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Petite Pitt student wasn't afraid to intervene during attack on Pakistani-American

Standing up to racism

Thursday, November 01, 2001

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Hannah Mumma and her college roommates wondered years ago whether they would intervene if they encountered a fight on the street.

Hannah Mumma, right, came to the aid of Humair Ahmed on Sept. 19 when he was attacked in Oakland. Mumma, who has lived in the United States since she was adopted at age 2 from Korea, and Ahmed, whose family emigrated from Pakistan when he was 3, are both students at Pitt. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

"I always said that I would," said Mumma, 23, a mere slip of a woman who stands 5' nothin' and weighs a buck five soaking wet.

Her conjecture became prophecy.

Mumma had just left her waitressing job at the Spice Island Tea House in Oakland the afternoon of Sept. 19 and was walking along Atwood Street toward Dawson Street when she heard a man screaming at someone: "Are you from Afghanistan?... I'm going to kill you!"

She turned to see a white man of medium height and in good shape running toward, then punching and kicking a darker-skinned younger man who was hunched over. At points, the younger man ran and dodged the full intensity of some of the blows and kicks. Mumma had seen news reports about the backlash against Muslims and/or Arabs since Sept. 11 and knew immediately what was happening.

She ran over to the two men, getting in between them, and screamed at the attacker. Other people on the street initially didn't do anything.

"What are you doing? This isn't right," she yelled at the man. "He's an American just like you are. You should be ashamed of yourself."

He shoved Mumma aside, then lunged back toward the darker skinned man.

"I guess he thought you had to be white in order to be an American," the University of Pittsburgh political science student said recently as she sat in a red velvet chair in the William Pitt Union. "It really made me mad.

"I was adopted when I was 2 and have lived here ever since," said Mumma, who is Korean and from Harrisburg. "Same with Humair."

Humair Ahmed, the man she was trying to help, is a 22-year-old Pitt computer engineering student who moved to the United States with his parents from Pakistan when he was 3.

Ahmed's ordeal ended when a man working at a nearby apartment building grabbed the attacker from behind and wrestled him back. Mumma dialed 911. The attacker fled and later turned himself in to police. Ahmed wasn't injured.

"I cried after it happened because I was just so upset," Mumma said. "It just shocked me that there are people really close by who think like that and behave like that."

As Mumma recounted the story in the student union's Red Room, Ahmed, quite coincidentally, happened by and joined his new friend.

He is doing well. His grades are back on track and, at his mother's request, he now carries a cell phone everywhere he goes. He also has received a great deal of support.

"People just give me their numbers saying, 'Call me if you need anything, a ride home, anything,' " he said. "Most people are good people; there are just some bad seeds."

David Hardwig of Etna, the 43-year-old man accused of attacking Ahmed, is slated to appear in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court on Dec. 5 for formal arraignment on ethnic intimidation, terrorist threats and simple assault charges.

More than 440 confirmed violent acts have been committed against Arab and/or Muslim people nationwide since Sept. 11, including four murders, said Laila Al-Qatami, spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C. Nationwide, the FBI also is looking into more than 199 potential hate crimes that could result in federal charges.

Locally, more than 24 incidents of harassment have been committed against Arabs or Muslims, though most have not reported them to police, according to a Web site posted by the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.

Ahmed is one of the few who has stepped forward. His mother is concerned about him taking the case to court, but he said he can't worry about what might happen.

"You definitely have to stand up," he said.

Since the incident, Ahmed has talked at peace rallies and to different groups about what happened.

"A lot of people came up to me and said they supported me, white people, black people, and Jewish people," he said.

Ahmed welcomes the support, but feels he often has been preaching to the choir and not reaching the people who need to hear the message.

"The only people who come to hear what you're saying are the people who care," he said. "The people that do [the intolerant things] are the people that don't care."

Ahmed understands how people who don't know much about Islam might fear it. Mumma thinks he's letting intolerant people off the hook when he says such things.

"I didn't know anything about it either, but I'm not scared of it," she said. "People are just unwilling to open their ears and listen."

Sept. 11 has changed everything.

"If I go on a plane, other people may be looking at me and I can't blame them for that," Ahmed said. "It might seem unfair, but I understand it."

"You shouldn't say that," Mumma said. "That's like saying racial profiling is OK."

Ahmed won't ever support the idea of racial profiling, but he believes it's now part of his everyday reality.

"People out there are scared, and I fit the profile," he said. "I don't think it's right, but it's a thin line."

He believes he's just going to have to get used to being carefully scrutinized. He realizes he's not the first person to be racially profiled and won't be the last. He's just doubtful the problem will ever go away until prejudiced people and those who commit hate crimes change.

Ahmed thought with all the people standing around, someone other than just Mumma would have come to his aid sooner. He moves about the world quite differently since the incident.

"Before, I just went out and I didn't worry about anything," he said. "Now, I'm always making sure I know exactly where I am and who's around me."

Mumma doesn't believe the incident has changed her, but rather has taught her the strength of her convictions. She wouldn't do anything differently if she had to do it all again. She instinctively jumped into the fray.

"My mom was upset with me. 'How could you do that? You could have gotten hurt!' " she said, recalling her mother's words. "But she was very proud of me."

Mumma just hopes others learn not to prejudge and jump to conclusions. That has been the biggest surprise of the whole ordeal -- that people are much more closed-minded than she thought.

"I guess I thought that more people were like us and willing to help," she said.

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