VICTORIA — A year and a half after the gold-domed Victoria Islamic Center was torched, Irfan Qureshi, one of the first to arrive at the scene, vividly recalled the surreal horror of that morning, and the comforting aftermath.
“I was scared to my core. We had no facts. All we knew is the mosque is going up in flames. I thought, ‘Is someone coming to kick us out?’” he said of the early morning fire Jan. 28, 2017.
Hours later, as he and others picked through the charred ruins, compassionate strangers began to approach him.
“They were saying, ‘We’re very sorry,’ and handing me cash and checks. You can’t put a price on how much that lifted us up as a community,” he recalled.
On Monday, after a federal jury here convicted Marq Vincent Perez of burning the mosque, local Muslims exchanged emotional embraces. Perez, 26, who had voiced his hatred of Muslims online, faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced in October.
“It’s like a load coming off your shoulders. A big stage of this whole ordeal is finished,” said Abe Ajrami, a board member of the Victoria Islamic Center.
Despite the hoped-for legal outcome, Muslim leaders say many in their congregation of about 45 families remain traumatized.
Some members who dropped out of sight after the fire have not returned to worship. Some women have not resumed wearing the hijab, the headdress that marks them as Muslim, in public. And throughout the congregation, a sense of wary anxiety lingers.
Even as a splendid new mosque with an improved security system rises on the site of the old, talk of closure and healing is premature.
“It’s like the church shooting in Sutherland Springs. These memories can haunt us. It happened once. Who can say it won’t happen again,” said Ajrami, 50, who was born in Gaza.
“Especially on Friday when we have the congregational prayers and potluck dinner, with more of the ladies and the kids. I find myself standing with my back to the wall and watching the front door,” said Ajrami who now brings a gun to worship services.
FULL ARTICLE FROM THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE