Ola Salem: Mystery around body of Muslim women's champion found in park

The Independent 2 weeks ago

Ola Salem was, by all accounts, fearless. As a teenager, she stood up to the managers of an amusement park after she was not allowed on rides because she was wearing a head scarf. She worked out at a boxing gym and was considered a fierce protector at the domestic violence shelter where she volunteered. She went sky diving.

Then Ms Salem, 25, turned up dead.

Her body was discovered 24 October in Bloomingdale Park on Staten Island, partially covered by leaves and fully dressed, according to police.

But her death has not been ruled a homicide, and no arrests have been made. News outlets reported that there were no signs of blunt-force trauma to the body, only marks consistent with having been dragged into the underbrush.

A spokesman for the New York Police Department, Al Baker, said there is an ongoing investigation into the death but would not comment further. The city’s medical examiner office said the cause of death had not been determined because it is awaiting results of toxicology tests, which can take weeks.

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“I don’t know who did this to her,” said Dania Darwish, a friend and president of the Asiyah Women’s Centre in Brooklyn, the domestic violence shelter where Ms Salem volunteered. “I have not one single clue.”

Deepening the sense of mystery are questions about Ms Salem’s marriage, a tumultuous relationship that appeared to have spiralled after the couple separated more than a year before her death, with both parties filing orders of protection against each other and Ms Salem at one point seeking refuge in the shelter where she volunteered.

According to The New York Post, at the time of her death, Ms Salem had filed a restraining order against her husband. Police declined to confirm the report and did not name the husband.

Police confirmed there was an order of protection against Ms Salem. She had been arrested at least on one occasion, in March, for violating the order, according to police, who said the victim was a 21-year-old male.

Advocates for victims of domestic violence said that it is not unusual for there to be duelling orders of protection in abusive relationships: pre-emptively filing an order of protection can be a tactic used by an abusive partner or spouse to discredit the victim or cast suspicion on him or her.

Ms Salem’s father, Kabary Salem, said in an interview that his daughter had spoken to her mother of being trailed on the highway. “She always said somebody would follow her,” he said.

Ms Salem met her husband while taking courses at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, according to her father. Ms Salem had moved back to her family’s home on Staten Island after they separated. At the time of Ms Salem’s death, however, she had left, and her family believed she had returned to live with him. He declined to name the man.

“I want to know what happened to her, what is the reason for that — but no one tells me. I am just waiting,” Ms Salem’s father said.

He added: “She was a really good, beautiful girl.”

Ms Salem, whose parents were originally from Egypt, grew up in Coney Island in Brooklyn and was an active member of the Muslim American Society Youth Centre in South Brooklyn as a teenager.

In 2011, when she was 17, she made headlines when she visited Playland Park, an amusement park in Rye, New York, as part of a trip organised by the society to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

She was told by workers she could not join her younger sister on a ride because of her hijab and asked to speak with management. The issue escalated, and a minor melee broke out, with 15 people arrested.

“They said ‘no’ because my of my ‘headgear,’” Salem told the Times. “I said, ‘It’s not my headgear. It’s my religion.’”

She was known to be outspoken. During the uprising in Egypt the same year, Ms Salem had participated in rallies in New York, Darwish noted. “She was talking about democracy and fair elections,” she said. “She was unapologetic. She challenged authority. She was not afraid of anyone.”

Ms Darwish said her friend was also physically strong. Ms Salem’s father, who has worked as a driver, was a boxer on Egypt’s Olympic team. Known as the “Egyptian Magician,” Salem’s father gained notoriety when an opponent died after a fight. Ms Salem’s brother, Omar Salem, followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a professional boxer.

Ms Salem said she would have liked to have been a boxer, too, her friend recalled, and worked out often. “She was very, very strong,” Ms Darwish said. “It beats me how — if this was a murder — how anyone could have killed her because she was stronger than some men.”

Her father described a household that was traditional and revolved around physical fitness. “No drink, no hangout,” he said. “Athletes, all my kids.”

Since college, Ms Salem had pushed to exert her independence, according to friends. She dreamed of completing her college degree, being financially independent and renting her own apartment. Not long ago, Ms Darwish said, Ms Salem had gotten her paperwork in order to drive for ride-share services including Uber.

She remained an observant Muslim. During the last days of Ramadan, an intense period of prayer that closes the holy month of fasting, she kept friends’ spirits up, joking and proposing dance breaks, Ms Darwish said.

She volunteered immediately when the Asiyah Women’s Centre, which said it is New York City’s first domestic violence shelter for Muslim women and children, opened in Brooklyn last year. She stayed late to make the beds at the centre and put on the finishing touches before it opened its doors.

Ms Salem took up residence there herself for a few months late last year, under circumstances that Ms Darwish said she could not discuss for reasons having to do with the shelter’s privacy policy. She became a beloved figure among the residents.

Following her death, the shelter, which houses more than a dozen women, launched a crowdfunding campaign to create more services to support domestic violence survivors in Ms Salem’s name.

After her body was found, prayers flooded her family members’ Facebook pages. On 26 October, hundreds gathered for a funeral prayer service at the Muslim American Society Youth Centre, where Ms Salem helped arrange charity events and participated in a breast cancer walk, and was remembered for her energy and altruism.

Ms Darwish said her friend’s memory remains present. “She was always laughing. I can close my eyes and hear her laughing,” she said. "She was very self-aware, she was very deep,” she said, but she was also fun, breaking into song and dance, always up for late-night diner runs or binge-watching episodes of Black Mirror.

She made residents of the shelter laugh, Ms Darwish recalled. “Despite everything that she went through,” she said, “she was always putting a smile on our face.”

The New York Times

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