Every day, Heba Abolaban of Malden checks on her family in war-strafed Syria, where water, bread and electricity are in short supply. She was far more worried about them than about herself on Wednesday morning when she put her baby daughter in a stroller and headed into the sunshine to a play group with a friend.
But as they strolled down Commercial Street, an angry-faced man charged toward the petite woman, his hand balled into a fist. He punched her hard in the shoulder and screamed curses inches from her face. Then he pointed at her and walked away shouting.
“He said, ‘(Expletive) you. (Expletive) you Muslims, You are terrorists, you are the ones who made the Boston explosion,’” said Abolaban, recalling the episode in a phone interview Thursday. “I was really, really completely shocked. I didn’t know what to do. Then I realized what happened. I was crying and crying.”
Abolaban, a 26-year-old physician who wears a traditional hijab, or head scarf, gripped the stroller carrying her nine-month old daughter and stood in shock. Soon, she and her friend, also pushing a baby stroller, burst into tears.
“I was so afraid he might hurt my baby,” she said.
What happened next made her feel better about Malden, a fast-changing city of 60,000 that now has the second-highest percentage of immigrants in Massachusetts.
She called the Malden police, at her husband’s urging, and as she waited for them to arrive, workers at the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program, where the play group was, came outside to protect the women.
The police arrived within minutes, soothed her and took her statement. Then the calls came: Mayor Gary Christenson called her at home, then Police Chief Kevin Molis phoned.
“They were there within two minutes. They were so kind. They were so helpful,” she said. “The Malden police chief – he called me two times.”
The Islamic center in Malden also checked on her. She is scheduled to teach a class there tomorrow on breast cancer detection.
Molis, who started as a beat officer in Malden, said the attack was one of the first things he brought up at Thursday’s morning roll call. He said his officers are trained to serve the diverse city of Malden, home to immigrants from China, Haiti, Uganda, Vietnam and more.
Police could not find the attacker, vowed to keep looking. Molis called the attack “an intolerable act” that violates state law and “the very essence of our constitution.”
“No investigative strategy will be overlooked in order to determine who’s responsible for this,” Molis said. “This is something that as a city and as a police department we take seriously.”
No other incidents had been reported as of Thursday, he said.
Abolaban and her husband, Ahmad Almujahed, also a physician, moved here about a year and a half ago from Syria. Abolaban said she is a Muslim originally from Palestine.
But Molis said he never asked Abolaban about her religion, because to him, it is a private matter. He said he reaches out to mosques, churches, businesses and all groups to ensure that they feel safe and protected.
“It is our role to make sure that all of our rights are protected and preserved,” he said. “That is why we became police officers.”
Abolaban and others said the response to the attack highlighted the good in a community that has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, and where such instances remain rare.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, Ahmad Almujahed’s name was misspelled an earlier version of this article.