A girl fled her war-torn homeland, but found more trauma in San Francisco
By Heather Knight
The morning began like most in the Saleh family’s tiny studio six floors above Turk and Hyde streets in the Tenderloin. The four children rose from their mats on the floor as their parents emerged from the closet where they share a small mattress.
Abu Bakr Saleh, the father and sole earner in the family of refugees who fled the war in Yemen, rushed to begin a 16-hour double shift at a grocery store and a KFC. His wife, Sumaya Albadani, began an isolating day of cooking, cleaning and waiting for the others to return.
The kids — Ahmed, 16, Asma, 15, Raghad, 12, and Maya, 10 — rode a rickety elevator down to one of the city’s most distressed blocks, before fanning out to their four schools.
But on Sept. 29, 2021, Raghad didn’t reach hers.
The sixth-grader at Francisco Middle School in North Beach — who had suffered a major trauma the year before, when an immigration fiasco forced her family to leave her with strangers in Egypt — lingered on the 400 block of Larkin Street while Ahmed ran into a shop to do an errand.
Just then, a woman in a wheelchair approached, yelling incoherently and spouting Islamophobic statements about the girl’s hijab, according to the girl and police. Raghad, still learning English, only caught portions of the diatribe, but heard three words very clearly: “Are you scared?”
“After that, she came close to me, and she hit me,” the girl told me a few months later. “She punched me in the head. I felt dizzy after that. I couldn’t believe it.”
Ahmed witnessed the attack and rushed to help. A security guard called 911. Police responded and arrested the woman on suspicion of committing assault, child endangerment and a hate crime. After getting checked out by paramedics, Raghad spent the day at home.
She hasn’t been the same since, her family said. She spends long hours playing games on her phone and watching YouTube videos. She’s listless. She cries more. She’s still fearful, saying she’s seen the woman several times since the attack despite a protective order to stay away.
The attack was shocking, but only to a degree, in a neighborhood with one of the city’s highest assault rates. And it would ripple outward: In November, the episode would become one focus of a letter that Tenderloin families delivered to Mayor London Breed, pleading for help.
“We are immigrants and refugees. We are children and mothers and fathers,” began the letter, penned by staff at the Tenderloin Community Benefit District and signed by 400 neighbors. “We are the Tenderloin, and you have failed us.”
The Salehs had one wish: to escape their $2,050-a-month studio for a bigger apartment in a safer neighborhood. More broadly, they sought the American dream in a city that proclaims itself a refuge.