Clara Porter, left, of the Portland-based advocacy group Prevention Action Change, practices shutting down hate speech with Zoe Sahloul of the New England Arab American Organization Tuesday at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish. Kristen McNerney / Lakes Region Weekly

The New England Arab American Organization came together with the advocacy group Prevention Action Change at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish Tuesday to teach participants how to safely intervene when witnessing acts of hate, many of which NEAAO said are targeted at members of the Arab community as the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Zoe Sahloul, who runs NEAAO, a Westbrook-based non-profit that serves around 1,300 members of the Arab community or about 500 families, said people must learn how to be active bystanders in a crucial time for the Arab community and all minorities.

“Unfortunately with the political climate and COVID adding to it we have seen a rise in hate crime,” she said.

New data released by the FBI last month shows that hate crimes in Maine rose sharply in 2020, part of a national increase that saw the largest reported number of bias-motivated crimes in more than a decade, according to the Portland Press Herald.

In Maine, the number of bias-motivated crimes spiked to 83 incidents in 2020, from only a couple dozen in recent years. Black people were targeted most frequently, with 32 reported incidents, according to FBI data. LGBTQ Mainers were the second most targeted group, accounting for 29 incidents. Five attacks were against people perceived to be Jewish and three incidents targeted people perceived to be Asian.

The 83 incidents in 2020 surpass the total number of reported hate crimes in Maine during 2017, 2018 and 2019 combined, a three-year period that saw 71 reported bias-motivated crimes.

Bystander training participants were asked to respond to hate rhetoric. Kristen McNerney / Lakes Region Weekly

In addition to citing the pandemic and 9/11 as triggers for hateful acts and rhetoric against minorities, Sahloul said her organization needs to prepare for when there are “more people in hijab” coming to Maine, referring to the Afghan refugee crisis following the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Sahloul, who was born in Lebanon and emigrated to Canada before coming to Maine, said she believes in the power of people coming together to stop identity-based attacks in their tracks.

“A very small act can make a situation different,” she said.

She and Clara Porter of the Portland-based advocacy group Prevention Action Change presented participants with actual scenarios and led discussions on how to respond safely in order to protect a person being targeted.

Porter helped participants brainstorm ideas for how they could distract from a situation that might become aggressive. For example, bystanders could intervene by pretending to be friends with the target, she said. They could also document the incident by taking a cell phone video of the incident or snapping a photo of the instigator’s license plate.

“All of us have the shared experience of seeing something happen when we haven’t known what to do,” she said. 

Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck, participating in panel on hate crimes with Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, Saint Joseph’s Vice President Chris Fuller and Sahloul, said restorative justice is important in the healing process of victims and the victims’ communities.

Restorative justice can involve an offender coming face to face with the target or various members of the community impacted.

“One of the things that’s so important about this is the accountability but also the understanding of harm,” Sahrbeck said.

Though Sahrbeck and Robbin differentiated between hateful rhetoric and threats or acts of violence when prosecuting a case, they said that bystander intervention can help minimize harm.

“When you stop (hate) when it’s just at the language stage, you may keep it from escalating,” Robbin said.

Fuller, who also serves as Saint Joseph’s chief sponsorship and mission integration officer, commented on the role of Catholic institutions to stand up in situations where hate is present.

“The Catholic community was suspect when they arrived here in Maine,” Fuller said. “Their ancestors were subject to the same kind of harassment and suspicion as Muslim communities today.”

“There is always a choice for us to make a difference,” Sahloul said.

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