I SEE U, Episode 100: Victoria, Texas—A Town Like Yours

Our special 100th episode of I SEE U offers fresh insights into questions raised about identity and community solidarity around the country in a powerful conversation with the filmmaker and participants of the PBS docu-series, A Town Called Victoria.


(Pictured from Left to Right: A Town Called Victoria PBS flyer, Center: Members of the Victoria Islamic Center (from left to right) – Abe Ajrami, Dr. Shahid Hashmi and Omar Rachid, Right Image- Community Members of Victoria, TX (From Back left to Right then front) – Lanell Rachid, Abe Ajrami, Heidi Ajrami, Omar Rachid, Dr. Shahid Hashmi and Rakshi Hashmi.)
Photos by Samir Chiali


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In January of 2017, a mosque in Victoria, Texas was set on fire just hours after then-President Donald Trump signed a controversial executive order restricting migration from Muslim-majority countries. Victoria law enforcement officials and conservative town administrators were quick to praise local Muslim leadership for not jumping to conclusions that this fire was intentional. How can this "praise" be interpreted? Some might argue and see it as community leaders being passive or docile to avoid fueling a political firestorm. But after six years of reflection and the release of a documentary that explores the burning of the Victoria Islamic Center, the arsonist and the aftermath from the incident—what will it take for a quiet religious community to survive a hate crime? Join us as host Eddie Robinson speaks candidly with award-winning filmmaker, Li Lu—director of the PBS docu-series, A Town Called Victoria. In this 100th I SEE U episode recorded live in front of a sold-out studio audience at the historic DeLUXE Theater in Houston's 5th Ward, Eddie leads a provocative panel conversation with Lu, along with Muslim American community members of Victoria and Houston as they reveal unguarded perspectives about their experiences in the years after the blaze. Can collective healing and restorative justice ever exist in this divisive town? I SEE U panelists include producer/director, Li Lu; Victoria Islamic Center members: Abe and Heidi Ajrami, Dr. Shahid Hashmi, Omar and Lanell Rachid; along with Houston-area filmmaker, Fatima Hye.


Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Eddie Robinson: When former president Donald Trump signed an executive order to ban travel from predominantly Muslim countries, a Victoria, Texas mosque is burned to the ground just hours later.

[00:00:14] Abe Ajrami: If Muslims here cannot peacefully come to their mosque and pray, what kind of freedom we have? Six years later, the PBS documentary, A Town Called Victoria, explores how a quiet South Texas community must reckon with what drove a man to such hate.

[00:00:29] Lanell Mantey Rachid: It’s been a tough road to continuously see racism as a predominant issue.

[00:00:36] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson, and stay tuned for a provocative unguarded with the film’s director, Li Lu. And several members from the Victoria Islamic Center who were featured in the film. Oh yeah, I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.

[00:01:06] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. We’re coming to you from the historic DeLUXE Theater in Houston’s Fifth Ward. We’re here to host a special panel event. And conversation of the PBS docuseries, A Town Called Victoria. Members of our audience here have just seen an exclusive screening of the very first episode of the docuseries.

[00:01:34] Eddie Robinson: But for our I SEE U audience, we’re here to set the scene for you. In January of 2017, a mosque was burned.

[00:01:45] Dr. Shahid Hashmi: At 2 a. m., I got a call from our imam. He was crying. He said, our mosque is on fire.

[00:01:52] Eddie Robinson: It was the only mosque in Victoria, Texas, about two hours southwest of Houston. Members of the Victoria Islamic Center were well known in Victoria. They were active in the community, in politics, in schools. And yet… There were those in Victoria, that did not want them there. anti-Islamic sentiment runs deep in America for decades. Any news from the Middle East inevitably leads to conflating the word terrorist with anyone who’s Muslim.

[00:02:23] Allen Coffey: I already kind of knew how they felt about Islam. Most of ’em were just pretty much of the opinion that it was a demonic cult. There are a lot of Christian people in Victoria that believe that way.

[00:02:37] Eddie Robinson: This PBS docuseries follows the stories of community members in Victoria, Muslim families, as they reckon with this extraordinary incident, the burning of their spiritual oasis.

[00:02:50] Omar Rachid: There was no coincidence that the fire was on the night of the travel ban on Muslims.

[00:03:00] Dr. Shahid Hashmi: When I go to prayer early in the morning, I look around every corner, even in the dark to make sure that somebody is not hiding behind a bush or something.

[00:03:11] Eddie Robinson: After the fire, over 500 Victorians gathered to stage a peace rally and express their support. Within a week, a GoFundMe campaign to rebuild the mosque goes viral and raises more than a million dollars.

[00:03:27] Eddie Robinson: The trial of the arsonist. Shakes the town and deep divides of race and religion continue to challenge everyone.

[00:03:37] Former Mayor William Armnstrong: 90, 000 people living in this county. We’re still a rural area.

[00:03:44] Victoria, TX Community Member: There’s always been racism and it goes way back.

[00:03:46] Victoria, TX Community Member #2: American people were being blown up, shot at, whatever, by Muslims. It’s one of the reasons that Trump got elected. He promised that he would do something about it.

[00:03:59] Eddie Robinson: I SEE U. As we welcome to the show, award-winning director of A Town Called Victoria, Li Lu.

[00:04:06] Li Lu: Hello.

[00:04:10] Li Lu: We also welcome to I SEE U community members of the Victoria Islamic Center, spokesperson Abe Ajrami,

[00:04:15] Abe Ajrami: Hi Ya’ll.

[00:04:19] Eddie Robinson: Co founder Dr. Shahid Hashmi,

[00:04:22] Dr. Shahid Hashmi: Hello everybody.

[00:04:23] Eddie Robinson: Omar and Lanell Rachid, former community members

[00:04:28] Omar Rachid: Hello.

[00:04:28] Eddie Robinson: of Victoria and featured in the documentary. And Abe’s wife, a South Texas native and English professor at Victoria College, Heidi Ajrami.

[00:04:36] Heidi Ajrami: Hello.

[00:04:38] Eddie Robinson: Later in the panel, we’ll have with us Fatima Hye. Though she’s not featured in the documentary, Bangladeshi American Filmmaker, she’s here with us.

[00:04:47] Eddie Robinson: She teaches film at Houston Community College. Give it up for Fatima, please.

[00:04:55] Eddie Robinson: Alright, let’s get things started here. Li. You’re up first. How did you get involved with the Muslim community in Victoria? I mean, what was it about the town of Victoria that drew you in?

[00:05:06] Li Lu: So, I, after growing up in Sugar Land, I went to school at USC, uh, out in California, and I majored in film, and I’d been living there ever since that time, and when the news of the fire in Victoria broke, I was in my living room watching it live like anyone else, And the timeline between the travel ban and everything, it would just felt so disheartening and tragic.

[00:05:32] Li Lu: And then I started to look on my Facebook feed and so many of my former classmates from my high school were posting about the fire. And lo and behold, Many people had deep connections to this community in Victoria. So I just began to feel like this was happening our collective backyard in a way. But then the next day when you saw the rally and all these people gathering to tell the community that they were standing in solidarity with them in that moment.

[00:06:00] Li Lu: That to me really showed. What I missed so much about Texas and what I’ve missed so much about small communities in general, that sense of connectivity and neighborly love, southern hospitality that frankly, in Los Angeles, honestly, you don’t really find, you don’t really feel as deep as you do in these parts, but at the same time, it was that incredible sense of warmth coupled with a hate crime in front of you.

[00:06:24] Li Lu: So that range of expression, that range of reality was something that I knew was really. Quite striking, interesting to explore.

[00:06:36] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson, and you’re listening to a special edition of I SEE U. Dr. Hashmi, you ended up in Victoria. Uh, you actually founded the Victoria Islamic Center, correct?

[00:06:49] Dr. Shahid Hashmi: Yes, uh, my family was the number second family of Muslims in that town. There was another physician. And when we moved there, we started praying at each other’s house. We got excellent support from the schools. My children were in the Christian schools and they allowed us to go ahead and teach them our faith in place of them going to church. And gradually a few more families came over.

[00:07:22] Dr. Shahid Hashmi: So by that time, we had a small house that we had started using as, as a temporary mosque with future plans, maybe we can build one. So, we started to dream about building our own mosque. I designed some of the original planning. You could say personal touch in it.

[00:07:47] Omar Rachid: We opened it in May of 2000.

[00:07:51] Eddie Robinson: And Abe You’re the spokesperson for the center. I mean, how did you get involved in, you know, what led you to be a part of the Victoria Islamic Center?

[00:07:59] Abe Ajrami: Actually, um… I was not the spokesperson, I was the money person.

[00:08:04] Eddie Robinson: You were the money person.

[00:08:05] Abe Ajrami: I was the treasurer for the

[00:08:06] Eddie Robinson: So much more important there.

[00:08:06] Abe Ajrami: Victoria Islamic Center. And when the fire started, they needed more people to speak to the media and that’s how I got to be in the front stage.

[00:08:19] Eddie Robinson: And then Omar came in. When did you come into the Islamic Center, Omar?

[00:08:24] Omar Rachid: Well, I became a member of the Islamic Center as soon as I moved to Victoria. In fact, uh, I’d like to acknowledge the children of a good friend of mine, Dr. Muhammad Khalil. His kids are here. They are the first family, uh, Muslim family in Victoria. And I happened to meet Dr. Khalil.

[00:08:43] Eddie Robinson: Wow, that’s great.

[00:08:48] Omar Rachid: Uh, I met their father, Dr. Khalil, um, on the soccer field. And, uh, he invited me to come to the mosque, which was the small house Dr. Hashmi spoke about. And I just, you know, became a member there, kept going to the prayers and made friends and became part of the community.

[00:09:10] Omar Rachid: About four years ago, I actually even ran for mayor here. Unfortunately, I lost. Nonetheless, I had a good run.

[00:09:23] Eddie Robinson: Okay, so we’ve set the stage here. Now, here comes Li Lu. With a camera, a team of all kinds of people coming into Victoria, Texas, did you find it intimidating? They’re all in your face. You know, the notion of, you know, you telling your stories, your narratives. How did that feel?

[00:09:41] Abe Ajrami: It was annoying. Sorry. I was probably her hardest client because initially, you know, the fire is on, you’re excited to tell your story. The next week there is, you know, people come in the third week, you’re building. After a while, it’s like, Li, come on, I need to pray. You know, it’s hard to focus, and you’re like, and there’s cameras flashing next to you, and you’re like, oh God, I’m really trying, but she’s really, you know.

[00:10:15] Abe Ajrami: But, and I, I was, I apologize, I’m giving you a public apology here. It was the hardest one. She would call and text, and I was like, God. It’s one of those that if you talk to any trauma, They’ll tell you, once you pass that stage, you try to just forget about it.

[00:10:33] Eddie Robinson: Dr. Hashmi?

[00:10:34] Dr. Shahid Hashmi: Yes. For me, of course, I didn’t act like Abed did. I was welcoming her. In my opinion, she was a godsend. She really came with the open heart of an open thinking about what the tragedy we’ve been through but also she was there during our potluck dinners taking pictures of us eating and doing all those things which kind of way I said, are you really going to film all that?

[00:11:10] Dr. Shahid Hashmi: But then after a whole year of accompanying her with all these thoughts and pictures and all that You know, it took six years for me to kind of put that incident or that tragedy behind. We had already built a new mosque and we’re setting down. But then rekindle that tragedy back in our mind.

[00:11:36] Eddie Robinson: Omar?

[00:11:37] Omar Rachid: One of the things you do when you do a documentary, you basically, you really have to give yourself up. And I think kudos to Li that she was able to build that trust relationship to where you can actually let go and let your guards down. Because there are some vulnerable moments and some personal moments, and she captured all that.

[00:12:03] Omar Rachid: You know, it’s kind of like giving you, the Muslim community, an eviction notice. You don’t know what they are capable of doing. What is next for them?

[00:12:25] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we continue our chat. with community leaders from Victoria, Texas, with the PBS docuseries, A Town Called Victoria, as our centerpiece. While Muslims are relatively new arrivals to this area, there’s a long history of racism and segregation. Some quick context here. Mexican Americans have always been the majority, but have long been segregated to the south side of town with little to no representation.

[00:12:51] Eddie Robinson: The arsonist who intentionally set fire to the Victoria Islamic Center was Latino, while he espoused white supremacist beliefs. So are Victorians the past after this hate crime incident? Or are racist beliefs getting more entrenched? I’m Eddie Robinson. I SEE U. Returns in just a moment.

[00:13:32] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I see you with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

[00:13:50] Eddie Robinson: This is I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. Our special edition continues as we’re featuring a panel discussion recorded live in front of a sold out studio audience at the historic DeLUXE Theater in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Our backdrop is a PBS docuseries directed by Li Lu entitled A Town Called Victoria. Li has been a part of our panel and we’ve also been chatting with Muslim community members from Victoria, Texas, who, despite being seemingly integrated into this conservative Christian town, they’ve found themselves living in fear after their mosque, their own local space of worship was burned to the ground by an arsonist in 2017. One community member said, We realized how openly we were practicing Islam, and just how dangerous that really was. Two of the Muslim leaders in Victoria, who were featured in the film and part of our I SEE U panel, Married white women who grew up in South Texas as lifelong locals.

[00:15:08] Eddie Robinson: What’s been their perspective on what’s happened in the last few years, especially when you hear statements like these from Victoria County, Justice of the Peace.

[00:15:19] Justice of the Peace Bob Whitaker: One thing about Victoria that is very nice about our community. We have not suffered through the, the real hard race relation problems that other areas have had. Victoria’s been fortunate that we’ve been able to escape that.

[00:15:39] Eddie Robinson: Would you all agree with that, Heidi? Lanell? I’d love to get your thoughts on that question.

[00:15:45] Lanell Mantey Rachid: Yeah, that’s my favorite part in the movie because it’s such a lie. Um, I grew up in Victoria. I’m born and raised in Victoria. I went to what they call the South Side School, where I was the minority.

[00:16:00] Lanell Mantey Rachid: Pretty much everyone there was either Hispanic or Black. It was really hard because I grew up in a household where it was not okay to have a friend of a different race. So, I was kind of a sneaky kid. I can remember many times when I would tell my mom I’m having a party, and I would invite all my friends of different colors, and she would, they’d come to the house and she’d be like, why are they here?

[00:16:30] Lanell Mantey Rachid: And it was so hard for me to understand, why can you not? see that they are people just like us. So it took me a long time to really grasp that concept because I didn’t see them as different. Although it was pretty much ingrained in our household that that was not okay. And then as I grew up, I think I see Victoria sort of change a little bit.

[00:16:55] Lanell Mantey Rachid: You know, you start seeing people marry of different races and such, but I had no idea about the Muslim community. I really, you know, only knew from what I’d seen on TV, which is obviously not a good source. And it’s sad because even today, I feel like the community still struggles with this whole issue and it’s really shouldn’t be an issue anymore.

[00:17:20] Lanell Mantey Rachid: But yeah, it’s been, it’s been a tough road to continuously see racism as a predominant issue. Although I, I hate that to say that, but it is what it is.

[00:17:35] Heidi Ajrami: It’s Heidi here. I think Abbott and I, or Abe and I, are actually the newest members of Victoria that are on the stage because we came in 99. And I do think there are still some racial issues there.

[00:17:47] Heidi Ajrami: I think you can see it getting better with some of the younger people. You know, our children are brown. And they consider themselves, that’s how they identify that they’re brown. And if they have friends, you ask about their friends, and they’ll say, Oh, they’re brown like me, or they’re white, or they’re Black, or whatever.

[00:18:03] Heidi Ajrami: And they use it as an identifier. It’s not any kind of racial disparity or difference or less of anything. And I see in some ways where Victoria is getting better with that, and I see in other ways where there’s a lot of work to be done. I think, unfortunately, with our last president, some of those fissures became more apparent and more public.

[00:18:22] Heidi Ajrami: Um, I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or a good thing for it to be out in the open, but I do think that younger people are less concerned with some of these things than they maybe their parents are or that they’ve been in households where they have those attitudes. Um, we see them crossing racial lines and ethnic lines and They just view each other as people.

[00:18:49] Eddie Robinson: You know, when we think of tragedies that happen, you know, historically black churches have been burned down in several cities across the South as an act of hate. During the documentary, Li, you spoke with Pastor Fred Hobbs. An African American senior pastor over at Mount Nebo Baptist Church in Victoria.

[00:19:07] Pastor Fred Hobbs: The incident, um, of the mosque hurt me. Then to hear the president put a ban on Muslims, and we knew that was coming from the campaign. To segregate one group, um, is wrong.

[00:19:28] Eddie Robinson: Shout out to Pastor Hobbs. He knows my, uh, aunt and Her three children, very well, they stayed in Victoria and were very active members of Mount Nebo. How you doing, Pastor Hobbs? Well, was there ever a discussion, Li, about the connection between what black churches have experienced versus watching the Islamic Center burning?

[00:19:51] Li Lu: Um, I don’t think there was a direct corollary, but I think what Pastor Hobbs really saw in the incident is I think he really saw this mosque arson as the latest point in a timeline of racial violence in Victoria because he brings upon that historical context with not only you know, his congregation, but his father was pastor before him.

[00:20:13] Li Lu: So hearing stories from his father, from his family about what that time was from before as well. And you know, the thing is about him and his participation. We always hear about just little tiny, small things like microaggressions or big things. He was rebuilding his church, the Mount Nebo congregation to actually up safety concerns that they also had themselves. So we’re often found in these kind of situations where we have to sort of build around something, build around a threat, build around a primary kind of fear just so that we can survive. And I think he really saw that in this, uh, in this incident.

[00:20:56] Eddie Robinson: We know the arsonist was Latino. Li, you had access to his parents and had an incredible interview, had a series of incredible interviews with them.

[00:21:08] Li Lu: I knew that there was a family that was also suffering and asking questions and searching for those answers. And because Victoria is a small town, through a connection within our crew, We were able to find an access point to, to the family.

[00:21:25] Li Lu: Um, and I think the point where, which we met them, and most of the footage you see in the show, across the episodes, was at a point when these parents were trying to figure out what really happened. And trying their best to be good parents in a situation that I don’t think any parent wants to be in.

[00:21:46] Eddie Robinson: Did you ever get the impression that the suspect’s parents were in denial about their son’s character? Or did they simply not know that this side of their son ever existed?

[00:21:58] Li Lu: I mean, I think you could see in the film and judge for yourself. Um, but I also think, what would you do in that position? You know, if you are the parent in this situation, can you come to terms with your own self if your son or daughter did something like this?

[00:22:15] Li Lu: And I think that’s what I think the series is trying to portray is, you know, two people just doing their best like anyone else could in these situations.

[00:22:24] Eddie Robinson: Uh, Dr. Hashmi, at one point in the documentary, you said, Muslims are actually conservatives. But do conservatives… See you as one of them?

[00:22:37] Dr. Shahid Hashmi: No, not really. Uh, you know, when I started my practice, yes, there were some people, when they saw my face, as a physician who was going to treat them, refused me to take care of them. And of course, I’ve been through You know, a lot of this experience in the sense of, because being a foreign graduate, a immigrant, I had to prove myself.

[00:23:11] Dr. Shahid Hashmi: If everybody was doing 100%, I had to do 125 percent in order to, to gain that respect. But once I established my practice, and thank God, you know, God has been good to me. Once my name was out there, all that kind of subsided. That didn’t happen. But with this event, we got more support because we were all involved in the community.

[00:23:42] Dr. Shahid Hashmi: Me and our Imam, I think, and I think the result of all our efforts combined as Islamic center people of our Muslims there resulted in that next day support and the international support was, of course, Just a blessing from God, but from this fellow, I was surprised really to see him as a Latino being the one arsonist, and I don’t really agree that that night of Uh, just prior to that, uh, President Trump calling of this or restricting this, uh, immigration or, or travel, because this has been brewing in for a long time.

[00:24:38] President Donald Trump: I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America, we don’t want them here.

[00:24:48] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson, bringing you a special edition of I SEE U from the DeLUXE Theater in Houston’s 5th Ward. I SEE U is hosting a special documentary screening and panel discussion to dig deep into the aftermath of a hate crime in Victoria, Texas, the burning of a mosque in 2017.

[00:25:11] Eddie Robinson: Abe, you know, there was much talk from city officials saying moments after that mosque fire, uh, that, you know, we can’t say that this was a hate crime and, you know, yet the media was blamed for making claims that since this incident happened just after former President Trump’s Muslim travel ban, there were a number of community members really upset about folks jumping to conclusions.

[00:25:32] Eddie Robinson: So Abe, I’m really interested in wanting to get your thoughts on this with Police Chief Jeffrey Craig commending the Muslim community leadership for not saying that this was not a hate crime. Some might argue and see this as praise for being docile or passive. You know, there’s an energy to be addressed where those who are woke or those affiliated with a movement, say the Black Lives Matter movement, when you’re being ostracized for being too noisy in voicing one’s opinion of something or a group of folks who dislike you for being so expressive, you know, I recall as a journalist, Take a look at this story when it happened, you know, that there were a number of folks here in the South who took offense that folks were jumping to conclusions too fast and to think immediately that a mosque fire was done intentionally and not accidentally.

[00:26:30] Eddie Robinson: Was indeed absurd, uh, when the backdrop shows that you have a U. S. president who’s blatantly signing an executive order that shuts out a race of people and a fire erupts that groups of people congregate often. That’s where it’s happening. Did you feel that that was a somewhat sort of passive reaction?

[00:26:50] Omar Rachid: Wishful thinking.

[00:26:51] Eddie Robinson: Yeah,

[00:26:53] Abe Ajrami: I think that’s the best question of the night. So let’s give him.

[00:26:56] Eddie Robinson: Oh.

[00:26:57] Abe Ajrami: I’m serious. I’m serious. And every revolution, even Uh, early in the Civil War with the African American, there’s always two sides. One he says, let’s be logical, let’s do it the slow way, slow change, let’s work with the system.

[00:27:14] Abe Ajrami: And those who are revolutionary that let’s turn things upside down and change it. And back to the first question, because it ties to this wonderful question that you asked. The moment I became a spokesperson is that. We were having a meeting at the city hall, and that was the first press conference, probably the same night with the fire or the second one, and there was a chief police, the mayor, sheriff, a bunch of city officials, and we got hints that city officials and county officials were trying to you minimize the horror of the things or hints about it could be the stove, uh, fire started in the kitchen.

[00:28:05] Abe Ajrami: It could be that. And we understand nobody wants to bring bad publicity to, to their city. That could be a loss of business. That could be bad reputation. So I was pushed and say, You need to stand up and say something. I’m, I can be more assertive and we had a choice to make and we had a conscious choice and all fairness, most of the Muslim communities had the gut feeling that this was an arson.

[00:28:40] Abe Ajrami: This was a hate crime. Don’t we didn’t really have any evidence or not fire experts, but you get that gut feeling. It just it’s not an accident. In fact, and I’m giving going to give a spoiler here. Sorry Li.

[00:28:54] Li Lu: All good.

[00:28:56] Abe Ajrami: When the fire was raising at the Islamic center, we were across the street watching it. I had a feeling that the arsonist was out there watching us.

[00:29:09] Abe Ajrami: And that’s actually what was happening. And I didn’t want him to have the joy of seeing my tears.

[00:29:17] Li Lu: He was watching the fire and all of you while you were standing across the street looking at it.

[00:29:23] Omar Rachid: No way.

[00:29:24] Li Lu: He was there taking photos.

[00:29:27] Omar Rachid: Oh my god. Oh my god. How callous. It was just terrible.

[00:29:48] Omar Rachid: I took the fire really personal. And the reason for that is because, um, at that time, I had been in Victoria 22 years. Wow. And, since the day I set A foot in Victoria, I was active and I would risk to say that probably I was the most active member of the Muslim community in the Victoria community at large, and I took pride in that as being an as ambassador of immigrants as ambassador of the Muslim community.

[00:30:19] Omar Rachid: And when that happened, I took it really hard and I took it very personal. And then the whole incident, uh, or prior to that, even during the Trump campaign, it started to trickle into my work.

[00:30:40] Abe Ajrami: Um, I grew up in Gaza. And that, so that may give you some idea of your, your, your, uh, In, in, in english, they call it, you have a thick skin. In Gaza, we have a similar, or Arabic, we have a similar expression. Those are Arabic. They laugh about it. It means your cheek are used to be slapped. They get really thick. So, that’s one of the things you probably see in the movies, these two criers.

[00:31:16] Abe Ajrami: Often, and it’s a powerful moment. It really, really, it breaks the heart to see that. I get emotional, but this doesn’t happen. Your brain is always working because you’ve been in situations of life. She’s not here. She was doing that massive prayer. I’m like, I have running nose here, you know, but you really, you, you, you, you try to focus on what, what do I need to do?

[00:31:44] Abe Ajrami: Rather than, Oh, my God, this is happening to me. So back to answering the questions. We get that what Dr. Hashmi, what Li said, is that you have to work harder. You have to do, put 200%. And you don’t enjoy the luxury of being the white man. Sorry to say it this way. And let me stop for a second and say, we don’t want to sound like a bunch of criers here.

[00:32:13] Abe Ajrami: Um, immigrants and we’re different color and I have an accent. This is a great country after all. Let’s, let’s give it really a great, you know, we were given a great opportunity. I came with 2, 000 in my pocket. And I established a multimillion dollar business. I sold it. I retired early, retired two years ago.

[00:32:36] Abe Ajrami: So I was given an opportunity that you don’t see in many places of this world. There are a lot of people in the majority and in the minority that extended a welcoming hand to me. So we don’t want to make sound like we’re all, we got all the goodies, but we also were victims. I mean, that’s, that’s one of the things that I always refuse and fight against, beat the system, work harder, study harder. So that being said, you know, like you need to go to airport, I can’t wear a jalabiya. It’s really comfortable to wear a jalabiya. You can’t because everybody’s going to look at you. So you try to dress up nice. I avoid wearing black because that could be perceived something else.

[00:33:18] Abe Ajrami: So you always do something that. Other people don’t even think about it. At some point, you get sick of it. You get tired of doing the extra and you ask yourself, Why the heck should I? You know, you go to two meetings and you have to introduce yourself because they’re going to hear your accent. And you told them your my name is a Abe Ajrami.

[00:33:39] Abe Ajrami: You have a master’s degree in this and think I started the business. I hired thousands, created lots of jobs and this and this so they can hear you. So they can respect what you’re gonna say. So at some point, you get you get your revolt against this whole system. And you say, Why should I? You know, I don’t need to do this.

[00:34:00] Abe Ajrami: I need to be treated like somebody else. I’m sorry if I have my phone here because we are getting updates from Gaza. And I, I, I, I’ve been glued to my phone for the last,

[00:34:15] Eddie Robinson: If, if this is not too intruding.

[00:34:17] Omar Rachid: Let me correct a couple of things. Let me, let me interject a couple of things. Quite frankly, the whole community was in denial this was an arson. People that I have known for a long time, they were very suspicious of us. I had one person basically say that, Is it possible that the fire was set so y’all can collect insurance? And when I told him, I said, we don’t even have insurance on the, on the mosque. So then he said, Oh, so is it possible? Because I know you have members that are smokers and they maybe stand outside and left some cigarette burning.

[00:34:49] Omar Rachid: So there were, there were a lot of denials that they didn’t want to accept the fact that this was, this could be a hate crime.

[00:35:01] Abe Ajrami: You know, one of the things that, that hits you is that, Wow, you know, this mosque in Victoria will get burned. 400, 500 people showed up in two weeks or a week. They had a million dollars. Why is that so strange? Shouldn’t be that ideal, normal world that if you see a mosque burned, you go pray with them?

[00:35:24] Abe Ajrami: That if, if they, they don’t have insurance, you give them 5, 10 dollars? Well, if you don’t, you’re an astro fan. You know, I mean, let me put it this way. But seriously, isn’t it? We got to a point where a small kind, small act of kindness is like what goes viral. You really, I mean, that’s, that’s, that’s how sad the situation is.

[00:35:47] Abe Ajrami: But you know, you know, that’s what the ex mayor said. Change goes slowly. It’s one grave at the time. And I can tell you as a Palestinian is happening now. It’s one grave, one child getting killed. At the time, it’s unfortunate, but that’s what it takes to make a change sometimes.

[00:36:04] Former Mayor William Armnstrong: This is South Texas. Progress is made one funeral at a time. It’s not wrong. It’s not right. It’s just the way it is.

[00:36:19] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we wrap up our special edition of I SEE U as we continue to explore the PBS documentary, A Town Called Victoria. How does this South Texas community move forward and rebuild? Is there a way forward after the veil has been lifted on the hate that’s been lurking in the shadows? And what lessons have these religious leaders learned?

[00:36:40] Eddie Robinson: Be sure to follow us on social media. We’re at I SEE U show on Facebook, Instagram, and X. You can find photos and videos of our interviews and more. Follow us and join in on the conversation. I’m Eddie Robinson. I SEE U. Our final segment comes your way. Right after these messages.

[00:37:15] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I see you with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

[00:37:39] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. We’ve been chatting with Muslim community members from Victoria, Texas, who are all featured in a documentary on PBS entitled, A Town Called Victoria. This three part docu series throws a quiet South Texas town into the national spotlight when a local mosque erupts in flames.

[00:38:03] Eddie Robinson: Be sure to check your local listings for when this program airs in your area. The film’s director, Li Lu, is also a part of our I SEE U panel. In many ways, the burning of this mosque reflected the political discourse dominating our country in 2017, as then President Donald Trump vilified refugees and immigrants.

[00:38:25] Eddie Robinson: You know, this sounds a bit familiar, you know, think back to the start of this century, 9 2003 Iraq war. Fear and false beliefs helped garner public support for a war in Iraq. Bangladeshi American filmmaker Fatima Hye grew up in Houston during those years of war in the Middle East.

[00:38:48] Eddie Robinson: Fatima, you weren’t featured in the documentary, but you have been involved in the Houston Muslim community. How did the events in this documentary resonate with you?

[00:39:00] Fatima Hye: Growing up here, uh, you know, I was one of those Iraq war kids. And so I just remember being in high school and You know, just the amount of hatred people had at the time, like, I know people see me and they think I’ve always worn hijab or something, but I, I didn’t, you know, when I was younger, I just looked like everyone else.

[00:39:20] Fatima Hye: We were all trying to fit in and, you know, people didn’t even say that they were Muslim at the time. It’s weird. These, these situations are very trying because I think it kind of forces you to reckon with who you are, your identity, where you came from and, and what you’re doing. So in an ironic way, way. I think that it just got me to look more closely at what I believed in personally and what I wanted to do with my life.

[00:39:46] Fatima Hye: So it resonated, of course, in that sense where it’s a community. So I like the exploration of, you know, this incident brought out all the different areas and aspects of what everybody thinks and feels. So you got to see the positive community come together. That wouldn’t have even happened. You know, people would just be quiet and sitting in their houses and say, well, those are Muslims and we don’t really have anything to do with them.

[00:40:10] Fatima Hye: Even after 9/11, as horrendous as that incident was, there was a lot of, you know, learning about Islam, ironically, even now with, you know, the terrible things happening in the world. I think it’s just, it’s an opportunity for people to do research. They’re going to Google things and be like, well, what is happening and try to learn more.

[00:40:30] Eddie Robinson: Yeah. Li Lu?

[00:40:32] Li Lu: There was, there’s always this inner turmoil and struggle and anxiety that happens when these things occur, and those things are silent. And often there’s just some stuff you can’t heal from. I mean, I think what the series does show is that even though, you know, from the outset, there’s this positive story, right?

[00:40:53] Li Lu: There’s the fire, they got their money, they got the support, cameras go away, they’re fine. What I think from me staying and annoying you for, for all those years is I felt like the remnants of this incident very much are still reverberating in this community, that the scars are deep and internal.

[00:41:12] Eddie Robinson: Yeah, this is a question that we always ask our guests. And we’re going to ask Omar, Dr. Hashmi, Abe, and then Li, you’re going to be the last to answer this question. But first, Omar, what life lessons have you learned about yourself? Thus far.

[00:41:31] Omar Rachid: Oh. Um, I learned that you have an obligation to do good. No matter where you are. Yeah, there will be adversity. There will be some people that make hateful comments and, but you gotta, you know, my mom used to tell me, you don’t weld Velcro, so you need to just, nothing sticks, so let it go.

[00:41:54] Omar Rachid: And I think over the years, that’s what I have learned about myself, is that I am able to, to jump and help where help is needed.

[00:42:04] Eddie Robinson: Dr. Hashmi, you’re a spiritual elder here. We would love to hear your thoughts.

[00:42:09] Dr. Shahid Hashmi: No, I’m not the spiritual part. I’m an elder, but not the spiritual. Uh, with this event, really, it goes back to I did my best. We, uh, started our family there and, and by God’s blessings, we have been good and, and people have accepted me in the best way that they can. There are going to be some who are not going to be happy with the, with, with you, no matter what you do. So leave it up to God and take care of things with the best way you can.

[00:42:52] Eddie Robinson: Abe.

[00:42:54] Abe Ajrami: So one of the things I thought about is, and I have to credit Mayor Rawley McCoy, who is the architect of the new mosque. He became a mayor and he passed away three years ago. The term is called the human family. And often I try to incorporate that term into my own life. And I challenged one time a friend of mine, a banker.

[00:43:20] Abe Ajrami: We were sitting for lunch and he was griping about the immigrants and yes, for the wall and whatever, whatever. And he tried to role play with him and I say, okay, if you lived across the border, and your daughter has a sickness, and the medicine is not available in Mexico, but dang, five miles down the road, you can save her life.

[00:43:45] Abe Ajrami: Crawled through that tunnel, swam through that river, climbed that wall, and your daughter would be alive. Would you do it? He said, hell yes. So that’s why Li and I talked about this. This could be a town called Houston, a town called Little Rock, Arkansas. It could be a little town called Gaza. Because it does talk about that human emotions, the race relations and so on.

[00:44:11] Abe Ajrami: And often we have to ask ourselves, we do the same issue. I mean, we can’t just sit here and point fingers at the other side when we are also at fault of it. We define ourselves with certain labels. I’m Palestinian American, I’m Muslim. And others is Jewish and this one is, is white and this one, but that gets to be too much sometimes.

[00:44:41] Abe Ajrami: I mean, as far as I know, I was born as a Palestinian refugee. So I want, you bet I want Palestine to be liberated and stuff. But I’ll sometimes think, gosh, and I could have been born on the other side. I could have been in Tel Aviv and I could be a Jewish. I could be the one carrying the rifle and shooting at these kids.

[00:44:58] Abe Ajrami: So that role play, and even your faith. Though you could have been born to Christian parents and you’d end up being Catholic or Baptist or whatever. You could be anything. We didn’t choose these things. You did not choose the color of your skin. So what are you fighting about? You didn’t choose your faith, most of us.

[00:45:19] Abe Ajrami: You didn’t choose the country where you were born. But these are the main diviners when you think about it. I mean, because national identity, it’s color, it’s faith. These are the ones that most of the wars are about. So that’s the message. That’s what really that I took out of this is to expand, to kind of demolish my own labels and accept the other side, be more accepting and reach out to those so many things that bring us together.

[00:45:51] Abe Ajrami: And I want to credit back to, I think, I just… I saw Mrs. Poor earlier here. Yeah, there she is. My daughter Janine was spending the night, when she was little, she spent the night with Thea, her daughter. And kids are awesome. Kids are the best thing. They don’t have any colors there, whatever. So they were talking and they were like, so what do you, what do you do at the mosque?

[00:46:09] Abe Ajrami: And what’s Muslim? And what’s Allah? And what? And, and the mother heard that and she thought, you know, the kids are asking what’s Muslim and what’s this? So she took upon herself, you know, what are we going to arrange? For visitation, for all, you know, kids and adults to visit the mosque and visit the church and visit the synagogue so we can learn from each other.

[00:46:30] Abe Ajrami: This is really a very trial and very tough time. And silence is not being neutral. Silence is being partner to crimes. Your conscience will ask you or God will ask you if you believe in the day of judgment of what did you do? We always wonder what, you know, Holocaust, how did the world allow six million Jews to be, to be burned?

[00:46:56] Abe Ajrami: What were you doing? Why didn’t people speak up? It’s happening now. You watch it on TV, you see it streaming on your phone. Do something about it. Hospitals are collapsing in Gaza. There are thousands of children that are dead. There are some under the rubble screaming. Some have cell phones calling, saying we’re alive, but nobody can get to them, no equipment.

[00:47:18] Abe Ajrami: Nobody can get there. We’re talking about whole blocks. Whole families are dead. I have three cousins with their families died. One, 14 Ajrami family, another family is six, another family is six. Can you imagine one of the six families? It’s the, the cousin, his mother, his wife, his three children. And these are not numbers.

[00:47:41] Abe Ajrami: These are people. Let’s not just be all keyboard heroes, call, donate, speak up, join a demonstration, whatever it takes, but let’s stop it. This is not about politics now. This is about saving human lives, and we have the power to do something about it. So please do. Thank you.

[00:48:13] Eddie Robinson: Last and final word. What lessons in life that you’ve learned about yourself thus far?

[00:48:20] Li Lu: You know, the person that has been the biggest influence to the way that I walk on this earth, the people are my family, and I want to uplift my grandfather, my mother’s father. He was a professor. He was a community leader, much like everyone here on the stage.

[00:48:45] Li Lu: And he was a person who always helped. No matter who asked him, no matter what the situation was, no matter how incredibly last minute, hard, he always said yes.

[00:49:05] Li Lu: Two days before I was supposed to film with all of you, he died. And I had a moment where I didn’t know if I was going to actually proceed with this project. Because I didn’t know if I could handle it. And I sat with myself and I thought, what would he tell me to do? And it became so clear that he would have wanted me to go on to Victoria to begin this project because he would have helped.

[00:49:43] Li Lu: He would have gone to shed light and justice to an injustice that had happened. And so that’s what I did. And so I want to honor his memory. By telling his story, but also honoring the lessons that he taught me about how to be a person in this world, which is with compassion, bravery, and curiosity as well.

[00:50:12] Li Lu: If you don’t understand something that’s in front of you, but I also have to express incredible gratitude to all of you and to this community. I am an outsider. I am a stranger and all of you have welcomed me to not only be a part of your lives, but to tell your story in such a public way. And there’s not one minute that goes by where I have not felt intense gratitude and just joy that all of you are in my life and the life of all of our crew members.

[00:50:45] Li Lu: So, thank you.

[00:50:57] Eddie Robinson: Wow. As we wrap up this conversation here, I’d like to thank each and every one of you on this stage. Thank you so much for being vulnerable. Thank you for being authentic. And thank you for being guests on I SEE U.

[00:51:17] Eddie Robinson: We’d also like to thank Spokesperson Abe Ajrami, Co Founder Dr. Shahid Hashmi, Omar and Lanell Rachid, also Abe’s wife Heidi Ajrami, Fatima

[00:51:35] Eddie Robinson: Hye, also here with us.

[00:51:40] Eddie Robinson: Our incredible team includes Technical Director Todd Hulslander. Producers Laura Walker and Mincho Jacob. Special thanks this week to the Southwest Alternate Media Project, Reel South, and the staff at the DeLUXE Theater in Houston’s 5th Ward. I SEE U is a production of Houston Public Media.

[00:52:04] Eddie Robinson: Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and X. We’re at I See You Show. Subscribe to our podcast, wherever you listen and download your favorite shows. I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson. And I I SEE U hear you, I see you. Thanks so much for listening until next time.


This article is part of the podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson

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Eddie Robinson

Eddie Robinson

Executive Producer & Host, I SEE U

A native of Mississippi, Eddie started his radio career as a 10th grader, working as a music jock for a 100,000-Watt (Pop) FM station and a Country AM station simultaneously. While Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus had nominated him for the U.S. Naval Academy in 1991, Eddie had an extreme passion...

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