Syrian refugee, 17, attacked on San Diego trolley by man shouting slurs, police say

Sam Levin in Los Angeles
Photograph: George Rose/Getty Images

A 17-year-old Syrian refugee was attacked on a trolley in San Diego by a man yelling anti-Arab slurs, according to advocates and police, who say the assault was the latest in a series of Islamophobic hate crimes in southern California.

The high school student was returning home from school on Tuesday afternoon when a man approached and asked, “Where are you from? Are you Mexican?”, according to the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (Pana), a community organization assisting the victim. When the teenager said he was Arab, the man assaulted him while shouting anti-Arab and Islamophobic slurs, injuring his face and eye, the group said.

The attack, which police are investigating as a hate crime, comes one week after a San Diego man was charged with hate crimes in a separate incident. Kyle Allen, 50, was accused of attacking three Muslim women, including slapping them and pulling on one of their hijabs while telling them to “go back to your country”. In March, there was also an arson attack on a mosque in the region.

“He doesn’t understand how something like this could happen to him,” said Geneviéve Jones-Wright, Pana’s legal director, who is working with the 17-year-old refugee. “He’s dealing with the emotional trauma as well as the physical injury.”

Jones-Wright said she was disturbed to learn that there were several witnesses on the trolley but that no one intervened to help the teenager: “There were people standing around watching this child be pummeled.”

Pana, which works with refugees and Muslims in the region, helped the victim report the incident to police. Jones-Wright said the San Diego police department initially told the organization the incident would be classified as a “gang” crime, not a hate crime, because of the neighborhood of the attack, prompting concerns law enforcement was not taking the case seriously.

The San Diego police sergeant Matthew Botkin told the Guardian on Thursday that police were treating the case as a hate crime, saying it was possible police initially mentioned a gang investigation because of the “Where are you from?” question the suspect allegedly asked.

Botkin said the suspect was a Hispanic male in his 20s and that police were reviewing footage of the incident, but could not comment further. Pana shared with the Guardian a photo of the victim’s injuries, showing swelling under his eye.

There has been a recent increase in reported hate crimes by white male perpetrators in southern California, and a San Diego Union-Tribune analysis found there were more than 430 hate crimes documented across the county between 2014 and 2018.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) also recently found that 40% of Muslim students in California report being bullied, a problem that Cair leaders say is significant in San Diego. A Pana report on refugee experiences in San Diego also found that 78% felt unwelcome at school, and 80% felt unwelcome in their neighborhoods.

“It’s very clear that white supremacy and Islamophobia are on the rise in this country, and that the president of the United States is emboldening white supremacists,” said Dustin Craun, executive director of Cair San Diego. He noted that some families in the region have been forced to transfer schools due to anti-Muslim bullying.

Although California is known as the progressive state leading the resistance to Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, San Diego has a long history of white supremacist violence. Orange county, another southern California region known for its conservative neighborhoods, has also been plagued by recent controversies involving racism in schools.

Ramla Sahid, Pana’s executive director, said her organization was interested in pursuing a restorative justice process with the suspect in the trolley attack instead of traditional prosecution.

“Criminalization of another young person in our community is definitely not the answer,” she said, noting that it would be more effective if the suspect could meet with the victim to address the harm he caused: “It’s harder to hate someone you know … We are stronger when we come together and choose reconciliation and healing rather than criminalization, which basically continues the practice of demonizing each other.”

Sahid added: “This young man’s prejudice and perception of Muslims and Islam and folks from the Middle East is a symptom of this larger xenophobic, racist, anti-Muslim atmosphere that the [Trump] administration has intensified.”

Botkin said it was too early to comment on the group’s interest in restorative justice, saying, “Our goal is to get justice for this kid. It’s totally unacceptable what happened.”