Mohammed B. sounded dejected on the phone, like someone who’d been pushed around one too many times. His voice was soft but eager, often jumping to the next point before completing a full thought. An hour of talking later and it was clear: he’d had it with just about everything.
Last summer, Mohammed, 29, couldn’t have been happier. He was finally working a stable job after he and his wife, Um Kulthom Al-Nehmi, now 24, were given refugee status. The two are originally from Yemen. They have a two year old son, Zaid.
One evening last July, the trio were browsing the Bridgeport Walmart in Waterloo, Ontario where they’d rented an apartment. It was an auspicious time in the Islamic lunar calendar: the days leading up to Eid al-Adha, and Um Kulthom decided to fast by abstaining from food and water until sundown — despite the sweltering summer heat.
It was supposed to be a happy day for the young family and things were going well until, according to Mohammed and Um Kulthom, those light and banal moments at the local Walmart became nightmarish in mere seconds, almost ruining their budding lives in Canada.
“All I did was hug my wife, and this guy outside of the aisle started talking to us,” Mohammed B. recalled through his light Arabic accent. His curly black hair appeared closely cropped and his goatee neatly trimmed as he waved his hands around during a long Zoom interview.
“The guy was like, ‘Are you okay?’ I said ‘Yes.’ And then he told me, ‘Why are you threatening your wife like this?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Why are you here choking your wife?’”
The two men went back and forth like this as Um Kulthom, who wears the niqab or Muslim face veil, looked on in confusion. She doesn’t speak fluent English.
The intervener’s name is Edwin Antwi. What was said between him and Mohammed B. remains a matter of dispute. Minutes later, Antwi, along with Walmart employees, decided to call the police on Mohammed for strangling his wife Um Kulthom.
Court documents show that Antwi later alleged that Mohammed, who has a slight but wiry build, had also justified his actions by saying, “I can do what I want with my wife, I’m Muslim.”
“It’s an absolute lie, I never said that,” Mohammed maintains. He said Antwi walked away at first while the family, still shaken by the encounter, paid for a few things and walked to their car.
“Then all of a sudden, I see a Walmart person come outside, walking towards us, taking a picture of my car,” he said. “The store manager also came out and told me the police wanted to speak to me on the phone.”
The Waterloo Regional Police Service arrived at the parking lot moments after they told Mohammed and his family on the phone to stay put. According to the couple, police first spoke to Antwi, then the Walmart employees.
At no point did anyone try to get the full story from Um Kulthom that night, the supposed victim of an allegedly violent Muslim husband from the Middle East. I called the Bridgeport Walmart management, who referred me to their corporate communications. They did not reply to a request for comment.
“I had my hands in my pockets, waiting for them to finish and come talk to me,” Mohammed B. said. “But then an officer came over, told me to take my hand out and put them behind my back, and then he cuffed me.”
One of two Constables on the scene, an officer T. Valcanoff, took notes that I was able to obtain through the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), where I work as a writer. The NCCM has taken up Mohammed’s story as a case of authorities, along with Mr. Antwi, refusing to listen to a Muslim couple’s account of an incident and doing severe damage to their family as a result.
I’ve been trying to sift through the court and police documents while interviewing anyone involved who would talk to me. What emerges is a story where, at the very least, a young Muslim family was put through tremendous hardship based on one verbal allegation of Mohammed B. strangling his wife in a store. The accuser’s singular testimony outweighed the pleas of Um Kulthom for her husband. They both have essentially the same accounting of that night.
Valcanoff’s notes include a line from Antwi saying that he saw Umkolthom “bent over a 90 (degree) angle.” In a subsequent written statement he made at the police station to another officer, Antwi added the line about Mohammed saying he’s free to do what he likes to his wife because he’s Muslim. He also added another observation about a separate witness, supposedly Mohammed B.’s friend, who by chance saw them and told Antwi, “Leave it alone, because this is how it goes in our country.”
Mohammed B. later said he asked this “friend,” who he met just once before, whether he uttered such a statement. The friend, also named Mohammed, replied he would never say something so stupid.
The latter Mohammed then apparently said that he is familiar with Antwi, who “was always making trouble.” The two even had an altercation at a local shisha bar, he said. This Mohammed did not respond to several requests for comment.
After a few hours inside the Waterloo police station on July 12th, 2021, Mohammed B. was charged with one count of domestic assault against his wife. He was then almost immediately barred from contacting Um Kulthom in any way, including seeing her, until the matter was resolved. The two had no idea when that would be. It turns out that they wouldn’t see each other again until this January.
“The egregious thing is that absolutely no one bothered to even get Ms. Al-Nehmi’s statement that night,” said defence attorney Zachary Al-Khatib, who now represents Um Kulthom. “At every turn, the system failed them.”
That night, saddled with her baby son and still fasting, Um Kulthom stood listlessly in the Bridgeport Walmart parking lot with her two year old son as the sun went down. She doesn’t drive, speaks no English, and has no family in the country. She was still fasting, but could not break her fast. She didn’t have any food or water with her.
It turns out that police wouldn’t get Um Kulthom’s account until five days after the incident. In the meantime, she’d lost her husband who drove her around to get groceries and other necessities for the family. Without him, she was stuck at home without her main lifeline.
The police had left Um Kulthom in the lot without a ride home. In her statement, which she provided last July 17th via a translator, Um Kulthom recounted how she waited in the dark until a woman saw her in distress and talked to her in Arabic.
I found out later that this woman then called the Coalition of Muslim Women of Kitchener-Waterloo, a local group that focuses on Muslim women leadership, as well as issues around Islamophobia, gender-based violence, and domestic abuse.
The organization’s Executive Director Fauzia Mahzar told me that they dispatched staff that night to help drive Um Kulthom home. Or else she would never have made it home that night. Later on, CMW-KW then organized a meeting between the local police and members of the Arabic-speaking community, who were livid about what happened to Mohammed and Um Kulthom.
During her July 17th statement, Um Kulthom finally gave her own account of the “strangling” incident.
Was Mohammed putting his arms around her neck and shoulders a gesture of affection between husband and wife, or an act of domestic violence by a Muslim mysogynist who thought no one was looking?
“We were joking around and because I am wearing the face veil as well, he didn’t see me smiling. I was smiling at this time,” Um Kulthom recalled.
“Everything was fine, we were fine, it was just us joking around, it wasn’t what this other person
understood. With all due respect to this person, I feel like this is an interference between a
husband and wife, and I’m sorry to say that but it is meddling in other people’s business.”
She then noted how no one from Walmart helped her as she waited in the parking lot, unable to get home.
“I was so scared, I felt like maybe someone is going to come and attack me. We were alone in the parking lot at night, my son is very young, he needs to change the diaper, he is hungry.”
A Constable Molnar interviewed Um Kulthom for the statement and asked her repeatedly about whether Mohammed was violent towards her:
“MOLNAR — You weren’t hurt at all during that?
AL-NEHMI — Do you see that I am hurt at all? There isn’t any spots.
MOLNAR — I can understand that. I ask because sometimes people do get hurt even if there is no mark to show. I just want to make sure that you are okay.
AL-NEHMI — No, I am really happy with my husband but I am really upset, I hope that they bring him back.
MOLNAR — I know. So what I am hearing is that it sounds like somebody else in the store witnessed a moment in time between you and your husband and their perception of what happened is different than what happened.
AL-NEHMI — Yes, it was opposite from the truth. I wish I was able to actually tell this guy that no we are just playful, just joking. I felt bad that I was not able to communicate.”
At the end of the interview, Um Kulthom said: “It is not of his nature at all to be violent, he is not like that at all. It was just playing around.”
Mohammed said that by the time Um Kulthom gave her statement, he had to look for alternative shelter, which meant living out of his car, but also in local hotels, and at his uncle’s place in Burlington, Ontario. He said he took three weeks off work at a Mississauga Amazon factory without pay.
He was facing the assault charge even after Um Kulthom gave her statement insisting that nothing bad happened between them that day, and asked for her husband back. What she said made no difference in the police or prosecution’s calculus. The Waterloo Regional Police Service declined a request to be interviewed for this piece.
Um Kulthom also made several more attempts to tell the prosecution, led by Assistant Attorney General Laura Doherty, that Mohammed never hurt her and to drop the charges. She never got any response from them. A Toronto Star article published last January quotes Doherty as a specialist on hate crimes.
“It’s especially infuriating that in this age of #MeToo and believing women and complainants, no one bothered to even get her side of things,” Al-Khatib said. “And she’s not even a complainant, she repeatedly said her husband never choked her.”
From his perspective, the “Believe Victims” or #MeToo ethos doesn’t seem to apply to all women. At least not when it’s a Yemeni woman wearing the niqab who speaks no English.
Mohammed B. was able to retain a paralegal, Leon Presner, as his main counsel. NCCM staff lawyers joined much later as co-counsel. He also said he continued to pay the rent for his family during this time.
Um Kulthom eventually sent a letter through her lawyer last December to Doherty’s team, noting how silenced and ignored she felt:
“Ms. Al-Nehmy is extremely upset because she feels that she has been mistreated by the Canadian authorities. She feels that she is being stereotyped as an oppressed Muslim woman when that is not the case, and as a result of that stereotyping she is not being listened to. She wants the justice system to acknowledge her and take her perspective and wishes into account.”
She then requested in letter that Mohammed’s charge be dropped and that he returns home to resume his child-rearing duties.
Presner said that the judge got him and Doherty together that month for a meeting and told the prosecutors that their case was weak. They had one statement from Antwi.
A search of the name Edwin Antwi quickly turns up several stories of a young man in the Kitchener-Waterloo area who pled guilty to two counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual interference in 2018 (for which he did 23 months in jail). One assault was that of a 14-year-old girl.
I found this Edwin Antwi’s Instagram account and DM’ed him again and again for confirmation and comment. I got no response. Meanwhile, I could see that the account was active, posting various stories and photos, often of Antwi expressing his Christian faith.
I also asked Mohammed B. if he recognized this person as the same guy who confronted him and Um Kulthom in the Walmart. He said he can’t remember the guy’s face very well, since they were wearing masks most of the time, but can confirm that he was a Black male. Regardless, in the end, it was basically Antwi’s word against that of Mohammed and Um Kulthom’s.
The couple allege that the prosecution and the Waterloo police stereotyped them. They think the authorities saw as a scared, weak, oppressed, abused Muslim wife trying to protect her abuser, like many other victims. They assumed that she, a battered niqab-wearing Muslim wife who has no job and doesn’t drive, can’t possibly have any meaningful agency. In this reality, Antwi’s account of an abusive brown man battering his wife in a store probably made more sense.
“They treated my client like a dog,” Presner said. “I was not happy about how this unfolded, at the end of it all, he was treated as if he was guilty, without evidence, on paper.”
The whole thing ended when a dejected and defeated Mohammed B. agreed to a peace bond (akin to a restraining order), which the prosecution pushed for. It’s basically a piece of paper that he has to carry around for one year, as long as he is out with Um Kulthom, indicating that he is a domestic violence threat.
Mohammed B. still gets to maintain a clean criminal record, but the peace bond will be logged under his file within the Ontario legal system, according to Al-Khatib.
I eagerly pursued Doherty for comment and for her thoughts on what happened at the Bridgeport Walmart, and why she didn’t at least respond to Um Kulthom’s pleas. I thought maybe her reputation as someone who specializes in hate crime prosecutions made her more sympathetic and familiar with the challenges of marginalized communities. Particularly as we live in a time of rising Islamophobia and hateful incidents against people of colour.
Instead of answering my questions directly, Doherty told me to email the Ministry of the Attorney General’s spokesperson, Brian Gray. The latter sent me a canned response about how a peace bond is one way to resolve matters outside of a trial. Mohammed B. said he and Um Kulthom didn’t want the headache of a trial, so they went with the peace bond option.
I asked him again why Doherty and her team seemed to pay no attention to Um Kulthom. He responded by saying, “You have the response. The ministry has nothing further to say about this matter.”
This case has gnawed at me a lot, along with people in our community who I chatted with. What are we to make of it? It’s like a reverse #MeToo incident: a wife is defending her husband instead of outing him as an abuser. The involvement of a busybody like Antwi gives the whiff of a Karen situation, except the usual racial dynamics are not at play.
A standard Karen incident involves a racist white woman policing the actions and bodies of Black men. In this case, the “Karen” is Antwi, a Black male, calling out the actions of another person, who happens to be a Muslim Arab man from Yemen. The “victim,” or Um Kulthom, is a third element that eventually gets silenced all the way.
We don’t have a ready-made framework to understand a dynamic like this in the shape of #MeToo or Karens. But we have to make the decent and human effort to understand Mohammed B. and Um Kulthom’s point of view.
We have to consider two possibilities. One, Antwi lied and acted as a dishonest, Karen-esque busybody whose intervention almost destroyed a young family. Or two, Antwi acted in good faith, alerted the authorities, who, along with the prosecution later on, promptly believed his version of things.
Egregiously, in both possibilities, the due process of law faltered when it came to the accused. The system immediately separated Mohammed B. from his family upon accusation. The cops charged him without taking any statement from the alleged victim, Um Kulthom. He was treated like a guilty person without much evidence, let alone a conviction.
Why did this happen? Why is there this flaw in our system? These are questions worth reflecting on as Canadians who claim to champion democracy and fairness. Did the people involved, from the Walmart employees, to the police, to the prosecution, write Um Kulthom off as an abused, powerless Muslim woman in need of saving? If so, then the stereotype may have helped throw a young Muslim family into utter chaos.
This is a vulnerability that no one ever thought about. If it happened once, it can happen again. Our system, combined with various prejudices, likely produced a horrific result here. It is a glaring example of institutional Islamophobia.
Though barred from seeing Um Kulthom for months, Mohammed B. still managed to legally see their son, Zaid.
Mohammed also said that, not long after the incident, his brother called to tell him that Um Kulthom was pregnant with their second child. Mohammed said he was ecstatic. But a few days later, the same brother told Mohammed that his Um Kulthom had miscarried.
The family is now reunited and Mohammed resumed work. He’s still shaken by the incident and wants to tell his story.
“I just wanted it to be over,” he said. “I could tell my son was missing me.”
Steven Zhou is a journalist and a writer for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM)