Thousands of mourners left their cars as traffic overflowed and walked more than a mile to reach Wednesday's funeral of a 17-year-old Muslim girl whose beating death, blamed by police on road rage, has some in her community fearing for their safety.
STERLING, Va. (AP) — About 5,000 mourners attended Wednesday’s funeral of a Muslim girl whose beating death, blamed by police on a motorist’s road rage, has some people in her community fearing for their safety.
Some wearing Islamic robes, others in street clothes, they left their cars as traffic overflowed and walked more than a mile to reach her mosque.
Nabra Hassanen, 17, was remembered as a shining example of kindness and openness during the services.
“There is nothing like losing a child, especially in the way that we lost Nabra,” said Imam Mohamed Magid, the religious leader of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society. He stood before Hassanen’s closed coffin, covered by a black shroud decorated with quotes from the Quran.
Police said Hassanen was bludgeoned with a baseball bat early Sunday by a motorist who drove up to about 15 Muslim teenagers as they walked or bicycled along a road. Police said the driver became enraged after exchanging words with a boy in the group. A Hassanen family spokesman said the girls in the group were wearing Muslim headscarves and robes.
Magid said he sought to comfort the victim’s mother by telling her that a person who dies in such a manner will enter paradise with no questions asked.
He acknowledged that the slaying has people grieving and fearful, but he praised the many people who turned out “in a fever” to search for the teen before police discovered her body Sunday afternoon.
After the teen’s funeral and burial, Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. spoke with The Associated Press about the community’s concerns.
Roessler said police have “absolutely no evidence” that her killing was motivated by hate, but he acknowledged that many people still strongly feel that it must have been a hate crime. Virginia law defines these, in part, as crimes that try to intimidate or instill fear in people targeted for their race or religion.
“That’s the myth, isn’t it?” the chief said.
He urged anyone with evidence that Hassanen’s killing was motivated by hate to come forward, and “if evidence develops of a hate crime, I promise we will charge to the highest levels.”
Roessler also said police are waiting on the results of forensic tests on Hassanen’s body, which was pulled from a pond on Sunday, in an attempt to determine whether she was sexually assaulted.
“We’re doing a thorough investigation and that’s something of concern to us,” he said.
At her funeral Wednesday, an overflow area itself overflowed with people who came in solidarity. The crowd overwhelmed suburban traffic, and cars jammed into neighborhood streets more than a mile away to park.
Most mourners were Muslim, but Christians and Jews attended as well. The ADAMS Center, one of the largest mosques in the country, has a long history of interfaith outreach and activism, and ADAMS board chair Rizwan Jaka said there has been “just a tremendous outpouring of support” from people of all faiths.
Lamia Sarver of McLean said the tragedy hits home because she has a daughter Nabra’s age. She’s warned her not to attend late-night Ramadan prayers and services with friends, so she won’t be a target.
“‘Pray at home,’ I tell her,” she said.
Others expressed similar sentiments.
“I have two daughters. He has two sisters,” said Zahid Hassan of Fairfax, who attended services with his son Yasin, and choked back tears as he spoke. “It could have been anybody.”
In the evening, a crowd of several thousand gathered at Lake Anne Plaza in Reston for a vigil organized by the Muslim Student Association at Hassanen’s high school.
“Nabra carried herself with pride and confidence. Her gift was to make you laugh about the ordinary things shared through the school day,” said principal Kim Retzer.
Flowers were passed out to the crowd for supporters to hold in place of candles, and many people held up homemade signs. Several read “Justice for Nabra.” One sign carried this message: “Where there are no words…know the silences are carrying the thoughts & prayers of all who love you.”
One member of Nabra’s family, her sister Nour, stepped to the podium to speak during the vigil: “I just want to thank everybody for your love and support, and I just want to say to Nabra, I love you, and I will always miss you.”
Magid noted the diversity of the crowd and expressed gratitude “to see we are part of the larger community to stand against bigotry, stand against hate.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who counted Hassanen among his constituents, was one of many political figures who attended. He said the teen’s death has prompted the entire community to rally and that the Muslim community is not alone in its grief.
Darwin Martinez Torres, 22, is currently being held on a second-degree murder charge. Police said he beat her with a baseball bat early Sunday, drove off with her in his car and assaulted her again — they haven’t said how — before dumping her body in a pond near her home. His public defender’s office has declined to comment.
Lena Masri, national litigation director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement that CAIR is representing Hassanen’s family and “will monitor the development of the investigation to ensure a thorough examination of any possible bias aspects of the case.”
WTOP’s Michelle Basch contributed to this report from Reston and Associated Press reporters Alanna Durkin Richer and Sarah Rankin contributed to this report from Richmond.
Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital reporter and editor in June 2018. He is a writer and photojournalist focusing on politics, political activism and national affairs, with recent multimedia contributions to Reuters, MSNBC and PBS.