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New York bombing suspect was at home in the American melting pot – until he met a girl named Maria

New York bombing suspect was at home in the American melting pot – until he met a girl named Maria
The Rahami family business, First American Fried Chicken, near the corner of Linden and Elmore avenues in Elizabeth, N.J. (Cassi Alexandra / For The Times)

Ahmad Rahami’s troubles with his family and his identity may have begun when he met a girl named Maria.

The 28-year-old suspect in a string of bombings grew up in a perfect corner of the American melting pot. Elmora Avenue was awash in languages and cultures. Restaurants along the road represent most of the world's cuisines, some of them more than one — the Kosher Chinese place, for one.

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Mohammad Rahami, his father, had named their own fast food restaurant First American Fried Chicken, a tribute to the country that had given them political asylum after they fled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

A pious Muslim, Mohammad considered his best friend in the business community a local real estate agent, an observant Jewish woman who happened to be married to a Colombian immigrant, an equally observant Catholic.

"This place is beautiful. You wouldn't believe the way everybody got along," said the agent, Jill Guzman.

Jill and Juan Guzman at their real estate office on Elmore Avenue in Elizabeth.
Jill and Juan Guzman at their real estate office on Elmore Avenue in Elizabeth. (Cassi Alexandra / For The Times)

But the tragedy of the Rahami family, which has been unfolding in the public eye since Ahmad's arrest Monday, underscores the limits of tolerance in even the most harmonious community.

Long before his arrest, the young Afghan immigrant's love affair with his high school sweetheart, a local Dominican girl named Maria Mena, had taken on overtones of a "West Side Story"-like cultural collision.

Ahmad Rahami's relationship with the girl was one of several things about the influence of American culture that his father found disturbing, according to at least two people close to the family.

Mohammad Rahami ordered his son to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan — one of several such trips that friends say caused the younger Rahami to begin taking his religion much more seriously.

"When he came back, he dressed like his father, in a tunic. He had this beard. It was like he was on this Saddam Hussein trip,'' said Jonathan Love, 32, a landscape gardener and family friend.

Mohammad Rahami, center left, speaks to reporters in Elizabeth.
Mohammad Rahami, center left, speaks to reporters in Elizabeth. (Tariq Zehawi / Northjersey.com)

Born in Afghanistan in 1988, Ahmad had come to the United States as a small child and rapidly inhaled American culture. His developed a passion for rap music, souped-up cars and motorcycles. Although somewhat overweight like others in a family that hung out in the restaurant kitchen, he favored tight jeans and fashionable T-shirts.

It was when he was 19 that Ahmad came crashing up against the limits of his family's assimilation into American culture. Mena, who came from the Dominican Republic, gave birth to a baby girl in 2007.

Mohammad refused to meet with either the mother or the baby. From the glass storefront of the adjacent beauty salon, staff and customers, many of whom knew the family well, would watch the heart-breaking spectacle.

Martha Renza, 38, at Mi Colombia Bakery on Elmore Avenue in Elizabeth.
Martha Renza, 38, at Mi Colombia Bakery on Elmore Avenue in Elizabeth. (Cassi Alexandra / For The Times)

"Maria came with the baby many times. She would stand outside the door and wait,'' said Martha Renza, who was often at the salon and is friends with its owners. "But the old man would never come out. He didn't want to meet the grandchild."

Mohammad Rahami had remained close to his roots after immigrating to the United States. He wore an Afghan-style tunic and dutifully prayed five times a day in a basement under the restaurant. His wife and daughters were rarely seen out in the neighborhood, and the operators of the beauty salon, who regularly cut hair for Mohammad and his sons, never met the female family members.

Friends say that Ahmad and Maria started dating at Edison High School over the objections of Rahami's father, who expected his sons to marry cousins from back home.

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Mohammad, they said, was concerned that his son was too Americanized and sent him to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they had relatives. It is unclear when that first trip took place.

A close family friend identified only as Ehsan told CNN that Mohammad Rahami had taken his son's passport while he was sleeping to prevent him from returning to the U.S. "[Rahami] told me he was basically left there," Ehsan said. "He had to find his own way back.... I'm sure that traumatized him for life ... I'm sure that scarred him."

By the time of the high school prom, Maria was pregnant. Ahmad moved out of the apartment above the chicken shop and rented a place with Maria near Middlesex Community College in Edison, N.J., where he was studying criminal justice.

Friends say the young couple were committed to one another and that Ahmad traveled with her to meet her family in the Dominican Republic. But Ahmad's father prevailed. Ahmad could not find work outside the chicken shop, and without a job he could not afford college or the apartment with Maria. She broke off the relationship and sued him for child support.

"Ahmad loved her very much. He was very depressed after she broke it off,'' Renza said.

After the breakup, Ahmad quarreled more frequently with his father. There were several troubling incidents, including one in which Ahmad was charged with stabbing his brother in the leg.

Friends say that after Ahmad left again for Pakistan and Afghanistan, he returned a different person.

Ahmad Khan Rahami is taken into custody after a shootout with police.
Ahmad Khan Rahami is taken into custody after a shootout with police. (Ed Murray / NJ Advance Media)

"We couldn't believe it. We had been cutting his hair since he was 12 years old. He had changed,'' Sonia Reyes, owner of the beauty salon, said last week, keeping her voice low because FBI agents were searching her basement, which is attached to the basement of the Rahami house.

Around 2011, Rahami married a Pakistani woman, who neighbors believe was a cousin. They had a baby in 2014.

Mena could not be reached for comment. At her home in Edison, a split-level house with a statue of the Madonna out front, occupants kept their curtains tightly drawn and refused to answer the door.

Earlier in the week, Mena had spoken briefly with reporters and said she was heartbroken by Rahami's arrest. Last week she filed suit to be awarded sole custody of their daughter and to change the girl's surname so that it would no longer be Rahami.

Residents of Elizabeth are struggling to understand how a popular young man who had spent much of his life in their community could have been responsible for the series of bombs planted in New York and New Jersey.

“I’m not a hater. It’s not like I would change my opinion of Caucasian people because of Charles Manson,’’ said Guzman, the real estate agent.

Still processing the shock of Rahami's arrest, other neighbors are less confident.

"I used to think we were all immigrants, all the same people who came here for a better life,'' said Gus Serrano, who is from Colombia and lives around the corner from the chicken shop. "Now I'm not so sure.''

Renza, who also immigrated from Colombia, said she used to argue with a girlfriend, who was anti-Muslim.

"I would tell my friend, 'How can you say Muslims are terrorists? It's like saying all Colombians are drug dealers,''' said Renza. "But now — oh my God — look what happened in our neighborhood. How can we know who to trust?"

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