9/11: Osama Yanis' name nearly shattered his American dream

Sunday, September 11, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 6:44 p.m. CDT, Sunday, September 11, 2011

After becoming a U.S. citizen nearly 20 years ago, Jordanian immigrant Osama Yanis never could have imagined a day where the “land of the free” wasn’t so free.

As the devastation of Sept. 11 occurred, the Columbia business owner knew his life would change forever as the world broke out in fear. Ten years later, Yanis still feels the pain of betrayal from some people just because of his name: Osama.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, one of two coffee shops Yanis owned on Ninth Street closed because people defaced his property.

Yanis named the coffee shop Osama’s, which became a popular downtown attraction. However, immediately following the news of Osama bin Laden as one of the prime suspects in the attacks, some of Yanis’ customers began to link him to the terrorist.

“They broke windows and tore up Qurans,” Yanis said. “People are just ignorant.”

Hatred was directed at Yanis from different places.

“People who leased from me talked about me,” Yanis said of tenants, some of whom didn’t realize he was actually the owner of Osama’s. “I could have evicted them, but I didn’t.”

Because of the ongoing acts of violence towards his establishment, Yanis opted not to reopen the shop following the 2003 fire at The Heidelberg, located adjacent to what was then Osama’s.

“I had to sell for that reason,” Yanis said. “It wasn’t the damage; it was because of the harassment.”

Even with the dismay from the reactions of some people and the closing of Osama’s, Yanis said he still had faithful supporters at his other shop, The Coffee Zone.

Initially, many customers of The Coffee Zone were unaware that Yanis owned Osama’s. Once people realized Yanis was the owner, The Coffee Zone became a frequent downtown hot-spot because of curiosity.

“Business increased to 20 percent, and The Coffee Zone became a tourist attraction,” said Yanis, who works there seven days a week. “Even the people who left Osama’s came to The Coffee Zone, not even thinking it was owned by the same place.”

Yanis said ignorance was the key. He also added that as locals became more informed, they realized he was not a threat.

“You have to ease them into you,” Yanis said. “They’ll judge regardless of if you’re a good guy or what.”

However, the ordeal has changed the way he interacts with strangers, especially when out of town.

Yanis often introduces himself by his nickname “Sam” to avoid awkward situations.

“When I’m in Sedalia or Boonville, I say ‘Hi, my name is Sam,’” Yanis said. “Then I talk to them some more and hand them my business card; by that time they figure out my name is Osama.”

But regardless of Yanis’ first name, Eric Metzdorf has always been a loyal customer. He even tried to help his friend’s business.

“I was down in St. Louis at the time, and when I heard about bin Laden and his acts,” Metzdorf said, “I didn’t even think about it — I drove here, grabbed the American flag and put it on Osama’s.”

Metzdorf said his actions, which covered up Osama’s name on the awning, were about aiding a friend who needed support.

“All I could think about was being quick,” Metzdorf said.

Ten years later, Yanis said Metzdorf’s support is one of his favorite memories when looking back at such a stressful and sorrowful time.

“Looking back, this country was not what it seemed,” Yanis said.

Mahogany Thomas reported this story during the Minority Urban Journalism Workshop this summer at the MU School of Journalism.

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