations in the area held vigils.
“Tonight is about honoring the victims,” he said.
Regardless of their religious beliefs, Pakistani-Americans are pained by the association with the mass shooting on Wednesday.
“I have a deep fear of people who don’t know my happy and empathetic toddler, but will fear him as he grows up based on the way they think he looks or practices religion,” Subia Aleem Ahmad, 34, wrote on Facebook. “I have a deep fear right now this very second that my husband or mother will be physically or emotionally attacked. will they survive? will they be the same? I literally have nightmares about all this.”
Ahmad lives in Dallas but her father-in-law, a doctor, works in San Bernardino across the street from the social services center where the shootings happened.
“When we couldn’t get a hold of him, our world stopped. our chests hurt, our hands shook. so much fear. so much terror,” Ahmad posted.
Her husband, Usmaan Ahmad, 36, told Al Jazeera America that he spent an excruciating 15 minutes before he knew his father was safe.
He doesn’t want to react differently to this shooting than he does to any of the other horrible tragedies that have happened elsewhere in the U.S. just because the shooters were Pakistani and Muslim like him.
“I don’t think the feeling or the shock changes,” said Usmaan Ahmad, who works in health care management and once lived in Redlands, California, the suburb where the shooters lived. “It’s a lack of humanity … It’s hard for me to think that the people who do crazy things are Muslims … I’m getting tired of having to condemn these acts of violence.”
His wife ended her posting with this plea: “I need help. will you make your family and friends understand? will you stand up when something isn’t right?”
Amjad Khan, a partner in a Los Angeles law firm, said the San Bernardino tragedy reopened old wounds for Muslims in the U.S.
“I had the same reaction that I did after 9/11,” when he was a law school student at Harvard University. “When we found out that the people who committed these acts were doing it in the name of Islam, it was horror.”
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks were citizens of Saudi Arabia. None were Pakistani.
But the San Bernardino shooters were Pakistani. “I would be lying if I said I don’t feel the double burden,” said Amjad Khan.
Asim Ansari, 58, a law office administrator whose office is within a mile of the site of the shootings, said that he hasn’t experienced any negative reaction so far.
“We’re all in a state of disbelief,” he said, which was heightened when the names of the shooters were released late Wednesday. “We’re more interested in what the motive was.”
Ansari came to the U.S. from Pakistan at the age of 19.
“They don’t want any backlash,” he said of Pakistanis in the area. “But just the fact that he [Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the alleged shooters] had a Muslim name gives the impression of a terrorist connection.”
His mosque now keeps the gate closed at all times and has asked for increased police protection. Local law enforcement officials were invited to attend Thursday night's vigil.