BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. (AP) — A 6-year-old Palestinian American boy who authorities allege was stabbed 26 times by his landlord in response to escalating right-wing rhetoric on the Israel-Hamas war was being remembered as a kind child, while multiple authorities investigate the attack that has become a symbol of larger struggles with hate crime in the U.S.
Crowds of mourners in the heavily Palestinian Chicago suburb of Bridgeview, paid respects Monday as Wadea Al-Fayoume was buried. His mother, who was also critically injured in the attack that led to condemnation from local elected officials to the White House, remained hospitalized.
At a Tuesday evening vigil at a community center, Plainfield Mayor John Argoudelis said he had learned that Wadea liked his Lego toys and playing basketball and soccer and said Wadea sounded like a typical all-American boy.
“We are united,” the mayor said, noting that representatives of many faiths were standing at the front of the gymnasium. “We are first and foremost here to mourn the loss of this young man and to support you, his family.”
Mahmoud Yousef, Wadea’s uncle, spoke to the crowd with the boy’s father standing beside him. Yousef thanked people for coming and said he was touched by the wide variety of people in attendance Tuesday night and for Monday’s funeral service.
“I believe this gathering here is for our children,” he said. “These days, a lot of Muslim communities are keeping their kids home. They’re scared. They’re afraid. But today, everybody came here for their own children, not just Muslim children.”
During funeral services, family and friends remembered Wadea as an energetic boy who loved playing games. The child, who recently celebrated a birthday, was also seen as another innocent casualty in the escalating war.
“Wadea is a child and he is not the only one under attack,” Mosque Foundation Imam Jamal Said said during the janazah, or funeral service. He added “children are being slaughtered literally in the Holy Land, unfortunately, which is very sad.”
The boy’s body was carried in a small white casket — which was at times draped with a Palestinian flag — through packed crowds.
Yousef remembered Wadea as active, playful and kind. Citing a text message from the boy’s mother, Yousef said she recalled the last words her son spoke to her after he was stabbed: “Mom, I’m fine.”
“You know what, he is fine,” Yousef said. “He’s in a better place.”
Hours before the boy was buried, 71-year-old Joseph Czuba made his first court appearance on murder, attempted murder and hate crime charges.
The boy’s mother told investigators that she rented two rooms on the first floor of the Plainfield home while Czuba and his wife lived on the second floor, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Fitzgerald said in a court filing.
“He was angry at her for what was going on in Jerusalem,” Fitzgerald said. “She responded to him, ‘Let’s pray for peace.’ … Czuba then attacked her with a knife.”
The boy’s mother fought Czuba off and went into a bathroom where she stayed until police arrived. Wadea, meanwhile, was in his own room, Fitzgerald said.
The mother was identified by family members as Hanaan Shahin, 32, though authorities used a different spelling for her name as well as her son’s name.
On the day of the attack, police found Czuba with a cut on his forehead, sitting on the ground outside the home.
Czuba’s wife, Mary, told police that her husband feared they would be attacked by people of Middle Eastern descent and had withdrawn $1,000 from a bank “in case the U.S. grid went down,” Fitzgerald said in the court document.
The boy’s killing prompted fresh concerns in Muslim circles about Islamophobia and being forgotten in war coverage.
At a news conference before the funeral, speakers called for politicians and media to be responsible with their comments and coverage of the war. Attendees gathered close to hear, phones recording and expressions somber.
In recent days, Jewish and Muslim groups have reported an increase of hateful rhetoric in the wake of the war. Several cities have stepped up police patrols.
The Justice Department said it opened a hate crime investigation into the attack.
“This horrific act of hate has no place in America, and stands against our fundamental values: freedom from fear for how we pray, what we believe, and who we are,” President Joe Biden said.
Associated Press reporters Ed White in Detroit and Noreen Nasir in New York contributed to this report.