Posted on June 5, 2022

A Girl Fled Her War-Torn Homeland, but Found More Trauma in San Francisco

Heather Knight, San Francisco Chronicle, June 1, 2022

The morning began like most in the Saleh family’s tiny studio six floors above Turk and Hyde streets in the Tenderloin. The four children rose from their mats on the floor as their parents emerged from the closet where they shared a small mattress.

Abu Bakr Saleh, the father and sole earner in the family of refugees who fled the war in Yemen, rushed to begin a 16-hour double shift at a grocery store and a KFC. His wife, Sumaya Albadani, began an isolating day of cooking, cleaning and waiting for the others to return.

The kids — Ahmed, 16, Asma, 15, Raghad, 12, and 10-year-old Maya — rode a rickety elevator downstairs, down to one of the city’s most distressed blocks, before fanning out to their four schools.

But on Sept. 29, 2021, Raghad didn’t reach hers.

The sixth-grader at Francisco Middle School in North Beach — who had suffered a major trauma the year before, when an immigration fiasco forced her family to leave her with strangers in Egypt — lingered on the 400 block of Larkin Street while Ahmed ran into a shop to do an errand.

Just then, a woman in a wheelchair approached, yelling incoherently and spouting Islamophobic statements about the girl’s hijab, according to the girl and police. Raghad, still learning English, only caught portions of the diatribe, but heard three words very clearly: “Are you scared?”

“After that, she came close to me, and she hit me,” the girl told me a few months later. “She punched me in the head. I felt dizzy after that. I couldn’t believe it.”

Ahmed witnessed the attack and rushed to help. A security guard called 911. Police responded and arrested the woman on suspicion of committing assault, child endangerment and a hate crime. After getting checked out by paramedics, Raghad spent the day at home.

She hasn’t been the same since, her family said. She spends long hours playing games on her phone or watching YouTube videos. She’s listless. She cries more. She’s still fearful, saying she’s seen the suspect several times since the attack despite a protective order to stay away.

The attack was shocking, but only to a degree, in a neighborhood with one of the city’s highest assault rates. And it would ripple outward: In November, the episode would become one focus of a letter that Tenderloin families delivered to Mayor London Breed, pleading for help.

“We are immigrants and refugees. We are children and mothers and fathers,” began the letter, penned by staff at the Tenderloin Community Benefit District and signed by 400 neighbors. “We are the Tenderloin, and you have failed us.”

The Salehs had one wish: to escape their $2,050-a-month studio for a bigger apartment in a safer neighborhood. More broadly, they sought the American dream in a city that proclaims itself a refuge.

But while San Francisco officials furiously debated what to do about a crisis of homelessness, addiction and mental illness in the Tenderloin, no one talked much about reducing harm to the many families stuck in one of the last semi-affordable stretches of the city.

In many respects, the Saleh family was living a dream life in Yemen. Abu Bakr, now 38, supported his family as an accountant for the finance ministry. Their six-bedroom home in Ibb, a city in western Yemen, was surrounded by lush gardens.

But the country’s war that began in 2014, when Houthi rebels took control of the northern part of Yemen, brought devastation. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States entered the fight, and it has dragged on since. The United Nations estimates 377,000 people have been killed, 70% of them young children. Millions more, including the Salehs, have been displaced.

Abu Bakr made it to San Francisco in 2016 to join his parents, who were already living in Mission Bay. {snip}


But their new life was far from what they had envisioned.

“Thank you, my God, to bring my family here,” Abu Bakr said. “I’m happy I’m here because it’s too much problem in Yemen. No salary, no power, no water, no food. It’s war. But I work too hard because it’s expensive here, you know? I can’t save money, and I stay in a bad location also.”

Walking a few blocks with Raghad one day last December, from a Muni stop to her home, I saw what her dad meant. We strolled past a strip club with the sign “Where the Wild Girls Are.” Past people slumped unconscious in bus shelters. Past a woman screaming gibberish. Past a woman doing drugs on the sidewalk, her face bloodied. Past piles of trash and feces.

“This neighborhood is so scary,” Raghad said, moving quickly and nervously adjusting her hijab.

At night, the family doesn’t leave their studio. Still, they have trouble sleeping with the sounds of gunshots, fights and sirens.

“We don’t go to the window in case the gun comes,” said Maya, holding her fingers in the shape of a pistol.

Sumaya, speaking Arabic through an interpreter, said she was shocked when her picture of America didn’t match the reality of her new home. “From the pictures, I thought it would be really clean and now, when I walk up the street, it’s really, really painful to see all these things,” she said.

“If you walk a little bit far away from here,” Sumaya added, “You can say, ‘Yes, this is the United States I know.’”

More than two months after Raghad was attacked, her mother brought her and her brother to a mid-December meeting with Breed in the city’s main library to discuss conditions in the Tenderloin. The mayor barred journalists, but according to an audience member’s recording, she told the families she was frustrated by the neighborhood’s “horrible conditions.”

“You’re dealing with the concern of whether you might get robbed or hit over the head or attacked or spit on,” Breed told them.

People in the audience said the city was looking the other way as drug dealers created misery. And that cops just drove past rather than walking the beat. Several shared stories about their businesses being robbed, strangers attacking them, hate crimes proliferating and being forced to huddle with children at playgrounds as men brandished guns outside the gates.


Drug dealing continued unabated, signaling that purveyors of fancy handbags were more important to the city than low-income families like the Salehs who were left to deal with the fallout.

The family occasionally witnessed overdoses from their window. After Maya started talking about seeing “dizzy” people “laying on the floor,” it became clear she meant people passed out on the sidewalks after using drugs.

“Everybody is scared here,” Maya said. “If I walk with myself, my brain says, ‘Maya, don’t be scared.’ Everything will be OK.”


Nothing much has happened in the case of Raghad’s alleged attacker. District Attorney Chesa Boudin charged Tinesha Scott, 48, with felony child endangerment and felony assault with a hate crime enhancement.

Boudin’s spokesperson, Rachel Marshall, said the office filed a motion to detain Scott, but a Superior Court judge denied it. The courts issued a criminal protective order, but Raghad said she has seen Scott several times since the encounter — including beneath her studio window. She said she was terrified when Scott waved at her.

“Next time,” Raghad said, “she could be holding a knife.”