Asma Jama had been at the Coon Rapids Applebee’s for just 25 minutes when the beer mug smashed into her face. She was left with 17 stitches, a persistent headache and scars that may be lifelong.
The 38-year-old Minneapolis resident returned to Minnesota last week after fleeing the state for several weeks to be with family in Texas.
And while Jama took the actual blow, Muslims throughout the Twin Cities have been wounded by the attack.
Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant voices are a loud presence on the American political scene, especially at times of crisis such as the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the arrests of suspected ISIL recruits from Minnesota.
And now, with a woman attacked in a popular family restaurant, Muslims can’t help but wonder: Will I be next?
“It’s appalling,” said Fatima Alnizami, a St. Paul native who now lives in Brooklyn Park. “People are on high alert, and they think anybody wearing a head scarf or a beard is a terrorist.”
Alnizami, who works at the Al-Amal School in Fridley, said she hesitates to speak Arabic to her two young children in public. “I have to be worried that I might be making someone angry,” she said.
“We don’t feel safe,” said Ahmad Abu Atieh, director of the Islamic Cultural Community Center in Minneapolis. “I worry that someone will attack me. Every day.”
Taunts turned violent
Jama had gone to the Applebee’s on Oct. 30 with two adult cousins and four nieces ranging in age from 4 to 11. It was late and she didn’t want to go out, but the others convinced her it would be fun.
As members of the group took their seats just after 9 p.m. — the adults in headscarves — Jama sensed a fellow diner eyeing her strangely.
Seated at the adjoining table behind a low rail was Jodie Burchard-Risch, a 43-year-old dental assistant from Ramsey with a history of assault, theft and drinking problems, according to court records.
As Jama’s group conversed in Swahili, one of three languages she speaks, they began to hear muttering behind them from Burchard-Risch and her husband.
The muttering soon turned into loud verbal jabs. “In America, we speak English,” the couple told Jama’s group. “Go home!”
Jama stood up and confronted the pair, and a loud argument ensued. The commotion brought restaurant managers. As they moved to eject Burchard-Risch, she threw a drink on Jama.
Then, according to police, Burchard-Risch swung her heavy glass beer mug “with a roundhouse punch-like motion” into Jama’s face.
Burchard-Risch fled as Jama stood, dazed and numb. Diners came to her aid. “You’re bleeding,” one man said, pressing napkins to her face.
Meanwhile, one restaurant manager followed Burchard-Risch out the door and helped police track her to a nearby Cub Foods parking lot, where she was arrested. She’s been charged with third-degree assault, a felony.
Since the attack, Jama said, she’s become a shadow of her usual lively self. Ordinarily outgoing and bubbly, she said she is afraid to be alone. She doesn’t have an appetite. There’s a constant pain in the middle of her forehead, either from lack of sleep or bruises left by the beer mug.
Burchard-Risch, Jama said, “put fear in me that I never had. One minute we were laughing, ordering our drinks, then the next my young niece is crying and there’s blood all over my face. Just thinking about it makes me sick.”
She’s anxious and paranoid that there could be other attacks, she said: “What if people recognize me and feel the same way that [Burchard-Risch] feels?”
More understanding needed
Coon Rapids Mayor Jerry Koch called the incident “horrendous.”
“My heart absolutely goes out to Asma,” he said. “Nobody should be subjected to that.”
Koch said it’s a priority to make sure Jama knows that she’s safe in Coon Rapids “and that people of any nationality or ethnic background, whatever language they speak, they’re all welcome here.”
As the leading edge of an increasingly diverse society, they’ve already witnessed community opposition to a Muslim school in Blaine, a mosque in St. Anthony, a cemetery in Dakota County.
Islamic institutions must be better at explaining their religion and culture to non-Muslim Americans, said Shaaban Aboubadria, imam of the Masjid Al-Huda mosque in northeast Minneapolis.
“We need to do a better job. There is a gap between the Islamic community and the community at large,” he said, speaking through a translator. “We need to work with [Christian] churches and the community to create a better understanding.”
He said many media outlets do a poor job of reporting on Islam. “American people read a lot,” he said. “Why don’t they read about Islam and avoid being a victim of misunderstanding from the media?”
Jama, who was born in Somalia, was a young girl when her family migrated to Kenya to escape their home country’s civil war. In school, she learned English and Swahili, and later in life learned Somali.
“The first language that came out of my mouth was English,” she said.
In 2000, when Jama was 22, she moved to Minnesota to join relatives. She enrolled at Normandale Community College, but her mother got sick before she could finish her degree in social work. Now her own healing stands in the way of finishing her degree.
“Probably one day, I’ll forget,” she said. “But now I see [the scars] all the time and I just go back to that day.
“Hopefully one day I can go back to the same person I was before this incident, because I miss that person,” Jama said. “I used to smile and say hello to everybody. Now I fear everybody.”
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