The Target of a Hate Crime, She Was Labeled as a Witness

As Walio Mohamed found herself shunted from the center of a terrifying attack to its margins, her world began to unravel

The Target of a Hate Crime, She Was Labeled as a Witness
Walio Mohamed at home in Portland, January 2024. (Leah Nash)

It was supposed to be a good day — two teenage friends out on a lark, a Friday afternoon trip to the mall. Walio Mohamed, who was 17, slung her book bag, stuffed with her high school planner and a copy of Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” over her shoulder as she and Destinee Mangum, then 16, boarded a MAX commuter train in Portland, Oregon. The two laughed joyfully, heads leaning into each other — Mangum sporting a bejeweled cloth headband; Mohamed wearing a black cotton hijab.

They were having such a good time that they took the wrong train and ended up downtown. As they hopped on another line, a man held the door for them. It was 4:28 p.m. on May 26, 2017 — the moment Mohamed’s world tilted.

Inside the crowded car, the two friends found seats and settled in, “like nothing was happening,” Mohamed later told Portland police detective Michele Michaels. Then, “This guy just started talking.” Jeremiah Joseph Christian, a self-described Nazi and one of the large number of homeless people in Portland, was sitting just a few feet away, drinking sangria. He began ranting, Mohamed later testified, saying, “Fuck Muslims. Go back to Saudi Arabia. Kill yourself.” He raised a Bible. He looked scary, she said. Christian looked right at them and got louder. Mohamed and Mangum wordlessly stood and moved further down the car.

“That’s when he stood up,” Mangum recalled.

Three other riders, Taliesin Namkai-Meche, Rick Best and Micah Fletcher, stood up too, and positioned themselves between Christian and the girls. What happened next has become a kind of dark, ghastly legend: Christian lunged at the three men, stabbing them 11 times in as many seconds — a scene so gruesome one witness mistook the spray of blood for rain. Namkai-Meche and Best died. Fletcher barely survived, with severe wounds and what he later described as nightmares of sitting in a metal tunnel slowly filling with blood.

When the train stopped, Mohamed and Mangum burst out of the doors, running for their lives up a staircase before taking refuge in a gym bathroom. Christian fled too and was apprehended nearby. Shocked, and afraid of more trouble, Mohamed left without talking to police.

The crime made international news, and there was a global outpouring of support for the white men who put their bodies between Christian and the two teens. But the girl in the hijab, Mohamed, was largely written out of the story. She was treated as a witness rather than as the original target of Christian’s murderous violence, her name misspelled in police and court documents and by media from The New York Times and Wikipedia to Portland newspapers and TV stations.

Last summer, Musse Olol, president of the Somali American Council of Oregon, whom I interviewed in 2017 while covering the story for the Los Angeles Times, reached out to me and said Mohamed wanted to tell her story. I met her at Olol’s office, then at her modest apartment, with its “Inspire” poster on the wall.

Mohamed is the only victim of the attack who has never spoken to the media. She told me she has been “keeping everything in” for all these years. She said she is grateful to the three men who intervened, at such a staggering cost. For her, the crime became a turning point, even a cliff she fell off. Now 24, she is speaking out for the first time, she said, to share her truth and motivate others who have been targeted by hate, even as incidents are on the rise.

“Everyone should have given her the opportunity to speak on day one,” Olol said. Mohamed, her attorney Henry “Chip” Lazenby told me, “should have been a part of the story, so that people are starting to say, why did this racist thing happen in the first place?”

Donations to five crowdfunding campaigns for the victims totaled $1.6 million, yet Mohamed said she received only about $15,000.

“It’s understandable why we got what we got,” said Asha Deliverance, Namkai-Meche’s mother, “but why didn’t they get money, too, is the big question.”

But this is not fundamentally a story about money. Examining what happened from Mohamed’s seat on the train — and in the days from then until now — means scrutinizing not only neo-Nazis and the far right, but also courts and cops, the news media and online fundraising. Perhaps above all, it means carefully considering what arrests and holds our collective attention, what doesn’t, and why.

“I was a victim before. I’m a survivor now,” Mohamed told me, her soft voice forming a rare edge. “But I have never seen myself as a witness.”

Walio Mohamed poses for a portrait at her home in Portland. (Leah Nash)

Namkai-Meche’s last words, Deliverance reminded me, were “tell everyone on this train I love them.” She described how her son’s final eight words touched people around the globe, with dance troupes using them as inspiration, and people intoning them as they prayed at the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge. “We got thousands of letters from all over the world from the Muslim community.”

On the other hand, she said, “There should have been so much more support for the girls.”

Christian verbally attacked the girls, and murdered and severely injured the men, during the era of what was informally known as the “Muslim Ban,” and formally known as Executive Order 13780, created by former President Trump. The order barred entry into the United States to all nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — each a Muslim-majority country. Trump unapologetically spouted Islamophobic rhetoric throughout his presidency, saying, among other things, “I think Islam hates us,” the “us” being the U.S., which at the time had 3.45 million citizens who were Muslim.

So the attack touched an already raw nerve among Muslims as Ramadan began, adding to the rise in anti-Muslim hate incidents that Islamophobia scholars have said began during Trump’s presidential campaign. The Portland attack left a crater, hate crimes expert Randy Blazak said: “It’s wide in terms of the impact, and it’s deep in terms of how long it lasts.”

It’s easy to understand why so many from the global Muslim community were moved by the actions and sacrifices of Namkai-Meche, Best and Fletcher, and met that sentiment with financial support. In the context of Trump’s Muslim Ban and the ratcheting up of Islamophobia of that era, here, finally, were white men who cared enough about Black Muslim women that they put themselves in mortal danger to stop them from being harmed. They did what few white people in America, and few white Westerners elsewhere, are willing to do for Muslims or Black women.

They were not “white saviors” — a notion described by various thinkers and writers as white people descending upon impoverished brown and Black people around the world, enjoying the emotional fulfillment of having “helped” such people (whether or not that help was sought, and whether or not it was actually helpful), all while putting their own well-being on the line as little as possible. They did not go out in search of someone to help; they were bystanders. And at exactly the right moment, they put their bodies and lives on the line. They did what Black and brown activists have been calling on white people to do for decades, rather than white saviorism.

And yet, as much as the three men themselves intended to prevent harm from coming to the teens, a different kind of harm came to Mohamed in the aftermath. Even as the story went viral, Mohamed’s part in it was missing or marginalized. When her name did appear, in police reports, for example, and in court documents and dozens of media outlets, it was misspelled, sometimes as “Walia Mohamed,” others as “Walia Mohammed.” She is also mistakenly listed as aged 21 in a police report — which would have made her an adult, rather than a child, targeted by Christian’s violence. Police have said they don’t know why. “I don’t think they cared, to be honest,” Mohamed said. Although she is listed in court documents as a victim of intimidation, a second-degree misdemeanor, Mohamed says she was treated across the board as a witness to the crime, not one of its victims.

“It’s very simple: She’s a Black immigrant kid,” said Amina Afrah, manager of the Somali American Council of Oregon. “If this would be a white kid, this would be a completely different case.”

The media “focused more intently on the savagery of the attack and the deaths of the white heroes,” Lazenby, Mohamed’s lawyer, said, rather than interrogating the motivation for the crime or asking, “What can we do to make this a more inclusive and less violent place for people like Walio? That just fell off the map.”

Sins of omission are harder to track — and in this case, what is omitted is attention and curiosity, themselves subtle and hard to pin down. Yet where our attention is not often tells us more about our collective moral compass, which humans we count as worthy of care and which we do not, than where our attention is.

Mohamed’s family fled Mogadishu for Cairo, Egypt, when she was very young, after her parents separated. Many of her memories of Somalia revolve around being her daddy’s girl, she told me, and her father’s striking, protective presence. He was very tall, with a full beard and dyed red hair. He “spoiled me with candy,” she recalled. He did not leave with the family for Egypt, Mohamed recalled, instead moving to Saudi Arabia. He later died.

In Cairo, the family of seven shared an unfurnished, ramshackle home in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods with several cousins. “It was hard raising us,” Mohamed recalled; her mother didn’t have much money or support. Some days they ate only one meal. “I think I got used to it over time, like this is how life is.” She quickly realized that there wasn’t room for childish caprices; she understood that when her mother spoke, “I have to listen, be obedient.”

When Mohamed was six, her family were resettled to the U.S. as refugees. When they landed in New York City, she was dazzled. “I remember the big lights and stuff,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, mom, this is where we’re going to stay?’ She was like, ‘No, we’re just waiting to go to Portland.’”

The lights of Portland didn’t shine as brightly for Mohamed and her family. The largely homogeneous city’s historically poor treatment of Black people — in the early 20th century the Ku Klux Klan paraded and met with the mayor, police chief and the U.S. attorney; in the decades since, there have been waves of displacement — had created small pockets of Black and immigrant neighborhoods. Mohamed found herself living in a small but growing Somali community: Before the beginning of the Somali civil war, in 1990, just 2% of African immigrants in Portland were Somali. By the time she arrived in 2007, they made up nearly one-third.

A year after they arrived, the family moved into a subsidized apartment in North Portland, in the state’s largest low-income housing community. Mohamed attended Rosa Parks Elementary as a first grader, speaking rudimentary English. One girl picked on her, she recalled, but Mohamed sidestepped conflict. She studied, got good grades and was devoted to her family.

Mohamed always had a sweet personality and smile on her face, recalled Hodan, a lifelong friend from Somalia. (We have given Hodan a pseudonym to protect her privacy.) She always wanted to play outside, go to a park; the pair played princesses and cavorted in shopping carts.

As a teenager, Mohamed enjoyed posting pictures and connecting with friends on social media and was fond of Dutch Bros. coffee. She was obedient, hardworking and enmeshed in her family, Hodan said. Mohamed was “disciplined, like ‘I need to finish my chores and then I can go play.’ All the elders loved her.”

On Sept. 20, 2012, at the age of 13, Walio Abdirahman Mohamed became a U.S. citizen. In her Certificate of Citizenship photo, she wears a red headscarf and a denim jacket. Her expression is bright, open, her two front teeth prominent. Soon after, the family moved to an East Portland cul-de-sac, near Destinee Mangum, whom she would soon befriend.

The two met at David Douglas High School when Mangum was a freshman and Mohamed a sophomore. When Mohamed began dating Mangum’s brother, Damarion Irby, Mangum said, “She would literally jump the gate just to come hang out with us, because her family didn’t really approve of her being with my brother.”

The relationship with Mangum and Irby became a key to Mohamed’s identity formation in her adopted country and culture. “People say I’m Americanized, because I always used to go hang out with African Americans,” Mohamed said. “I feel like at that time my culture was strict and I just didn’t like it. I just wanted to feel at least a little freedom — to do things that made me happy.”

On May 26, 2017, America showed Mohamed its darkest side. As news of the attack spread, Mohamed said her mother hid her away, then sent her to live with a family member she barely knew in Minneapolis, perhaps feeling her daughter would be safest in the nation’s largest Somali immigrant community. That “was a bad idea,” Mohamed added, brushing tears away with her thumbs. “I was losing it, I was by myself, I was like, ‘I’m not going to stay here.’”

Olol, the director of the Somali American Council of Oregon, saw generational differences after the attack. “When I went there she was running a very full house,” Olol said of Mohamed’s mother. “She did not quite understand what was going on.” The family, Olol added, did not comprehend the trauma, or its impact on Walio, instead telling him, “‘No, we’re going to send her to Minneapolis, she’ll have a vacation, and she’ll be OK.’”

Mohamed’s mother eventually returned to Somalia and could not be reached for this story. Mohamed’s sister did not return phone calls; her stepfather also declined to be interviewed.

Mohamed’s family took away her phone, Mangum said, but “We snuck her a phone so that she could contact us.” Three Snapchat selfies Mohamed shared with me from her time in the Twin Cities show her wearing plastic flowers around her hijab, a baseball cap and hooded sweatshirt, henna on her hands. The images are digitally altered to add furry animal ears, but Mohamed’s facial expression is jarringly vacant, with no hint of a smile.

Mohamed became “quiet — very low spoken,” Hodan recalled. In a phone call between them after the attack, Hodan said she felt like, “I don’t think I’m talking to the person I know.”

When Mohamed returned to Portland, she moved in with Mangum, Irby and their mother, Dyjuana Hudson — who still refers to Mohamed as her daughter. It was a grueling, confusing time for the whole household. “Just trying to get them to eat every day was hard,” Hudson remembered. “She’s been hurt by the people that loved her the most.”

In the months after the attack, Mohamed’s isolation deepened. Her hijab became an ambiguous reminder of the horrors: She began wearing it less often, she said, because when she wore it, she saw the faces of the men who died. “She had to get rid of the hijab or anything that brought this trauma to her,” Olol said. She stopped wearing it, and stopped going to the mosque, but other parts of her faith clung to her. Hudson fasted sometimes with Mohamed during Ramadan and tried to make their home comfortable for her. Mohamed had panic attacks and was hospitalized.

Research on hate crimes shows that their victims tend to experience psychological symptoms such as depression or withdrawal, as well as anxiety, feelings of helplessness and a profound sense of isolation to a greater degree than victims of similar crimes not motivated by hate. According to a 2021 study in the journal Pediatrics, young adults who faced frequent discrimination “were around 25% more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder and twice as likely to develop severe psychological distress than those who hadn’t experienced discrimination or did less often.” The American Psychological Association also notes that, “Hate crimes can lead to a wide range of mental health issues, including increased rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use.”

Even today, telling her story is hard because, Mohamed said, her memory was affected by post-traumatic stress. “I forget about certain things, because I don’t even, like, keep it on mind, because of how much it hurt me,” she explained.

That lapse of memory, the blank spots in what most would consider a vividly imprinted event, is a common experience among those with post-traumatic stress disorder. In his book “The Evil Hours,” writer and veteran Davis Morris explains that PTSD can include memory distortions, or a traumatic memory that “stands apart, like a feral dog, snarling, wild, and unpredictable.” After major traumas, “your mind works differently and your body has been altered.”

The trauma of the attack extended far beyond the lightning-quick stabbing on the train. In the weeks after Mohamed moved in with Mangum, anonymous hate found its way to the family — both Mangum and Hudson had done media interviews in the aftermath of the attack — and by extension to Mohamed. They were bombarded with threatening phone calls, social media messages and even packages delivered to their home. Lazenby recalled that the girls suffered stress and ulcers, and had to change phone numbers. Hudson tried to protect them, she said. At one point, a local TV station set up outside their high school, after the district announced where they attended, and proclaimed that, “The trauma is not theirs alone.” Hudson switched them to a different school, from which both graduated.

Even today, telling her story is hard because her memory was affected by post-traumatic stress. (Leah Nash)

While the vitriol of strangers had no trouble finding Mohamed, the generosity poured out by others did. The flurry of media stories about the attack triggered an avalanche of alms from Muslims and others across the globe — $1,633,400 via 34,613 donations, The Oregonian reported. Mohamed said she received a comparatively small amount, about $5,000 in gift cards and a $10,000 bank deposit, or about $15,000 total.

The unexpected medical expenses and funeral costs incurred by the three men’s families made them obvious recipients of the material aid donated by well-wishers in the aftermath of the tragedy. Less obvious to many was why the two girls who escaped from the train without a scratch would need money or other sorts of support. After all, wasn’t this a near miss for them, a victimization prevented, precisely because the men intervened?

Yet the trauma of the attack derailed Mohamed’s life, and the cost of a derailed life — whether from poverty, hospitalization due to mental health crisis, social isolation, struggles to hold down a job or finish school — is expensive. And money can be one of the things that allow someone to transition from victim to survivor, to heal and even thrive.

“How can she only get $15,000?” Olol asked. “Millions were raised. She should have enough money to finish her school.”

The largest campaign, “Muslims United For Portland Heroes,” was co-sponsored by the Muslim Educational Trust, a school, community center and mosque located in a Portland suburb. It raised $609,724 for the Best and Namkai-Meche families, plus Fletcher — but not Mohamed. Olol, of the Somali-American Council of Oregon, claimed Wajdi Said, the trust’s executive director, “promised” him Mohamed would be included. Said refuted that claim, adding that the “heroes” and their families were always the intended beneficiaries.

“We didn’t know anything about Walio Mohamed,” Said said. “We tried to reach out to her, and we got blocked.” Asked to clarify, Said declined further comment.

Another of the major fundraisers was for Micah Fletcher’s recovery. Fletcher declined to comment for this story, but in 2017 he spoke out about Portland’s “white savior complex,” and urged people to give to Mohamed and Mangum. “This is about those little girls,” he said.

It may never be clear what happened to the money meant for “those little girls,” collected by YouCaring.com in another major campaign, “Girls who survived Portland’s MAX Attack.” It was organized by Lydia Grijalva and raised $149,329 from 4,248 donors for the teens, but Mohamed’s name does not appear in it. Grijalva, Hudson, and Mohamed all have different memories of what happened after the money was collected. Grijalva claims she gave all of the money to Hudson, for Hudson to distribute to the two minors in her care; Hudson claims she gave part of the money to Mohamed and with the rest paid for the girls’ every need. Mohamed remembers only receiving $15,000, though acknowledges this is an estimate, and that her memory from that time understandably has gaps in it.

What is clear is that the lion’s share of the funds raised went elsewhere, and what did come Mohamed’s way was controlled by others. Mohamed expressed gratitude for the help and support she got from Hudson, Mangum and Irby. “They were there for me,” she said. But when it came to interest and care from the broader community, the vast majority went elsewhere.

In an ongoing civil court case, $20 million is demanded by the Best and Namkai-Meche families in a lawsuit scheduled for a jury trial in 2024. They sued transportation agency TriMet and the City of Portland, asserting that the train operator, transit officers and police officers should have done more, including arresting Christian when he injured a Black woman named Demetria Hester in an attack that also originated with hate-filled rants on the train, a day before his triple stabbing.

“I feel like the girls should have at least been a part of that,” Hudson said of the joint lawsuit. “But once again, they’re not.”

Lazenby, Mohamed’s pro bono lawyer, who operates out of his home office without a staff that could handle a complex litigation, said he reached out to some of the best plaintiffs’ case firms in town, “and laid [the girls’] case before them, and there were no takers.” He’s seen far more specious claims brought, he said, yet one white-shoe Portland law firm told him the girls’ case was weak “because they didn’t even get blood spattered on them.”

Despite it all, Mohamed is on the mend. (Leah Nash)

That lack of financial support hit especially hard when, six months after the attack, Mohamed became pregnant with Irby’s child. The news furthered the rift between Mohamed and her family; once she told her mother, she “didn’t want nothing to do with me,” Mohamed said. “Everyone in the neighborhood was talking about it,” she added. “It caused her stress.”

Having a child out of wedlock — and with an outsider no less — “is completely a no-no in our culture,” Afrah, of the Somali American Council, said. But Mohamed was also “adamant about not reengaging with her family,” Lazenby recalled.

After the birth, Mohamed and her baby girl moved into a low-income subsidized apartment near where she first landed in the city as a young girl after leaving Africa. It was a lonely time, she said. Olol’s council was one of her few forms of support.

Too often in their culture and faith, Hodan said, “The blame goes back to the women.” Part of it, she added, is that many first-generation immigrants went through horrors too. “They migrated just to get away from the wars and have war trauma, but they’re not talking about it,” she said. “It passes down to their kids without them knowing about it.”

In the days after the attack, two Muslim therapists offered free sessions to Mohamed, Olol said, but her parents “did not understand the value of that, because we come from a culture that does not value counseling.” Somali elders often seek an imam over a psychotherapist, he added.

A Multnomah County District Attorney victim’s advocate referred Mohamed and Mangum to an older Black female counselor. Both women said it didn’t help. When she told the practitioner as much, Mangum recalled, “She got super offended … and told me, ‘Well, you can just stay angry the rest of your life, because you’re just a angry person.’”

Despite it all, Mohamed is on the mend. She lives in East Portland, in a neighborhood where many residents are struggling with poverty. But her apartment is near Olol’s offices and the home of state Sen. Kayse Jama, the first Muslim and first Somali in the state legislature, in a neighborhood Olol calls “Somali Street.” Mohamed is working as a caregiver, studying early childhood education, once again speaking “Somanglish” with her sister. Her apartment is filled with Minnie Mouse toys and the sounds of Rihanna and Beyonce. She wants to work with kids and run her own day care.

She has healed, and her name is proof of her healing. A first step came during her testimony in the 2020 trial that put Christian behind bars for life. She begins, “My name is Wa—,” exhales, stops. She starts over, weeping, but with a stronger voice.

“My name is Walio Mohamed,” she says. She wears a white Nike jacket and a black cloth tied over her red-tinted hair. She spells her name. Correctly. (Even after this, the Washington Post, CBS, Oregonian/Oregonlive, Willamette Week and The New York Times misspelled it.)

She has healed enough that she let me into her home, though I’m a 6-foot-tall, 200-pound white man with a ponytail, just as Christian was at the time of the attack.

Her treatment by powerful institutions remains a bitter memory, one echoed in recent news reports that suggest hate crime victims are often not considered worthy of attention. “There’s a bias within the system,” Jama told me. “I talk constantly to the Somali community and when people say they want to report a hate crime, often police departments don’t take it very seriously.”

Advocacy from people like Jama, and perhaps even the attack against Mohamed itself, have led to change, albeit glacially. It was unclear at first whether hate crime laws even applied to the triple stabbing case, but two years later, Oregon’s legislature passed a new law that made placing another person in fear of imminent serious physical injury a first degree bias crime and a felony. It included a new statewide hotline that collects bias incident data.

Calls to the hotline increased 74% between 2021 and 2022, according to a report by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission; they rose higher still in 2023. It found that anti-Black bias is most frequent, but that underreporting is extensive. “If the data tells us anything, it tells us that this issue is going to be with us for a long time,” Jama said. “We have to be very serious, and we have to ensure that we support people who have been targeted for hate crimes.”

Mohamed depends on food stamps and occasional rent assistance, and doesn’t have a car or driver’s license. She lives near a light rail station, but uses it rarely; sometimes “her anxiety takes over and she has to step off,” Hodan said. Mohamed still does not wear her hijab, or go to mosque. But she is considering going back.

“It’s hard,” Mohamed said, “but I still have my faith in God. I still believe in Allah,” she added. Her voice fluttered on the final words. “It’s been a long journey … I’m getting there.”

She writes in a new yellow journal, words for her eyes only, which help her release her feelings. Sharing her story here is, in her reckoning, about letting go, personally, but also about reaching others targeted by hate, especially young Somali Muslim girls, who are still straddling worlds, and still being targeted. Olol mentioned a local Somali girl whose hijab was yanked off her head in class. School officials didn’t understand the significance, he said, after which the girl struggled with attendance and suicidal thoughts.

“You’re loved, and don’t let anybody try to tear you down,” Mohamed said she wants her fellow survivors to know. “Whatever situation it is, you can overcome it. Don’t give up. You deserve better. And you can do it. I believe in you.”

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