Alia Ansari always wore her traditional Muslim headscarf in public. She was a doting wife and mother who spent most of her time in the Afghan neighborhood of Fremont known as "Little Kabul." She typically drove her six children to and from school and cricket practice, but on the afternoon of October 19, 2006, she had no choice but to walk.
The family minivan had recently overheated, and her husband, Ahmad, an auto mechanic, was too busy to fix it. So the 37-year-old woman set out on foot to pick up her children from the nearby elementary school. Before she got far, a car stopped and a man jumped out. He walked straight up to Alia and shot her in the head. She died clutching her three-year-old daughter's hand.
The brazen murder stunned Fremont's Afghan community and Muslims throughout the Bay Area. Muslim women, in particular, suddenly were afraid to wear their headscarves. "There was definitely fear in the community even among women who don't wear hijabs, like me," said Samina Sundas, founder of American Muslim Voice, a Newark-based nonprofit that seeks to educate people and ease cultural tensions about Islam.
Ansari's tragic murder wasn't the first time an immigrant mom was brutally killed on the usually quiet streets of suburban Fremont. Two and a half years earlier, Esperanza Hernandez and her teenage daughter, Carmelita, were clubbed to death as they walked to work. The gruesome double homicide took place less than a half-mile from where Ansari was later gunned down.
The deaths of Esperanza and Carmelita Hernandez have been largely forgotten amid the clamor over Alia Ansari's slaying. But the two unsolved murder cases share more than just proximity. Ansari immigrated to the United States in 1986, at about the same time as Esperanza Hernandez sneaked across the border from Mexico. Both had no apparent enemies. Both were mothers who usually drove, and both were killed while walking with their daughters. All three victims were immigrants.
To many Fremont residents, the two murder cases appear to be completely random acts of violence in their usually safe city. But to others, the circumstances of both killings scream "hate crime." And it's no wonder. In the past decade and a half, this once-whitebread suburb has been transformed into an immigrant haven. And while much of the city has proudly embraced this newfound diversity, there remains a vocal contingent of people who are angry that their formerly homogeneous town is no more.
Fremont police say they have no reason to believe that the murders were hate crimes, and that to label them as such is irresponsible. "We can't call it something when we don't have any evidence of it," said police spokesman Bill Veteran, who also is the department's primary hate-crime investigator. "And if we were to focus on hate crimes, we are very potentially ignoring other motives."
But members of the women's families believe otherwise. They are convinced that Alia, Esperanza, and Carmelita were innocent women who must have been killed because of the clothes they wore or the color of their skin.
Shortly after Ansari's murder, Melanie Gadener and Anu Natarajan proposed "Wear a Hijab Day" to honor the immigrant's life and celebrate Fremont's multiculturalism.
The women came up with the idea after visiting Fremont's Muslim mosque, the Islamic Society of East Bay, during an open house. "We had heard from the women there especially after 9/11 that wearing a hijab drew attention that made them feel uncomfortable," explained Natarajan, the first South Asian immigrant on the Fremont City Council. "They feel like they don't belong, and we felt that we should show them that they do belong." The event eventually morphed into "Wear a Hijab/Turban Day," expanding to incorporate local Sikh men who also had felt wrongly conspicuous in the wake of September 11.
Rain and wind dampened the turnout at Fremont's Central Park. Still, about a hundred people braved the bad weather, including Christians, Jews, and people of other faiths. Sundas passed out colorful headscarves from Pakistan. "It's all about education," she said. "We strongly believe that if Americans know us firsthand, they will not fear Muslims and will not feel that Muslims are terrorists."
Yet the event sparked anger from other Fremont residents. One letter writer to The Argus called the idea "absurd," while Natarajan said she received several nasty e-mails. "One said I should take my religion and leave this country and go back to where I came from," the councilwoman recalled, noting with irony that she is Hindu and not Muslim.
Whites didn't always feel uncomfortable in Fremont. But in the past fifteen years, the city has undergone a dramatic demographic transformation. Stroll into one of Fremont's ubiquitous strip malls today and you may not hear a word of English. More than 120 languages are spoken, mostly by recent arrivals. There are so many newcomers that, according to the latest Census estimates, by 2005, 45.6 percent of Fremont's 210,000 residents were born outside the United States.
Fremont itself was born just fifty years ago, following the incorporation of five unincorporated districts Centerville, Irvington, Mission San Jose, Niles, and Warm Springs. The new town grew rapidly, as Brady Bunch-style tract homes sprang up by the tens of thousands. "As fast as they could build homes, they filled up," Fremont historian Phil Holmes said. The city was especially popular with white families who fled the bigger Bay Area cities in search of better schools.
But Fremont's racial composition changed radically in the 1990s. Asian Americans particularly Afghans, Indians, and Pakistanis flocked to the city after landing high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley. Between 1990 and 2005, 73,000 Asian Americans moved to Fremont, according to Census data. At the same time, many white residents grew disenchanted with the city. During the same period, 46,000 whites moved away. Some were simply fed up with Fremont's rapid growth and its increasingly nightmarish traffic. But others were uncomfortable with the city's new ethnic makeup. By 2005, whites made up just 30.6 percent of the population.
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