For Afghan-Americans, attack elicits horror, sorrow

Published 9:45 am Wednesday, June 15, 2016

FREMONT, Calif. — In this Northern California city where people can buy prayer flags at the dollar store, fresh-baked Afghan bread at corner markets and feast on beef kabobs in “little Kabul’s” many restaurants, Afghan-Americans are angry.

Fremont, about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco, is a bedroom city of 220,000 people with a thriving waterpark, leafy streets and a public lake. It is also home to the largest population of Afghan-Americans in the country.

With news that an attack on an Orlando, Florida, gay nightclub left 49 people dead and gunman Omar Mateen was born to Afghan immigrant parents, those in the community are expressing horror, sorrow and disbelief that one of their own could commit the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

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“Every single Afghan feels really horrible because so many innocent people were killed by a mad guy,” said Waheed Momand, president of the Afghan Coalition, the largest nonprofit advocating for Afghan people in the U.S.

It was a tragedy that brought Momand back 15 years, when the community realized the Sept. 11 terror attacks were orchestrated by al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

In last weekend’s shooting, Mateen’s motivations were not yet clear. Despite pledging support to the Islamic State group in a 911 call during the attack, other possible explanations could be mental illness and shame about his own sexuality, a divisive subject among a Muslim community that often shuns gays.

“What motivated him doesn’t matter — it’s wrong and it’s very close to our hearts. We feel sorry for the victims, and we feel sorry for the pain of their families and their loved ones. The fact that this guy was from Afghan origin makes it even worse for us,” Momand said.

Federal authorities are investigating whether Mateen regularly went to the nightclub he attacked and had used gay dating apps.

Bilal Miskeenyar, a 29-year-old musician from Fremont, believes the shooter was motivated by hatred, saying it’s anathema to Muslim and Afghan views.

“Whether it was anti-homosexual or not, my religion, my people and my culture does not believe in such things,” he said. “I think it was hateful, and I think it was a very hideous crime, and I think people should not judge (Afghan people) because of one bad apple.”

From the markets with handmade meat kabobs to the stores stocked with traditional Afghan candies and nuts, some Afghan-Americans in Fremont say they don’t believe there will be a backlash against their community because of Mateen’s actions.

“I have American customers, Mexican customers, Chinese customers, and everybody likes me,” said Sardar Ghuss, a clerk at the Little Kabul Market. “I don’t have any problems. We all work together.”

But at the Maiwand Market, where fresh bread comes out of the oven throughout the day, Mojgan Mohammad Parwes said she felt some fear Monday.

“I was a little hesitant coming here today,” said the 36-year-old mother of three who wears a hijab. “People are angry, and it’s understandable.”

What’s more, those in her community are heartbroken, she said.

“They’re very distraught,” Parwes said. “Emotionally, they are not doing well.”

Behind the market’s counter Monday, it was business as usual for Kais Karimi, a 33-year-old clerk at his family’s business. But his emotions were running high.