The Two Americans

 

 

FORT SMITH, Ark. — Abraham Davis was sitting on a thin blue pad on the concrete floor of Cell 3 in a jail in western Arkansas when a guard came around with stamped envelopes and writing paper.

The first person he wrote to was his mother. Abraham, just shy of 21, had barely spoken to her since his arrest a few days before, and he had a lot to explain.

It all began on a night last October when he borrowed her white minivan and drove to the home of a friend. They’d gotten drunk on cheap whiskey. Kentucky Deluxe. Abraham agreed to drive his friend to a mosque in town. His friend drew swastikas and curses on the mosque’s windows and doors while Abraham stood watch in the driveway.

The next day, the vandalism was all over the news. Abraham watched the reports over and over on his phone, his stomach curdling with regret.

Even now, as he was facing up to six years in prison for the act, Abraham could not explain why he had done it.

He had grown up in Fort Smith, a city of tall oak trees and brick churches that has the look of a faded Polaroid. His father, charismatic but violent, died when Abraham was 5, leaving him with a feeling of powerlessness so intense that he has been trying to conquer it ever since. “Most of my life I’ve spent trying to train myself to become something that’s too strong to be broken through,” he said. Life has teed him up for a fight, and he walks tilted slightly forward, as if someone is pulling him with an invisible wire.

As a poor student in the high school on the wealthier side of town, Abraham often felt like an outsider. He walked, not drove, hung out on playgrounds, not in restaurants. He got into a lot of fights. He did poorly in school, but he doesn’t remember his teachers seeming surprised. Expectations were low, and he bent to fit them. He slept a lot in class. At 18, he dropped out.

Fort Smith has two country clubs, several golf courses, a Talbots and a symphony orchestra. But a proliferation of pawnshops and a circuit court crowded with indigent defendants are reminders of the grinding poverty all around, in the rural areas of western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.

For years, those divisions had been etched into the city’s geography. Poorer families lived on the north side of town and wealthier families on the south. Race followed the same pattern, with the south predominantly white and much of the city’s black population in the north.

But time has scrambled those old lines. Latinos came here to work in the poultry industry. Pho shops dot the city’s main drag, property of Vietnamese who began arriving as refugees after the fall of Saigon. R & R’s Curry Express serves deliciously spicy North Indian food at a Finish Line gas station.

Abraham Davis drove his mother’s white minivan to the mosque last October.

Pho shops dot the city’s main drag, started by Vietnamese who began arriving as refugees after the fall of Saigon. Other nationalities also call Fort Smith home now.

The tombstone of Hud Davis, Abraham’s and Noah’s biological father, in Fort Smith. Noah often visits; Abraham does not.

Hisham Yasin in the office of his used-car business.
Muslims from different countries came, too — some to study, some to work in the city’s growing medical industry. Many had money. Hisham Yasin did not.

A Palestinian who grew up just outside Damascus in Syria, Hisham sold fruits and vegetables in an outdoor market. He came to the United States in 1996, joining his parents and an older brother. Hisham imagined Beverly Hills, but found himself in western Arkansas in a rotting house with rats and cockroaches. He washed dishes at the Golden Corral. His father collected cans. He and a brother, Abdul Rahman, opened a used-car business. They called it A & H Auto Sales.

Today, Hisham lives in a grand house in Fort Smith with sparkling chandeliers on the edge of a thick green forest of oak and pine. He is 49 and has the look of an affable neighborhood baker, with a big belly and a broad smile. He is giving his three children what he calls a “five-star life” compared with his own, which he says began at “below zero.” He follows the news about Syria daily. But Arkansas is his home. He considers the day he came to the United States — Feb. 11 — his birthday.

Hisham was one of the founders of the mosque that Abraham helped vandalize. They called it Al Salam — meaning “peace” in Arabic. Since 2009, it has been in a brick ranch formerly used as a law office. It is on a busy road, South 28th Street, between a library branch and a nursing home. The founders wanted it that way. They thought the Muslims of Fort Smith should be forthright and confident, not hiding somewhere off the beaten path. This, they believed, would gain the community’s trust and respect, maybe even help guard against the noxious stream of negative news about Muslims.

The truth was that until the vandalism, few people in Fort Smith knew that Muslims lived in their city.

Abraham did. He had gone to high school with Hisham’s older son, Wasim Yasin. They often ate lunch together in the cafeteria. Sometimes it wasn’t easy being Muslim in high school, Wasim said. But around Abraham, it was.

“Abraham was a good guy, a ‘whatever’ kind of guy, he never had any problems with that,” Wasim said. “You know how people can talk about Muslims. He came up to me and he said: ‘I’m with you, man. If anybody bothers you, just let me know. I’m your friend.’”

Months passed after the vandalism without contact from the police, and Abraham began to feel relief. He had only helped a friend, he told himself. “My mind was trying to let me off the hook,” he said.

But his dreams were less forgiving. In one, he was walking through a crowd of parents and their children. The children were looking at some writing and crying. “It was like one of those Scrooge stories,” he said. He could see the children, but they could not see him. He saw their frightened faces and woke up sweating.

Now, sitting in the Sebastian County jail, Abraham was not entirely surprised he had ended up here. Expectations for him were so low — at his church, at school, even in his own mind — that he sometimes saw the line of his life pointing toward prison.

But not like this. Not with swastikas. So Abraham decided to use another piece of paper the jail guard had given him to write to the mosque. He wanted to tell the people there how sorry he was for what he’d done. What, after all, did he have to lose?

He sat on the floor of the cell, and placed a yellow sheet of paper on one of the metal seats bolted to the wall. He did not know the mosque’s name. So he copied it, a letter at a time, from his paperwork.

“Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque,” he began.

Countering a Dark Impulse
The sky was just brightening the morning of Oct. 20 when Hisham pulled into the mosque’s driveway. He liked to do his morning prayers there when he could. The quiet of the early hour was soothing, and he’d been told that praying at the mosque meant more rewards from God. But he had not come to pray this morning. He had sped there in his white Infiniti, carrying his gun, after receiving a distressed phone call from the imam.

Al Salam’s members had already been anxious. For months the year before, a man had sent the mosque disturbing emails. “Sharia is a cancer that must be eliminated,” the man warned, until someone called the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And the Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump was calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Few thought that was possible, but it seemed to loosen some dark impulse in the land.

Rolling up to the mosque, Hisham saw the first swastika from the street, spray-painted in black on the bottom left corner of the small curbside sign. It was off-kilter, like a creeping spider.

There was more on the building: “Go Home” on the wooden front door, just above a babysitter-wanted sign. On the garage: “We Don’t Want You Here U.S.A.” And on one of the front windows, among profanities about Islam and Allah, a phrase Hisham did not recognize: “Deus Vult.” It is Latin for “It is God’s will” — a medieval rallying cry for the Crusades.

The “Go Home” message that Craig Wigginton wrote in October 2016 on the door of the Al Salam mosque was still faintly visible in May.

Hisham Yasin with letters sent to Al Salam mosque in Fort Smith after it was vandalized in October.
Hisham’s heart hurt. He thought about how little the vandals understood. America was the only true home Hisham had ever known. As a Palestinian in Syria he had been stateless. America gave him a country. America gave him a kidney, through a transplant. It gave him the dignity of being able to travel in the world. He still cries when he explains this.

“They never let me go to Dubai,” Hisham said, blowing his nose and wiping his eyes. “Then I went with my American passport, and they stand up straight — they say, ‘You’re welcome, Mr. Hisham!’”

At the mosque that morning, Hisham sprang into action like a rescue worker after an earthquake. He called the police. He called the mosque’s board members. He called journalists.

By early afternoon, the story was breaking.

Then something wonderful happened. The mosque’s phone started ringing, and didn’t stop. Churches called. A synagogue called. Buddhists called. So did residents who had seen the news or simply driven by. One man called, crying. His daughter had seen the graffiti on her way to work and told him about it. He said the vandals could not have been Christians. No true Christian would have done it.

Anas Bensalah, a mosque member who had taken the day off to help with the cleanup, told the man that he understood completely: That was exactly how he felt every time there was an attack by the Islamic State.

Over the next week, the mosque was snowed under with cards and letters. Some people brought flowers. Most of the letters were from Fort Smith and the surrounding towns, but some were from as far as Reston, Va.

Hisham was overjoyed. He kept them, as if they were jewels, in a drawer in his office.

‘A Big Heart and a Short Fuse’
The night the mosque was vandalized, Kristin Collins, 45, had been worrying about her white minivan. There was a knocking sound under the hood, and it sometimes lurched unexpectedly. She was afraid the transmission was going, and she could not afford to fix it. Her last job was at a day care center in 2013. She quit after her husband, who had Parkinson’s, began having trouble putting diapers on their 1-year-old. The next year, Kristin learned she had leukemia. She and her husband receive disability insurance — a total of about $1,700 a month to support them, Kristin’s son Abraham and his younger brothers, Noah Davis and Gabriel Collins.

Fixing the van was on a long list of things they couldn’t afford: the $25 monster costume that Gabriel, 4, wanted for Halloween; the several thousand dollars in back rent on their small brick ranch house. Kristin sometimes had to go to church food banks at the end of the month. And she had the sinking feeling she would have to rely on charity for a turkey on Thanksgiving, only a month away.

So when Abraham asked to borrow the van, she was reluctant. Kristin loved her son. At 20, he was still more a teenager than a man, with a sparse goatee and — at 5 feet 11 inches and 139 pounds — a boyish frame. He was outgoing, loved people and liked to show off his break dancing and singing. She remembers his sweet head, hair dyed green, asleep on her hospital couch during her cancer treatment. But he was also directionless and unemployed, and spent too much time drinking and smoking pot with his friends.

Kristin’s boys were so different. Her middle son, Noah, was shy and sensitive but also a striver. He rose many days at 6 a.m. to work at a sandwich shop downtown. He had a girlfriend and a car. Where Noah was determined, Abraham just floated through, escaping into comic books and cartoons.

Noah Davis, left, and Abraham Davis, the night of Abraham’s release from jail.

Abraham Davis sometimes walked eight miles across town to see Craig Wigginton at the apartment complex where he lived.

Two cats, one real, share a window at Mr. Wigginton’s apartment complex.

Kristin Collins, mother of Abraham Davis, has her family back together, but she worries about Abraham’s three years of probation. A violation could mean six years in jail.
Yet the brothers, only 15 months apart, were extremely close. As kids they played pirates, drinking sweet tea as whiskey on bunk bed boats. Abraham was protective of Noah, a frequent target for bullies with his surgically repaired cleft palate. Abraham was also quick to fight. At 9, he pummeled a boy who had made fun of Noah.

Something was lodged in Abraham from the beginning, like a shard of glass in his heel. Kristin says it came from his father, Hud Davis, who grew up in a violent home. He had one real leg and cartoon flames painted on his fake one, the result of stepping on a downed power line. To his friends, he was full of life. At home, he was cruel. Kristin remembers him grabbing her by the neck and slamming her into the laundry-room door.

Noah would sit on his toy dump truck and wheel himself backward into the closet to hide during the eruptions. Abraham remembers his father screaming that he would not have had to marry “your whore mother” if Abraham had not come along.

At 5, Abraham said, he got down on his knees in his bedroom and asked God “to take him and save my mom.” When his 33-year-old father died a month later, after a seizure, Abraham believed he was responsible.

As he grew older, Abraham had trouble controlling his anger. Hank Needham, the principal of Cavanaugh Elementary in Fort Smith, remembers him as a polite little boy — but one with an angry streak. He once threw a fit when the school took away his screwdriver, which had belonged to his father.

“He had a big heart and a short fuse, and he’d just start cussing,” Mr. Needham said. “He had an adult mouth in the second grade.”

Mr. Needham gained Abraham’s trust, and medication for hyperactivity helped smooth his moods. By the sixth grade, he was an all-star student. His picture still hangs in a hallway promoting good attendance: Abraham, in a yellow sweatshirt, grinning.

It didn’t last. By the time he got to Southside High, Abraham had made peace with his place in the social hierarchy. He was, as he put it, “one of the outcasts.” But he was O.K. with that. He did not crave being in the popular crowd, which would have been impossible anyway.

He didn’t have money for meals at the mall or the latest phone. He couldn’t afford fashionable sneakers or jeans; Kristin shopped at Goodwill. When Mr. Needham bought sneakers for Abraham one year, he expected the teenager to pick out the most expensive style. He chose a modest pair.

“He said, ‘Mr. Needham, that is not me,’” the principal remembered. “‘That is not who I am.’”

Abraham was himself with a small, tight group of friends, which included Craig Wigginton, a tall, intense teenager who lived in a small apartment across town. They bonded over their backgrounds. Craig had spent his early childhood on the carnival circuit with his parents, his father, Rick Wigginton, said. His mother eventually left the family. Last year, when his father was sent to prison for a while, Craig was left alone to care for his younger brother. Abraham helped babysit.

Abraham believed Craig was “college professor brilliant.” He sometimes walked eight miles across town to see him. But Craig made Kristin nervous. She was driving him and Abraham somewhere once and a woman in a hijab drove by. She remembers Craig pointing out the “sand monkey in a Cadillac.” He seemed jealous.

Mr. Wigginton said his son never used words like that around him. Craig did not respond to requests for comment for this piece.

Craig was the friend Abraham wanted to meet up with the night he asked his mother for the van. Kristin let him take it. It would be four months before she learned what he’d done with it.

The Power of Ignorance
Fort Smith was on the edge of the United States when it appeared in 1817 as a military outpost in Indian Territory, along what is now the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. A federal judge, Isaac Parker, made the place famous in the 1870s by presiding over one of the most prolific courts in the country. Known as the “Hanging Judge,” he sentenced 160 people to death; 79 were executed.

Today, Fort Smith is a mix of the South and the West, a peanut butter cup of libertarian and Southern Baptist sensibilities. The Old South still haunts the place: A monument to the first white child born in Fort Smith, erected in 1936, still stands, barely noticed, in a small park behind a beverage distributorship. Southside High’s Dixie fight song was not retired until 2015, and its Johnny Rebel mascot a year later — and not without a fight.

But the New South is here, too. Vibrant murals adorn downtown buildings, including a 100-foot-tall painting of an African-American woman and an Apache man on a grain tower. And while the city had a precipitous decline in manufacturing jobs, its economy is now doing other things.

In February, a Milwaukee-based real estate company bought the old Whirlpool building, where thousands of workers made refrigerators. A large “Available” sign is now stuck to its facade. Health care and transportation companies have been hiring, particularly people with an education. The city’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average, and its population — 88,000 — is up since the last census.

The closed and abandoned remains of the Whirlpool factory in Fort Smith. In February, the building was sold.

A monument commemorates the birth of the first white child in Fort Smith.

Hisham Yasin tutoring children at Al Salam Mosque after its Ramadan potluck dinner.
Fort Smith may have its country clubs, but the city’s residents are largely middle and lower-middle class. Some homes cost more than $1 million, but a typical home is around $113,000.

No one knows exactly when the first Muslims immigrated to Fort Smith. Dr. Louay Nassri, a pediatric pulmonologist who is the president of Al Salam Mosque and who came to Fort Smith in 1980, said there was at least one Muslim living here in the early 1970s.

Nearly 450 people attended the main Ramadan celebration in June, the closest thing the community has to a census. They are for the most part educated, affluent, integrated. Many are doctors. Others are accountants, business owners, professors and teachers.

Hisham remembers when they were just a curiosity.

“Before 9/11, people thought we were Mexican,” he said. “We’d go to Walmart and they’d say, ‘Como está, amigo?’ We were laughing. I said, ‘Excuse me, I don’t speak Spanish.’ They say, ‘Where you from?’ I say Palestine. They say, ‘I never heard about it.’ I say, ‘I think you hear about Israel, right?’ They say yes. I say, ‘That’s my homeland.’”

Each family adapted in its own way.

Dr. Hania Al-Shahrouri, a kidney specialist from Jordan, got used to people staring at her head covering. Wearing a hijab in the United States is as much an act of bravery as it is an act of faith, she said. When she first moved to Fort Smith, a man walked up to her in the grocery store.

“In our religion, we don’t hit our women,” he said. “We let them wear whatever they want.”

Citronella candles help keep mosquitoes at bay in the yard of Dr. Hania al-Shahrouri and Dr. Isam Abdel-Karim in Fort Smith. Many Muslims came to work in the city’s growing medical industry.

Dr. Hania al-Shahrouri, right, and her daughter, Salma, 13, who began wearing the hijab recently.
Tall and confident, with the poise of a ballet dancer, Dr. Al-Shahrouri tells herself that people stare because she is pretty, or because they like the color of her hijab. But she worries that her children, including her 13-year-old daughter, may not be able to summon the same self-confidence. So she wields what weapons she has to protect them: her status as a doctor and her wealth. She drives a Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle. She carries an expensive hand bag.

She doesn’t like herself for it, but she knows that money commands respect, and in some ways, the Muslims who have it are often spared the bigotry that can bedevil those who do not.

Mr. Bensalah understands, too. He came to Fort Smith from Morocco in 2000 to attend college. His first job was as a dishwasher. He fell in love with and married a local woman whose family refused to accept him — more because of his skin color, he said, though looking back it was also probably his religion.

“They kept telling her, ‘Why aren’t you marrying your own kind?’” he said. “White women were supposed to marry white men.”

On Sept. 25, 2001, his wife was in the hospital for the birth of their first child, and several of her relatives stopped him from entering the building. Standing outside, pleading with them to no avail, was one of the worst experiences of his life, he said. He did not witness the birth of his son. Nor did he tell his mother that he had become a father, fearing she would try to visit.

“I saw the power of anger and ignorance,” he said.

Determined, Mr. Bensalah wore down his in-laws with wit and generosity. He started with the smokers, standing around and cracking jokes. He bought beer. He went hunting. One day he came home from his job as an accountant to find his wife’s cousin on his couch, and they talked for hours. The man became addicted to drugs, and Mr. Bensalah visited him in the hospital after he overdosed. He brought a Bible. As the man recovered, Mr. Bensalah taught him how to budget. He told him that he was worth something. Now the man lives in Colorado with three kids, a wife, and a good job at a mining company.

Out of the worst of America could come the best of America.

This is what makes Dr. Al-Shahrouri love the United States fiercely: There may be bigotry, but the system is fair, she said. She remembers entering a kidney transplant ward in 2004 with her medical team in San Antonio and being told to leave by the patient’s wife, who raved that Dr. Al-Shahrouri would kill her husband “like they killed us on 9/11.” The doctor in charge warned the woman that if Dr. Al-Shahrouri wasn’t allowed to treat her husband, no one would. Then the entire medical team walked out.

Loyalty, Then Regret
On the night of Feb. 17, nearly four months after the mosque was vandalized, the police came to Abraham’s house with a warrant for his arrest. Noah thought it was a case of mistaken identity. His brother had been in trouble twice before — once for having pot paraphernalia in his backpack, once for hanging around too late on a playground — but nothing that had required a $15,000 bond.

Abraham wasn’t home, but Noah knew where he was. “Dude, the cops came to arrest you,” he said, driving to pick Abraham up in the minivan so that he could turn himself in. “What’d you do?”

Later, when Abraham really thought about it, he saw so many things that had brought him to this point. Too much Kentucky Deluxe. An inescapable feeling of worthlessness. Unquestioning loyalty to his friends.

Craig lifted Abraham up. He made him feel good about himself. A history buff, Craig liked to use Hitler as an example, Abraham said.

“He said, ‘I understand Hitler did bad things, but on the other side of the coin he is the shining example of why no one can ever say that one man can’t change the world,’” Abraham recounted. “‘He was just one man from a broken country that was being destroyed by its debts, and he turned it into the most formidable fighting force and almost took over the world.’”

Abraham, Craig and another friend, Ezra Pedraza, would sit around in Kristin’s garage, amusing themselves with conspiracy theories and talking about their lives. Ezra went with them on the night of the vandalism.

“He used to tell me and Ezra that we have the power to change the environment around us, too, to do great things and to shape this world,” Abraham said.

Abraham understands how the attack on the mosque looks. The swastikas. The reference to the Crusades. Craig’s father said he was horrified at his son’s use of swastikas. Abraham argued that these were intended not as expressions of racism or white power, but merely as the most offensive images they could conjure — a kind of measure of their manly capacity to shock.

Mr. Bensalah said the symbols had their desired effect precisely because they were racist and threatening. Simple insults would not have gotten people’s attention. But swastikas did.

“A swastika is a small act of terrorism if you think about it,” he said. “At that point, yes, it’s scary.”

For all the regret and penance that the act of vandalism caused Abraham, the decision to commit it took no time at all. The three friends had been drinking and talking about ISIS, he said. Craig was angry about American soldiers being killed, about children dying.

And then an impulse: “Let’s retaliate.”

They got into the white van, and Abraham drove to the mosque on South 28th Street. They went to the other mosque in town that night, too, and drew on it as well.

Al Salam mosque is in a ranch-style building on a busy road. Its founders did not want it to be hidden away.
Abraham burns with regret now. At their ignorance, for lumping all Muslims together. “That’s like meeting one racist, and you say all white guys are like him,” he said.

At his weakness, for not stopping it: “I wish I could go back in time and say, ‘Hey, dumbass, I’m the future you, and I’m telling you, don’t do this.’”

But he’d done it. And now he was on his way to jail in the passenger seat of his mom’s white van. Noah drove by the house so Abraham could say goodbye. His mother was sobbing in big, deep gulps. He had felt it before, the dead weight of her disappointment. It made him feel disgusting.

“She cried like a woman who had just got broken,” he said. “I think about that a lot. It’s stuff like that that hurts you while you are in jail. You replay and replay. It’s torture on your mind. Worse than any knife.”

‘I Just Want to Say I’m Sorry’
If Abraham had $1,580 for a bail bond, he could have waited for his court date at home. But his family couldn’t get the money together. So he waited in jail.

At the Sebastian County Adult Detention Center, a hulking building with window slits like mail slots, he became the third person in a two-man cell with drafty concrete floors and two metal beds sticking out of the wall.

Abraham was given a sheet and a thin blue sleeping pad, with a pillow area sewn into one end where the stuffing had been torn out. His skinny body was on high alert. He felt cold a lot. He barely slept the first week.

Jail reminded him of high school. The prison guards were like the popular kids, lording their power over everybody else. The days were long and boring. People were constantly sizing each other up. New inmates quickly adapted to a rigid social hierarchy.

Pretty much every group was represented. He made friends with a black man who was into Japanese cartoons and a Muslim who showed him the Quran. He had never seen one. The man told Abraham not to bother to look for the part where martyrdom brings 72 virgins. “He said it wasn’t there and he knew because he had looked for it himself,” Abraham said, laughing.

There were white supremacists of several varieties. One took an interest in Abraham after learning that he had vandalized the mosque, even offered him a tattoo. Abraham told Noah later that he had said no.

It took a month and several upsetting tangles with a confusing appointment system for Kristin to arrange her first visit with Abraham in jail. When she finally saw his face behind the glass, she started to cry. He did, too. Recounting this scene later, he raised his two hands to his cheeks and said, “Two rivers.”

The telephone for talking through the glass barely worked. They laughed about it. Abraham’s mouth moved, but the sound came out delayed, or not at all, like an old kung fu movie. Kristin and Noah visited every Saturday after that.

Abraham had spent his entire life trying to become strong enough to protect his family, but it was not until jail, he said, that he realized that he was the one who had inflicted the most hurt. He felt a powerful urge to set things right.

The letter to the mosque, he said, was a first step.

“I was just so tired of doing the wrong thing,” he said.

He was terrified of going to prison. But his fate was out of his hands. And, anyway, the truth was out: The mosque’s security camera had captured the act.

Abraham did not know the mosque’s address, so he mailed it to his mother, with a small note asking her to deliver it. The postmark was Feb. 22.

“Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque,” Abraham wrote. “I know you guys probably don’t want to hear from me at all but I really want to get this to y’all. I’m so sorry about having a hand in vandalising your mosque. It was wrong and y’all did not deserve to have that done to you. I hurt y’all and I am haunted by it. And even after all this you still forgave me. You are much better people than I.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and that is honestly really scary. But I just wouldn’t want to keep going on without trying to make amends. I wish I could undo the pain I helped to cause. I used to walk by your mosque a lot and ask myself why I would do that. I don’t even hate Muslims. Or anyone for that matter.

“All in all,” he concluded, “I just want to say I’m sorry.”

Noah drove the letter to the mosque on a Friday. He took off his shoes as a sign of respect and introduced himself. Dr. Nassri was moved. No one had expected to hear from the vandals. Certainly not like this.

The Sebastian County Jail in Fort Smith, where Abraham Davis and Craig Wigginton were held.

A security camera on the mosque captured images of Craig Wigginton, who took the most active role in the vandalism.

Kristin Collins with the letter her son sent to the mosque in apology for his actions.
Dr. Nassri called a meeting of senior members of the mosque. Hisham was there. So was Mr. Bensalah, the accountant from Morocco.

The sermon had just reminded them of their duty as Muslims to forgive. It didn’t take them long to do it.

“If one of my kids did something stupid like that I would want them to be forgiven,” Mr. Bensalah said.

Later, when Dr. Nassri met with a man from the prosecutor’s office, he made clear that the mosque did not want to press charges and strongly opposed a felony charge for Abraham.

“We did not want this to destroy his life,” Dr. Nassri said.

Urging Mercy
The long wooden benches in the gallery of Courtroom 201 were already packed on May 24, the day of Abraham’s hearing. Nearly everyone was white. Most of the defendants were poor.

The morning unfolded in a relentless stream of misery over crimes like drug possession and writing bad checks.

Kristin and Noah walked in at 9 a.m. sharp. Noah, in his best jeans and plaid shirt, sat with his chin in his hands. Kristin kept nervously shifting in her seat. Hisham walked in, wearing jeans and an electric-lime shirt. He wedged himself in next to Kristin, but had no idea who she was.

Abraham’s case had taken an unexpected turn.

Dr. Nassri had gone to meet the prosecutors again. They had bad news: Abraham would have to plead guilty to a felony, not a mere misdemeanor, or face a trial. He would avoid prison, but only if he remained on good behavior for three years. Any minor violation could land him behind bars for six years. The best outcome he could hope for would be to get a judge to seal his record — in eight years.

Dr. Nassri was taken aback. “I said, ‘You guys are asking for more than we want,’” he said. “They call us the victims, and the victims say, ‘Hey, guys, loosen up!’”

Dr. Louay Nassri with his wife, Najla Madina, leaders in the Fort Smith Islamic community. It was Dr. Nassri who went to the prosecutors, asking mercy for Abraham Davis.
But the prosecutors were unmoved. Daniel Shue, the head prosecuting attorney, said that actions had consequences and that all three men had participated. And this was not just a run-of-the-mill vandalism, it was an act of bigotry.

The mosque’s camera had captured Craig in the act of writing, and his punishment was steepest. The prosecutor said that there was no clear proof that either of the other two had done any writing but that no one could know without a trial.

The law was straightforward: If the spray painting and other vandalism cost the mosque more than $1,000 to repair, the case was a felony. Anything equal or less than that was a misdemeanor. Dr. Nassri submitted paperwork showing the mosque had spent only $500 on cleanup. But the prosecutor’s office sought its own estimate from a local restoration company, which claimed the damage would cost about $1,800 to clean up.

Abraham’s public defender told him that they could attack that evidence at trial. But Abraham wanted to get out of jail.

Around 11:15 a.m., he shuffled into the courtroom through a side door in an orange jump suit and leg irons. Craig was with him. Ezra Pedraza, who had been out on bail, wore a plaid shirt and jeans.

The prosecutor noted that the victims “asked for mercy and leniency.”

The judge looked out at the defendants. “Mercy. Hmmm.”

He accepted their pleas. Then he lectured them.

“If the victims in this case had not approved of this, I would not have done it,” he said. “You would have gone to trial, and there is a good chance all three of you would have gone to prison. So you need to think twice before you do something, which is just stupid. What you did was just stupid.”

Kristin, losing patience, said under her breath: “Thank you. Point taken.”

Hard-Won Second Chances
It is summer in Fort Smith. The sun is searing. On Hisham’s car lot, small fruit trees and vegetables grow in dirt-filled kiddie swimming pools. He is already harvesting figs and hot peppers, as well as Syrian thyme and mint that he uses to flavor his visitors’ tea.

Hisham believes the vandalism of his mosque was one of the best things to happen to the Muslims of Fort Smith. The crime allowed them to reveal themselves — to say, “We are your doctors, your accountants and your used-car salesmen.” They now have a relationship with the synagogue in town. Several members, including Dr. Al-Shahrouri, the kidney specialist, have begun speaking to local audiences about Islam.

Hisham was reminded of a saying from the Quran.

A&H Auto Sales is Hisham Yasin’s auto sales business on Towson Avenue in Fort Smith, Ark. Mr. Yasin has owned the shop for 11 years.

A basketball goal in Stagecoach Park in Fort Smith, a diverse community of about 88,000.
“You might hate something that happens to you, but actually it’s excellent for you,” he said, sitting in his small, cluttered shop, surrounded by artifacts of his life: a revolving display of birthday key chains, a giant dried bean pod the size of an arm, an Elvis belt buckle and two plaques he got in the mail after he donated to a Sept. 11 fund. “That’s what happened to us: Something very bad. But very good result.”

But Hisham also doesn’t like how hard it is to get a second chance in America. You can do a stupid thing and pay for it, but afterward no one will hire you. Hisham has helped two men in this situation. They do odd jobs at his car lot. He went to court with them when no one else would. He helped one buy a washing machine, and paid for the other to bury a relative.

“Someone messes up and it sticks with him all his life,” Hisham said. “Even if he tries to become a good man, the community say to him, ‘You are a bad man!’ They encourage him to be a bad man.”

For Abraham, jail became a dividing line between the mistakes of his past and some unknown future.

When Noah first saw his brother after he was released, Abraham was standing alone outside the jail, holding an envelope and a Bible. Noah parked the car and jumped out without shutting his door, sprinting across the street to embrace him.

Noah Davis, right, greeting his brother Abraham upon his release from the Sebastian County jail.
Back at home, Abraham’s family gathered around him in the driveway, laughing and talking. The night was warm, and the stars were out. Gabriel was ecstatic, hopping up and down.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Abraham said, looking at the sky.

Kristin wanted to sing a song with her son: “Find Your Wings,” by the Christian singer Mark Harris. They sang, haltingly and softly, in harmony:

I pray that God would fill your heart with dreams.
And that faith gives you the courage to dare to do great things.
I’m here for you whatever this life brings.
So let my love give you roots. And help you find your wings.

“That’s my boy,” Kristin said, beaming at Abraham. “That’s my baby boy.”

But he was now a felon, and there were daily reminders of that. A police car regularly circled their block. He had community service to perform, and within a few days he was sorting donations at a Goodwill store.

He owed about $3,200 in fines and restitution, but landing a job would be harder now. Kristin found about 20 employers in Fort Smith that hired felons. Abraham wanted to fill out paper applications but was told to apply online. He did not have a computer, which meant he had to go to the library whenever he needed one.

His family’s finances had not improved while he was away. The day he started at Goodwill, the water was cut off at the house and the phone was about to be disconnected.

He felt embarrassed to tell people what he had done, like the manager at Goodwill, who recognized Abraham from when he used to come in as a boy. But he would feel better afterward, as if confessing was helping him grow some stub of a new self.

It was a daily struggle. “I wake up and look in the mirror and I just think, ‘Who are you?’” Abraham said.

He wanted badly to visit the mosque, to say hello and thank the people there. Dr. Nassri had asked the prosecutor to allow Abraham to come, but was told no. Mr. Bensalah suggested meeting Abraham in a cafe, but the public defender advised against it.

After he got out of jail, Abraham posted a note on Facebook.

“Well, I’m home now,” he wrote. “I just want to say thank you to all those who have been supporting me and a big thanks to the guys at the mosque who have been supportive and helpful and I pray blessings over them.”

The next day, he saw a response from Wasim, Hisham’s son.

“Bro move on with life we forgave you from the first time you apologized don’t let that mistake bring you down,” he had written. And then, Abraham’s favorite line: “I speak for the whole Muslim community of fort smith we love you and want you to be the best example in life we don’t hold grudges against anybody!”

It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him.

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

 

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