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Issue date: 10/29/2001

An ugly act of bigotry inspires a businessman, a community

By Michael Pare

It wasn't about world affairs or religious beliefs. It was about right and wrong.

And what Rick Roth saw when he got off the highway on his way to work that September morning in Pawtucket - the hate-filled graffiti adorning the back wall of a business - was simply wrong.

So Roth called the city and suggested that someone ought to do something about it. To the city's credit, the anti-Arab graffiti was removed within 24 hours.

But Roth's encounters with hatred that morning were not done.

After making the call to the city, Roth picked up his local paper, The Times, and read about a neighborhood grocer, Khalil Elmasir, who had just bought Bahra's Market on Columbus Avenue about six months ago. Apparently in response to the name of the business, and perhaps, the broken English spoken by the owner, someone had smashed windows at the store.

The story made Roth, president of Mirror Image, angry.

"I was already mad," he said. "It seemed that things were going a way--a way that wasn't like the people of Pawtucket."

So Roth started making some calls. He reached out to the Pawtucket Rotary Club. He sent e-mails to business contacts, friends. The word got out. At first, he figured he'd collect enough money to pay the deductible on the grocer's insurance - a man he had never met. And when he found out that Elmasir didn't have insurance, he just kept calling. It did not take long to come up with the money.

Roth asked people for $10. A couple of companies offered to pay several hundred dollars. But Roth figured that by accepting a little bit from a lot of people, it would become a community thing. It became just that.

About 95 people gave, including business owners and city employees. Some insisted on contributing more. Students at nearby Slater Junior High School dug into their pockets, as well, coming up with $80.

"Everyone responded," said Roth.

Pat Zacks, president of the Pawtucket Arts Collaborative, a collection of local artists, sent off a bunch of e-mails, and several representatives of the arts community responded. Zacks credits Roth with taking the initiative.

"He is such a positive asset to the community," she said. "He reached out and then there was a rippling effect."

That rippling effect did not surprise Pawtucket Mayor James E. Doyle.

"We don't know who did it, or whether they were from Pawtucket or not," said Doyle. "It doesn't really matter. The type of people we have in this city is typified by the reaction to the incident."

Doyle said he is quite sure the money could have been raised by just a couple of generous donors. He was especially impressed that Roth reached out to so many people and made it a community event.

"I'm really very proud of these people," he said.

Elmasir was born in Lebanon. He now lives in nearby Massachusetts and has been an American citizen for a dozen years. His wife is American. The broken windows scared him. They scared his family.

But the fear did not last. Rick Roth and friends made sure of that.

Elmasir was shocked when Roth delivered check for $1,036 to repair the two broken window panes.

When I talked to him the other morning I could sense the relief in his voice. His faith in America had indeed been restored.

"I was very scared at the beginning," said Elmasir. "But I feel safe now. I have a lot of support from the community. It's wonderful."

What started out as a hate crime ended so differently - when a community took an ugly wrong and turned it into an overwhelming right.

Published 10/29/2001

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