Sometimes you find grace in a moment and a place where you least expect it.
That moment was Tuesday morning in an Anoka County courtroom, where hate and violence were turned into love and forgiveness.
It all began, as many transformational stories do, at a quintessentially American venue, an Applebee’s. The ubiquitous chain restaurant, often mocked for its internationally and geographically nonspecific food and atmosphere, is often wedged between an AutoZone, a Sizzler’s and perhaps another Applebee’s in an outer-ring suburb. It’s where you go to feel comfortable ordering wonton tacos or cheeseburger egg rolls with work pals over vaguely Caribbean cocktails.
At some point, Applebee’s tagline was changed from “Eatin’ good in the neighborhood” to “The flavors that bring people together.” The ad people even coined the term “togetherizing,” a nod to the great melting pot of a country in which we live.
In other words, it was supposed to be the opposite of the kind of place where an angry woman might smash a beer mug with a roundhouse punch into the face of another woman because she was speaking a foreign language and wearing a hijab.
Americans have never done very well with the concept of irony, or of cultural acceptance, for that matter.
The blow dealt by Jodie Burchard-Risch with the beer mug cut deeply into the face of Asma Jama, as well as into the fabric of this community. Burchard-Risch pleaded guilty to felony assault, admitted that bias played a part in her actions, and was sentenced to 180 days in jail.
It was Jama’s measured and compassionate response to her attacker in court, however, that provoked an emotional response. But to forgive does not mean you absolve all responsibility, and by Thursday Jama showed perhaps that she has assimilated to her adopted country by, predictably, announcing she would sue Burchard-Risch.
For Paul Young, one of the prosecutors, the case took on personal meaning early on. “No doubt, when you get a case like this, it angers you and frustrates you because of the motivations [of the offender],” he said. “That’s very clear in our minds, that we were dealing with something that is very ugly.”
The other prosecutor, Laura Schwartz, met with Jama a week after the incident. “She was pretty terrified and very upset,” said Schwartz. “She didn’t even want to drive up to see us.”
Jama suffered from a concussion for weeks, and even though she’d met with attorneys several times, she occasionally forgot their names. Yet she was determined to push the case and publicly address the violent act.
“She has always astounded me,” said Schwartz. “She was never going to be a doormat. She realized the only way to deal with the anxiety was to confront it.”
“We see so many people going through so many things,” Young said. “[Asma] was always very … direct. She said, ‘When I’m out in the community, because of how I look and how I dress, I fear about how people think of me.’ ”
Jama was angry, but only angry that her attacker made assumptions about her. Burchard-Risch somehow assumed that because Jama chose to speak Swahili that day, she only speaks one language. In fact, Jama speaks three languages, fluently. And, she was angry that her attacker assumed that her dress and language somehow detracted from her patriotism.
“Just because I look different doesn’t mean I don’t love this country,” Jama told her lawyers.
Asked if Jama expressed hostility toward her attacker, Schwartz said: “Never.”
“She almost felt sorry for her,” said Young.
At sentencing, Burchard-Risch did not apologize to Jama. Instead, she sat emotionless as Jama spoke. The prosecutors say that a relative of Burchard-Risch who was also in the courtroom Tuesday reached out to Jama, and they intend to keep in touch. “Asma was very appreciative,” said Schwartz.
In court, Jama asked the judge if she could address the attacker: “Would that be OK?”
Turning to Burchard-Risch, Jama said: “I wanted to tell you in front of everybody today that I do forgive you. My religion teaches me to forgive so I can move on with my life. I do think of you, and I do hope you choose love over hate, I really do, because it makes your life easier. Having hate just eats up you.”
“I just want you to know, at the end of this, we are all the same,” Jama said. “It doesn’t matter what’s on my head. It doesn’t matter the color of my skin. I am an American citizen and I would fight for this country as much as you would.”
I would argue that, standing in that courtroom and clearly speaking for justice, Asma Jama had just fought for American values more than her attacker likely ever will.
“I’m 27 years into prosecution work, and every now and then you come across a victim that handles it better than you ever would,” Young said. “Asma showed courage and class and compassion, setting the standard for every victim. That’s to be admired.”
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