An Islamophobic assault has a happy ending, with Noor Fadel given hope by one man's help and hundreds of supportive messages
VANCOUVER - “Almost every other day, I get verbally assaulted and it hurts every single time – at my workplace, at my school, in everyday life,” 18-year-old Noor Fadel told Middle East Eye.
Earlier this week, the Canadian Muslim girl was slapped and physically assaulted by a man on Vancouver’s Canada Line train on her way home from work. She told MEE that he allegedly screamed at her in "classical Arabic" with what seemed like a "French accent".
“He said in Arabic: “Go back to your country! I’m going to kill you and kill all Muslims!” Fadel said. “Then he tried to grab my hijab and pull it off and tried to force my head towards his crotch, shouting obscenities in Arabic like qus omek (f*** your mother).”
According to Fadel, dozens of onlookers hid behind their phones and stood idle as she was being assaulted, except for 21-year-old Jake Taylor, who intervened to protect her.
When I went to help Noor, I didn’t notice the hijab at all, only a smaller, younger person being attacked by a bigger, older man
- Jake Taylor
"I heard a noise, so I looked over and saw a commotion,” recounted Taylor, who stands at six feet tall. “I saw him (the assailant) try to force her head towards his crotch and I ran over. I shoved him towards the door and told him to get the f*** out of there. He shut up immediately and looked out the window, avoiding eye contact.”
Taylor was on his way home from a pub where he works as a cook when the incident took place.
Taylor said that when he saw all of the other passengers “just kind of hiding behind their phones and doing nothing, I felt angry”.
The attacker got off at the next station but Fadel was having a panic attack and hyperventilating, so Taylor called 911, and stayed with her until paramedics and police arrived.
Thanks to some photos Fadel was able to snap with her phone before her attacker fled, a suspect was arrested.
The Vancouver transit police issued a statement on Wednesday confirming that the suspect, Pierre Belzan, 46, had been arrested and charged with threatening to cause death or bodily harm and assault. Transit police have also recommended a charge of sexual assault, which is pending.
According to the statement, Belzan has no criminal record but is “well known to police”.
‘People watched in silence’
As Fadel and Taylor recounted their story in a Vancouver cafe, they sat comfortably together like old friends.
In fact, the pair, who spent much of Tuesday doing interviews for Canadian television and radio, had only met 48 hours earlier, brought together by unfortunate circumstances.
We’re your doctors and teachers and neighbours- not your enemies. Fear comes out of ignorance. I write poems and sketch in my spare time. I don’t spend time planning bomb attacks
- Noor Fadel
“My whole family loves him, even my mum who is usually a bit more conservative about me hanging out with boys,” related Fadel as Taylor grinned sheepishly. “He’s invited over for dinner this weekend.”
Fadel said she was “disheartened” that so many people watched events unfold in silence, but was “extremely grateful” that Taylor intervened.
Fadel studied judo for nine years and “knows how to defend herself”, but she was too shocked to react.
When she was on the train, she was also seated in a vulnerable position, far from the emergency button.
Fadel noted ironically that amid a train "full of people of colour" who ignored the attack, “it was Jake - the 21-year-old white guy who actually helped me”.
It was Taylor’s first time witnessing an attack against a Muslim woman.
“When I went to help Noor, I didn’t notice the hijab at all, only a smaller, younger person being attacked by a bigger, older man. I did what any of my friends would have done in the same circumstance,” he said.
Myhanh Best stands with her sons during a committal service for her husband, Army veteran Ricky Best on June 5, 2017 in Portland, Oregon. Best was stabbed to death after they tried to stop a man from harassing two teenage Muslim girls (AFP)
Despite the dangers of intervening in racist attacks – made evident by the tragic incident in Portland, Oregon where two man were killed in May while defending two Muslim women, Taylor said he “wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing again”.
Although he did worry that Belzan, who he said appeared thin and unwell, might have retaliated by jabbing him with a needle or worse. “Luckily I was OK. I just tried to stay calm and not escalate the situation.”
‘Go back to your country’
Fadel is the daughter of Iraqi parents who emigrated from Baghdad to Vancouver in the mid-90s.
Canadian anti-Islamophobia demonstrators march in Montreal in 2015, against sympathizers of the German based anti-Islam group PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (AFP)
While the violent attack was traumatic, she said the racism it stems from is something she deals with on a daily basis because of the origin of her parents. She recounted a recent incident at the retail outlet where she works in sales.
“The other day I asked a woman in the shop if she needed any help. She just stared at me blankly and said nothing. Then she came close behind me and said: 'Get the hell out of here and go back to your country,'” Fadel said. “I was born in Canada. It was awful. I had to go to the back room and cry. Sometimes you think it’s over with and then it happens again.”
Fadel happens to be an activist, organising portests against racism and Islamophobia, and she blames the Western media’s “misperception” of Muslims for such harassment. In February, she organised a protest against US President Donald Trump in Vancouver.
"We’re your doctors and teachers and neighbours - not your enemies," Fadel said. "Fear comes out of ignorance. I write poems and sketch in my spare time. I don’t spend time planning bomb attacks.”
While Fadel said she feels “anxious” after the attack, she also feels buoyed up by Taylor’s intervention and the messages of support she has received on social media.
"Ever since I posted my experience online, I’ve received over 500 messages from Muslim women in Canada sharing their experiences of Islamophobic violence. And thousands of other messages from Sikh women, Jewish women, First Nations women and others who have to deal with racist violence every day in Canada,” said Fadel.
More people need to stand together when hate crimes take place. We’re all human beings - it doesn’t matter the colour of your skin
- Jake Taylor
The day after the attack, Fadel returned to the very same train carriage where the assault took place to re-examine the distance from her seat to the emergency button, so she could make suggestions to transit authorities about ways to improve safety.
“This experience will not bury me or hold me down,” she affirmed.
In fact, she said she’s “hoping this whole thing will help spread awareness of and prevention of more hate crimes in Canada”.
As hate crimes and Islamophobia increase in a country known for its multiculturalism and tolerance, Fadel noted that Islamophobia has got “much worse in the past three years".
For Taylor, the whole experience has been eye-opening and educational.
As the interview progressed, he stopped to ask Fadel questions about Islam and she corrected him when he mispronounced the word hijab.
In addition to the attention the incident has drawn nationally to often unacknowledged racism and Islamophobia in Canada, the other silver lining is a budding friendship between Fadel and Taylor.
“More people need to stand together when hate crimes take place,” Taylor said. “We’re all human beings - it doesn’t matter the colour of your skin."