x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

US mosque community's grief for Emirati gunshot victim

A mosque community in Houston is rallying around the ailing father of UAE soldier Salem Saif Al Mazroui, who was killed in his flat. Its members deny the crime was one of hatred.

The cars of Muslims attending the mosque line Almeda Road in Houston, where Salem Saif Al Mazroui and his father prayed.
The cars of Muslims attending the mosque line Almeda Road in Houston, where Salem Saif Al Mazroui and his father prayed.

HOUSTON // Inside the masjid on Almeda Road in Houston on Tuesday evening, the floor had been prepared for breaking the fast.

A large crowd quietly gathered after sunset prayers. Houston was hot and humid. Liquids and soups were quickly finished.

But prayer, hunger and heat were not the only things on their minds, as might be expected of a tight-knit community recently afflicted by tragedy.

It was at this small mosque in the Medical Centre area that Salem Saif Al Mazroui, a young UAE army captain, had come to pray and break the fast on Sunday with his cancer-stricken father.

After those prayers the two men stopped to pick up some medicine on their way to a neighbour's gathering and were attacked in their flat by two armed men.

Salem Saif was shot and killed before the attackers, described as two African-Americans, fled, stealing a car and a wallet. The car and discarded wallet were later found nearby.

Houston police are still searching for the attackers. But while there was some suggestion early in the investigation that the crime might have been motivated by hatred toward Muslims, this has since been dismissed.

"At this point, the investigation is not leading us to conclude that this was a hate crime," said Jodi Silva, a spokeswoman with the Houston Police Department.

There have been 90 murders and 3,780 robberies in Houston in the first six months of this year. Investigators had seen nothing to suggest the murder was anything other than a violent robbery, Ms Silva said.

Members of the congregation at the masjid agreed. Certainly, no one seemed worried about security.

"There has never been anything similar to this [murder] that I've heard of," said one man, Mazen H, a nurse at a nearby hospital who has lived in Houston for more than 20 years.

"I don't think this had anything to do with hatred of Muslims. I think this was just a tragic crime."

Mazen, originally from Lebanon, said he had not experienced anti-Muslim sentiment of any note in his two decades in Houston.

Neither had Ghilan Mohammed, the manager of The Mediterranean Grocery next door to the mosque.

Mr Mohammed, 35, has worked in the shop for five years since arriving from Yemen.

"We all know each other here," he said. "We are all shocked about what happened. It's a tragedy. But I don't think anyone thinks it has anything to do with hatred against Muslims."

Houston has a large and deeply rooted Muslim community. There are about 80 Islamic centres in the city.

Mustafa Carroll, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Houston, estimated the number of Muslims in the greater Houston area to be as high as 250,000.

It has an ethnically diverse community that includes African-Americans, Middle Easterners, Asians and Hispanics.

"We have not seen a lot of hate crimes directed against the Muslim community in Houston," Mr Carroll said.

A few months ago, he noted, there had been arson attempts on two mosques in the area. But while "any hate crime is a cause for concern", Mr Carroll said, "the numbers are not alarming".

The Medical Centre area is very cosmopolitan. People from all over the world seek treatment there from the many specialist institutions including the MD Anderson Cancer Centre at the University of Texas, where the elder Mr Al Mazroui was receiving treatment. The UAE donated US$150million (Dh550.9m) to the Anderson Centre in January.

On Tuesday night, some members of the masjid congregation paid their respects to the grieving father. Mr Al Mazroui, from Adhen in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah, was expected to fly home yesterday with his son for the burial.

Friends and neighbours had also gathered to pay their respects in this gated community south of Houston's downtown. It is a place where many Emiratis and others from the Gulf region live.

The community had pulled together to show their support, a family friend said.

It was ultimately a tragic crime, he said, a senseless murder.

"All we can do is support the family now."

newsdesk@thenational.ae