Categorized | Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime

On Webster Avenue, Aftermath of an Attack

by Amanda Staab


Dembo Fofana was beaten on his way to pray last June. Photo by Amanda Staab

A Muslim-American baker was knocked to the ground and brutally beaten by a group of young men as he made his way to a South Bronx mosque to pray before sunrise last June. Three other worshippers heading to Al Tawba Mosque who came to his defense also suffered blows.

“Even in our own country, nobody does that to anybody, and this is America,” said Dembo Fofana, 47, who emigrated from Gambia more than two decades ago. He referred to America as “freedom country.”

Since the attack, several more members of the Muslim community in Morrisania have come forward to police with claims that they, too, have been targeted in the past because they are Muslims.

“They see we pray here,” said Modi Touray, a Gambian immigrant at the mosque. “They know we’re Muslims.”

But police said they are not yet certain that anti-Muslim fervor was the reason for the attacks.

Soon after the June violence, the local precinct set up a mobile unit for 24-hour surveillance directly across the street from the mosque.

Three months after what has been deemed the most violent incident yet, there have been no more attacks on members of the Muslim community on Webster Avenue. Police still have no leads on who is responsible for this past summer’s brutality.

“I was not thinking that something like that would happen to me,” said Fofana, a tall, dark-skinned man with a jovial smile who speaks proudly of his seven kids. “But as a believer, we accept anything that happens to us in our life.”

Moments before the attack, Fofana stepped out of his apartment in the Butler Houses on Webster Avenue.  As he walked over a small patch of grass between the brick projects, he could see the green canopy that stretches over the top of the mosque, where he has been going to pray five times a day for nearly three years.

The mosque, tightly wedged between a meat supplier and a tax service agency, has a clean, beige-and-peach tile facade with only two small windows cut out of the doors that lead to a narrow room filled with shelves of shoes.

Almost there, Fofana passed a group of about 25 young men. No words were exchanged, he said, but he felt a blow from behind. He doesn’t remember what happened next. He did not see the faces of the people who broke his ribs and beat him until his insides bled.

Soon after, officers woke Fofana up at Lincoln Hospital asking whether he could identify his attackers. Neither he nor the other three men who were hospitalized after trying to rescue Fofana recognized the men.

After eight days in the hospital and months not being able to work, Fofana said he is almost fully recovered. He still goes to pray at the mosque, he said, but now he is more careful, looking around as he walks to it.

Fofana, who often wears traditional African attire and a small, knitted Muslim cap, said he had not been bothered until he moved from East Tremont to the Morrisania projects three years ago.

“They don’t like us here,” said Fofana. “That’s the bottom line.” He said he has also overheard people in the neighborhood complain that there are so many Africans around now.

Life back in Gambia was good, said Fofana. He and his brothers used to work a family business, a general store selling clothes and home goods.

“Some parts of Africa have been struggling, but not my country,” said Fofana. “We live free. Nobody attacks anybody. You can pull your money out your pockets. Nobody cares about your money. Nobody attacks you.”

Despite his recent experience in the Bronx, Fofana said he still prefers to live in the United States.

“All my kids were born here,” he said. “So, this is my country. I am a citizen of America now.”

Fofana took the first steps toward moving to another neighborhood right after the attack, but he quickly realized that that is not the answer.

He said he is afraid for when the mobile unit—the “defender” as he called it—returns to the police precinct. Fofana said he believes the tension in the neighborhood will lighten up a bit with time and that he hopes his attackers will realize their wrongdoing.

“It doesn’t matter you are a different color or you have a different look or you have a different accent,” he said. “We’re all human beings.”

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