By Bill Parry
Several hundred Astoria residents gathered outside the Fatima Food Mart Thursday with elected officials and civic leaders to stand with its owner Sarker Haque.
The 53-year-old Muslim shopkeeper was beaten Saturday in what the NYPD is now investigating as a possible hate crime.
Haque was alone in his store when a stranger, who was staring at newspaper photo of one of the San Bernardino shooters, punched Haque in the head and said “I kill Muslims” before throwing more punches for 7 to 8 minutes, according to Haque.
A regular customer entered and helped restrain the man as a passerby called 911. Piro Kolvani, a 55-year-old resident of Jacksonville, Fla. was arrested by police and charged with misdemeanor assault but bias charges may be added, according to the NYPD.
“In our neighborhood and our nation, we pride ourselves on our diversity and tolerance,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) told the crowd. “Hateful rhetoric leads to hateful and violent acts that must be denounced and dealt with aggressively.”
Gianaris went on to denounce Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for creating an environment where anti-Muslim incidents are becoming more frequent.
“It’s unfortunate that in our times, we have to stand here in solidarity with the Muslim community because one of our members was viciously attacked,” state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) said. New Yorkers have a long tradition of welcoming immigrants from across the globe, and our Muslim brothers and sisters are no exception. As New Yorkers, we are not going to tolerate hate crimes.”
Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) came to the U.S. as an infant in the 1970s, her parents emigrating from Greece. She was amazed at the number of people that showed up for the rally with little notice, but she was not surprised.
“This community dropped everything on less than 24-hours notice to come and stand with Mr. Haque,” she said. “That tells you all you need to know about this community.”
Many in the crowd said they had heard of the rally on a Facebook page called Love Fatima Food Mart. Less than 48-hours old, the group already has 600 members.
“This crime is the antithesis of what Astoria is all about,” City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) said. “Astoria was built by generations of people who came here to build a better life for their families in peace and safety, we will not tolerate hate crimes.”
When an emotional Sarker Haque stepped up to speak, a middle-aged white woman burst through the crowd and handed him a bouquet of flowers bearing the saying “Love will Overcome.” Choking back tears he spoke of his American dream come true in Astoria.
“This country gave me everything,” he said. “I have five beautiful children, My four girls go to PS 122 right down the street and my son goes to Stuyvesant High School, maybe one day he’ll be a Congressman.”
After describing the attack he thanked police officers from the 114th Precinct who blocked off traffic during the rally. He said while he was beaten he screamed for so long he lost his voice.
At Thursday’s rally he found his voice again.
“I was terrified, I thought I was going to die,” Haque said. “But right now I am very strong and I am not afraid, not after this today. God bless America.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr