House of Sand and Fog

In Westlake, neighbors don't know what to make of an accident-prone Arab household.

the Assad family
A two-year-old boy maimed by a meat grinder was just the latest accident victim at the Assad home. - Walter  Novak
A two-year-old boy maimed by a meat grinder was just the latest accident victim at the Assad home.
EMS was going in blind. The call to Westlake 911 had been garbled by static and cultural differences. What was clear was that women were screaming and a child was in pain.

At the house, paramedics stumbled on a gruesome scene. Reema Assad had been grinding meat to make cabbage rolls that morning for her large family. The pregnant 24-year-old was using a 50-pound restaurant-grade electric grinder; it resembled a chrome Harley engine, sitting on the kitchen floor. She had turned her back just for a second, but it was long enough for her two-year-old son, Yazan, still in his blue sleeper pajamas, to crawl to the machine and stick his soft little fingers in. It devoured his hand like a wood-chipper.

Removing the boy from the grinder on scene was too dangerous, so paramedics rushed Yazan and the machine to Fairview Hospital, then life-flighted him to Metro, where surgeons worked to salvage what they could of his mangled right hand.

Six days later, Westlake police arrested the grieving mother and charged her with felony child-endangerment. She is awaiting trial and faces up to five years in prison and deportation, if convicted.

It seems a harsh punishment, but you'll have a hard time finding anyone on Stonehedge Drive sympathetic to the family. The Assad children are in danger, say the family's neighbors, and it's high time something was done about it.

The burgeoning Assad family has assembled a small Arabic village in the land of Nantucket sweaters and ChemLawn.

The Assads first came to Rocky River in the late '80s from a Palestinian village near Jerusalem called Beit Hanina. They followed hundreds of distant cousins and neighbors who came in search of a better life.

Each of the eight brothers married and started their own families. They branched out, buying the house on Stonehedge, then two houses behind it, then a house at the opposite end of the street. They paid for the properties with money from several businesses -- a used-car dealership, a grocery, a cell-phone store.

Reema shares her home with her husband, two of his brothers and their families, and her mother-in-law. The other brothers and their families gather at the house on Sundays, and their growing brood plays in the families' shared backyards.

The interior of the house is immaculate. The ornate ivory-colored couches in the sitting room are zipped in plastic. The air is warm and smells sweet with turmeric and nutmeg.

In the 16 years that the Assads have lived here, not one neighbor has been inside the home.

N. Assad, the second-eldest brother, who spoke on the condition that his first name not be used, is as refined as his surroundings. His tight mustache, tough sandalwood skin, and imposing stature give him a regal bearing. He cannot understand why his neighbors don't accept his family.

"If people fear us, knock on our door. You're more than welcome," he says.

But his invitation comes five years and three accidents too late. The time for changing people's minds has passed.

"I never considered myself biased before, until now," says one neighbor.

Says another woman, who lives down the street: "When I drive past the house, I try not to even look."

The battle lines formed in the fall of 2001. Stonehedge neighbor Karen Higgins was mowing her lawn late on a sunny afternoon, while her three young children buzzed around the front yard in an electric Jeep.

She noticed one of the Assad children -- 15-month-old Mahmoud -- playing near a pile of garbage on the tree lawn with no adults in sight. Minutes later, she heard a loud clang as a license plate hit concrete.

Mahmoud was lying on his back in the street. A Ford Explorer had run him over.

Mahmoud was rushed to intensive care, but it was hopeless. His fragile head and brain were battered, his lungs collapsed, his neck broken.

Westlake Police officer Brian Pasti interviewed the Explorer's 16-year-old driver and concluded the boy wasn't at fault. The garbage had hidden the child from view.

Pasti canvassed Stonehedge and interviewed neighbors. None had seen the accident -- save Higgins, whose account became part of the police report -- but everyone had something to say about the Assads.

"I have seen very young children . . . playing unsupervised and at times walking in the street," neighbor Dale Weinschreider told Pasti in a police statement.

"There is no supervision of these very young children," neighbor Deborah Kaufmann said in her statement. "One little boy, around the age of three, runs into the street a couple of feet, runs back, and laughs."

Their stories piqued Pasti's interest. He brought Mahmoud's mother, Majdulyn, to the station for questioning. Through a translator, she said that she'd been taking out the trash and had turned her back for just a second.

Her story didn't mesh with Higgins' account, but it wasn't enough to bring charges, so police dropped it. Seeds of distrust had been sown on both sides.

Not one year later, paramedics were once again called to Stonehedge.

One of the wives, Shireen, had been practicing for a driver's license test in the driveway. She accidentally pushed the gas pedal instead of the brake and crashed through some bushes into the yard, where several of the women and children were sitting. One of them, Reema, was banged up but OK.

When a neighbor dialed 911, the Assad women panicked. One of them climbed into the Explorer, floored it back over the bushes, and drove off. When Officer Pasti showed up to make a report, the women herded their children inside and shut the doors, he wrote in his report.

As it turned out, they had reason to hide. Not only Reema had been injured. Several days later, acting on a tip from the child-abuse hotline, Pasti paid a visit to an emergency-room doctor at MetroHealth Medical Center, who confirmed that one of the Assad girls, four-year-old Saiga, had been treated for injuries after being run over by the truck.

Her mother, Noha, first told told the doctor that Saiga had been running and tripped over a tree stump. But her injuries -- broken ribs, blood around her lungs, trouble breathing -- didn't seem to fit that story. After more prodding, Noha came clean and told the doctor about the car accident.

Officers tried to track down Reema and Noha, but got no help. The women barely spoke English and wouldn't talk without their husbands present. And the men were never home. Police threw their hands in the air and filed the incident in the Assads' thickening file.

"We can't go any further, if we've got nothing to work with," says Westlake Police Captain Guy Turner.

The Assads were quickly becoming what Turner calls a "frequent flier." The complaints from neighbors covered everything from kids running in the street to stereos "blasting their Arabic" music to cars blocking the sidewalk.

It didn't help matters when the Assad kids dialed 911 and hung up, a game they sometimes played several times a week. Officers went to the home to talk to the parents, but as usual, there was no common ground.

Before the fall of last year, Cuyahoga Family Services had received 18 calls alleging neglect at the Assad home, but none was substantiated. So on October 19, 2005, when police found out that a baby had stuck his hand in an industrial-grade meat grinder that had been left on the floor in the "on" position, it was time for action. Six days later, Reema was charged with felony child-endangerment.

For some in this city, the charges aren't enough. They want to make sure the Assads don't have any more accidents. City Council Member Nan Baker has asked Westlake's law director to look at the legality of an ordinance limiting the number of people allowed to live in the Stonehedge house.

"With the Assad family, there seems to be a risk to children," says Baker.

That makes at least one neighbor happy: "If four white families moved into one of these houses, you think the city would allow it?"

Thahabia, grandmother of the clan, emerges from the kitchen with a sterling silver tray of mugs filled with fragrant Turkish coffee. Her strong, wrinkled face is framed in a silky white headdress. She barely speaks English, but her calm eyes seem to read every word being said.

"The culture in the U.S. is each person keeps to themselves, which is actually the opposite of what we have overseas," N. Assad says. "We're working hard for a nice house, feeding our kids, having our kids in a country where no one can bar them from having the American Dream."

Just then a little boy walks into the room. His amber eyes glow, his hair seems as soft as feathers.

"He wants to shake your hand," says Assad.

The little boy holds out his hand -- or what remains of it. It looks more like a claw; the first three fingers are missing.

This is Yazan.

"How are you?" the boy asks in Arabic, then goes back to wrestling with his cousins.

"Even when they're 40 years old, they will still love each other," says Assad, looking on proudly.

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