Muslims And Arabs Are 'Petrified' After 6-Year-Old Boy Killed In Hate Crime

Many say they are facing increased anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric since Israel launched its retaliatory attack on Gaza.
Community members attend a vigil for 6-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume on Oct. 17, 2023, in Plainfield, Illinois.
Community members attend a vigil for 6-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume on Oct. 17, 2023, in Plainfield, Illinois.
Scott Olson via Getty Images

Thousands of people showed up at Monday’s funeral for Wadea Al-Fayoume, the 6-year-old Palestinian American boy stabbed to death by a neighbor in an apparent anti-Muslim hate crime.

Inside, the mosque was packed, and hundreds more mourners spilled outside of the prayer room and onto the streets. Men, women, children and elected officials were among those who attended.

Nearby, students at Universal School, an Islamic private school, went into soft lockdown. The school shares a parking lot with the Mosque Foundation, the site of Wadea’s funeral. School administrators had been ramping up security measures since the young boy’s murder and fielding concerns from dozens of parents worried about their own children’s safety, many of whom were the same age and ethnicity as Wadea. Many were worried that another hate crime could occur.

Joseph Czuba, 71, faces murder and hate crime charges for allegedly stabbing Wadea and his mother, Hanaan Shahin, 32, who were his tenants in Plainfield, Illinois. According to detectives, Czuba attacked the family because of their Muslim faith and the ongoing siege in Gaza, and he had recently become obsessed with conservative talk radio coverage of the conflict.

The Justice Department has since launched a hate crime investigation. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland called the child’s murder “abhorrent” and noted Muslim and Arab Americans’ heightened fears nationwide.

“This incident cannot help but further raise the fears of Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian communities in our country with regard to hate-fueled violence,” Garland said on Monday. “No one in the United States of America should have to live in fear of violence because of how they worship or where they or their family come from,” he added.

President Joe Biden released a statement late Sunday night after Wadea’s killing, calling on Americans to “come together and reject Islamophobia and all forms of bigotry and hatred.”

Echoing Biden’s statement, Vice President Kamala Harris wrote, “We unequivocally condemn hate and Islamophobia and stand with the Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim American communities.”

But some Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. say it’s too late, and that they are facing an uptick in anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric since Israel launched its retaliatory attack on Gaza after Hamas attacked Israel earlier this month.

Jasmine Hawamdeh, the communications manager for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C., told HuffPost that her organization is overwhelmed with calls and emails from people detailing incidents of harassment, discrimination and concern for their safety across the country.

“The entire community is afraid. The entire community is petrified,” she said.

Hawamdeh said the patterns of discrimination and fear mirror the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry was at an all-time high.

“Our elected officials need to do more and say more,” said Hawamdeh. “There needs to be an action plan, accountability, and a level of humanization of Arabs and Muslims across the country.”

Wadea Al-Fayoume turned 6 years old earlier this month.
Wadea Al-Fayoume turned 6 years old earlier this month.

In Illinois, local Arab and Muslim families are grieving 6-year-old Wadea’s death. In Colorado, a Palestinian family said they believed they were targeted for their ethnicity after a gunman shot a bullet into their home that same week. In Michigan, a man was arrested after allegedly threatening violence against Palestinian Americans in Dearborn on social media.

Several Muslim women told HuffPost that they avoided outdoor spaces in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack out of fear of becoming targets for increased harassment. Some parents removed their children from schools that week.

Tasmiha Khan, a writer and mother of two toddlers in Bridgeview, Illinois, a town dubbed “Little Palestine” for its thriving Palestinian community, has been hypervigilant about her whereabouts. The hijab-wearing Muslim woman opted out from attending a journalism conference last weekend. This weekend, Khan and her friend had plans to attend a women’s program at the mosque but decided not to go.

“There was an element of fear,” said Khan. In group chats, she and other Muslim moms have been talking about taking self-defense classes, carrying pepper spray and even contemplating becoming gun owners.

Khan is especially worried for her children, ages 4 and 2. She didn’t know how to talk to her 4-year-old about Wadea’s murder.

“It could have been my kids,” said Khan. “When this happens close to home, it hits a little bit differently. It’s very scary.”

Local schools are staying vigilant as well.

Aminah Murrar, the principal at Universal School in Bridgeview, mandated the students stay inside last Friday, with the classroom doors firmly closed at all times. Students were not allowed to linger in the hallway without a teacher. If one student needed to use the restroom, the entire classroom went.

By Monday, those measures were loosened, and students were allowed to move around more freely. Inside the classroom, students were taught about their social media consumption, the importance of safety and how to navigate difficult conversations.

Murrar said the school, where most students are ethnically Palestinian, has operated as “one body.”

“We are united as Muslims and we are united as humans,” she said, later adding, “We are not living in fear. We are going to do our part to be safe and take the precautions we need, and the rest is in God’s hands.”

“Our elected officials need to do more and say more. There needs to be an action plan, accountability, and a level of humanization of Arabs and Muslims across the country.”

- Jasmine Hawamdeh, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

Less than 20 miles away at the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park, Illinois, Shereen Hussain received a slew of phone calls from concerned parents, with a handful of families choosing to pull their children from school last week.

Local police are now stationed during arrival and dismissal times at the school. No one is allowed into the school without a prior appointment. There is increased security patrolling school property, especially while the children are outside.

“At our school, once they walk in the building, it’s all about safety and security and making sure the students feel comfortable and safe,” said Hussain. “If students feel safe and secure, learning will happen. If they don’t, it will not happen.”

IFS hosts about 700 students of diverse backgrounds, including Egyptians, Malaysians, Filipinos, Palestinians and others. Hussain hopes her students will feel empowered to critically discuss current events with their own independent viewpoints.

“We are educating our students so that they see all different views and all different perspectives,” said Hussain. “How is a student going to respond if they are asked a certain question about the current events? Knowledge and education are key.”

Lamis Shawahin, an assistant professor of psychology and counseling at Governors State University in Illinois, told HuffPost that she’s seen a rise in acute stress responses that take on various forms, including being hypervigilant and experiencing avoidance patterns and survivor guilt.

“People are in a very difficult state of emotion right now,” she said.

She emphasized the importance of educators and workplaces being aware of people’s acute stress. Simple tasks at work or holding conversations may be too burdensome for those who are thinking about loved ones in Gaza or worried about their own safety in the U.S., Shawahin said.

“Extending grace to employees, students, folks in your community that are your neighbors and friends at this time is really important,” she added.

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