A Hateful Attack Led To An Unexpected Forever Friendship

Dec 27, 2019
Originally published on December 27, 2019 6:14 am

In 2015, Asma Jama was dining out with family at an Applebee's restaurant in Coon Rapids, Minn., when she was attacked by another customer. Jama, a Somali American, was wearing a hijab and speaking Swahili when a woman in the next booth demanded she speak English.

The woman, Jodie Burchard-Risch, then hit Jama in the face with a glass beer mug. Burchard-Risch pleaded guilty to felony assault charges, admitted she acted out of bias and served time in jail for assault.

After the trial, the attacker's sister, Dawn Sahr, spoke out against the attack and reached out to Jama online to see if she was OK. Jama and Sahr met for the first time at StoryCorps in Minneapolis, a conversation that aired in 2016.

"They say blood's thicker than water and you stand behind your family no matter what," Sahr told Jama at the time. "Well, you've got to draw the line somewhere, and you're my line."

Because Sahr expressed support for Jama, many of her family members, including her sister, stopped talking to her.

Two months ago, Jama and Sahr sat down for a follow-up interview at StoryCorps to reflect on their friendship. There, Sahr, 53, told Jama, 42, that she is strong.

"I think that's what gave me the strength to do what I did. I believed in supporting you. And everybody I loved and everybody around me wouldn't have anything to do with me," Sahr said.

Three years have passed and some of Sahr's loved ones are reaching back out to her because, she said, "I stood my ground and I gained a lot of respect from my family."

Jama told Sahr that she hopes she and her sister can be in a better place one day. "You never know, with time, she might realize she's on the wrong side of history," Jama said.

Though they're friends, Sahr wondered whether she reminds Jama of the attack.

"No. Sitting down with you actually was very, very good for me. It kind of gave me a positive light to a bad situation," she said. "In the middle of the worst time of my life, you taught me that sometimes humanity is what we need."

Sahr said she sees Jama as a sister. "You are such a big part of my life. I really think I would lose a piece of who I am if I lost you as a friend," she said.

"We're never going to lose each other," Jama told her. "As long as we're alive."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall and Emily Martinez.


StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NOEL KING, HOST:

It's time now for StoryCorps, and as the new year approaches, we have a story about a new start. It begins in 2015. Asma Jama was eating at a restaurant in Coon Rapids, Minn. She was wearing a hijab and talking Swahili with her family. A customer in the next booth demanded that she speak English and then hit Asma in the face with a beer mug. Later, the attacker's sister, Dawn Sahr, reached out to Asma. They met for the first time at StoryCorps, and here's part of their conversation, which we first aired in 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAWN SAHR: Do you feel like you can't speak Swahili in public anymore?

ASMA JAMA: Yes, because I realize I don't belong. I have to prove myself every single day, and - makes me feel like I had to give up a lot of who I was.

SAHR: I'm going to pray that you can eventually become that person you used to be.

JAMA: I will get there. It's going to take me a while. But for you to stand up for somebody you don't know and to say that what she did was unacceptable - that meant the world to me.

SAHR: I will support you in any possible way I can. You know, they say blood's thicker than water, and you stand behind your family no matter what. Well, you got to draw a line somewhere. And you're my line.

JAMA: Thank you.

KING: Asma Jama and Dawn Sahr remained friends, and they recently sat down for another StoryCorps interview.

JAMA: Do you feel like our conversation changed you in any way?

SAHR: Changed me in many, many ways. Asma, what I have learned from you, from day one, was you're strong. And I think that's what gave me the strength to do what I did. I believed in supporting you, and everybody I loved and everybody around me wouldn't have anything to do with me. It took three years, but you know what? They came to me. I stood my ground, and I gained a lot of respect from my family.

JAMA: Eventually, I hope you and your sister Jodie can be in a better place. You never know - with time, she might realize she's on the wrong side of history.

SAHR: Can I ask you something?

JAMA: Yes.

SAHR: Me being in your life - does that keep bad memories for you from that?

JAMA: No. Sitting down with you actually was very, very good for me. It kind of gave me a positive light to a bad situation. When I talk about you, people always tell me, why are you smiling? I don't even know that I'm smiling. It's just because, in the middle of the worst time of my life, you taught me that, sometimes, humanity is what we need.

SAHR: I don't see you just as a friend.

JAMA: Yes.

SAHR: I mean, I see you as a sister. You are such a big part of my life. I really think I would lose a piece of who I am if I lost you as a friend.

JAMA: We're never going to lose each other...

SAHR: No.

JAMA: ...As long as we're alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: That was Dawn Sahr and Asma Jama in St. Paul, Minn. To hear more from them, get the StoryCorps podcast at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.