The FBI is investigating an alleged attack on an Afghan refugee that occurred Thursday night in the vicinity of Owensboro’s Comfort Inn and Suites. A witness told Owensboro Times two refugees were followed from a gym to their hotel before one was pepper sprayed. Local leaders who are helping the refugees resettle claim it was a hate crime.
According to spokesperson with the FBI Louisville office, both the FBI and the Owensboro Police Department received complaints of an assault on an Afghan refugee Thursday evening. OPD Public Information Officer Andrew Boggess said their agency was deferring all comments to the FBI.
“The FBI, working in conjunction with OPD, immediately responded and began investigating the incident to determine if a federal crime had been committed,” the spokesperson said in an email. “As this investigation remains ongoing, we are asking for the public’s help in identifying the perpetrators of this assault. Please contact the FBI at (502) 263-6000 or OPD at (270) 687-8888 if you have any information about this assault. Being one of its top priorities, the FBI is committed to protecting civil rights for all.”
According to Naheed Murtaza, Vice President of the Human Relations Commission, the Owensboro International Center (OIC) was contacted immediately about the incident, and in turn the Center contacted her. Murtaza and Anne Allen, president of the OIC, said the incident was clearly a hate crime.
“One of our volunteers was there and called the police,” Allen said. “We went there and checked on our clients. One was in the hospital. … Obviously it’s a hate crime, so the FBI is involved and looking into it.”
Murtaza also helped convey information from a male witness to Owensboro Times. OT is honoring the witness’ desire to keep his identity private.
The witness said the two refugees were believed to have been followed from a local gym to the Comfort Inn by three men — two white and one Black — at about 6:20 p.m. The witness said the two refugees have been at Comfort Suites since Oct. 15.
The witness said he saw one of the alleged attackers playing on his phone as the other two walked into the hotel behind the refugees. The witness said one of the men said “Hey, guys,” to the refugees.
According to the witness, when the refugees turned around, one was pepper sprayed by the man. The witness said he thought it was a joke, then smelled the pepper spray and “knew something bad had happened.”
The witness said he was only 10-20 feet away from the alleged attackers, who “did not seem nervous at all and didn’t run.”
The victim was taken to Owensboro Health Regional Hospital, treated by doctors and released, according to the witness.
The witness said the alleged attackers were “really confident” and the incident was “surprising and shocking.”
“We didn’t think anything like that would happen here,” he said. “Everyone here has been so helpful and nice. We want them to know, we took this seriously. The community is taking it seriously. It has given everyone a different perspective of Owensboro.”
Murtaza said while the incident is worrisome, she has confidence that most of the Owensboro community is supportive.
“Owensboro is by far a welcoming community. We have many different faith groups that have been making sure the Afghan community is welcome and settled,” she said. “There’s solidarity, love, empathy, everything here. And you take the good with the bad. This isn’t something that’s going to deter anyone from seeing these refugees as Owensboro residents and one of their own. We just need to make sure, above all else, that they’re safe.”
The Comfort Inn has served as temporary housing for more than 150 refugees as they seek permanent residencies in the area. Murtaza said only 10-15% of the initial population is still residing at the hotel.
Allen echoed Murtaza, saying this incident is not a representation of Owensboro.
“People in Owensboro have a respect for their service to our country,” she said. “They are happy to be in Owensboro. They still see all the good in Owensboro, and they are still going to make Owensboro their home.”