A New York Times reporter who documented the vandalism of a Fort Smith mosque this year returned to the River Valley to expound upon her work Monday.
Sabrina Tavernise's feature story "The Two Americans," which ran in the Aug. 26 edition of the New York Times, documented the painting of swastikas and vulgar language on Fort Smith's Al Salam mosque, vandal Abraham Davis' remorseful response for his actions and the mosque's attempt to prevent his felony conviction. Tavernise spoke to the Fort Smith community about her experience during a panel at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith — one of her publication's six "The Times In Person" panels.
Tavernise was joined by Kristin Collins, the mother of Abraham Davis, and Kouay Nassri, of Al Salam. She said the story was important to her as a journalist.
"We news people live in this place that's so loud," she said. "We need to remember this."
Tavernise said her story was a response to her editors telling her to document a story that "would get under the skin" of a social issue in the United States. Before she came to the are to do the report, the story of the vandalism, which happened at the beginning of 2017, sent waves through Arkansas.
Though it was religiously divisive on the surface, Nassri said the event was a unifying one for the area's faith groups.
"There was not a single denomination that did not send letters, that did not send flowers," Nassri said. He said the warmest response came from Jewish synagogues in western Arkansas.
The story of the vandalism led Tavernise to travel to the River Valley area multiple times between April and July.
Davis turned himself over to law enforcement on Feb. 17 — "a few days" after the mosque was vandalized, according to Nassri. He said Davis' brother, Noah, delivered his apology to Al Salam's clergy soon after his brother's apprehension.
Davis' apology led Nassri to petition for prosecutors go be gracious to him.
"Every time you apply for a job, you have to check a box that says, 'Have you been convicted of a felony?'" Nassri said. "I told them, 'You can't ruin this man's life.'"
"They were well within their right to say, 'Forget this," Collins said of the Al Salam clergy. "They were overwhelming."
In spite of the mosque's petition, Davis was convicted of a felony count of first-degree criminal mischief in May, as his actions were found by the prosecutor to align with the offense.
Davis' sentence terms have also prevented Davis from making contact with Al Salam. Collins said Davis is disappointed with this, as he would like to thank the mosque's clergy in person for their support.
Tavernise said she was concerned with how the story and its narrative would be received, as it broke two weeks after the riots in Charlottesville, Va. Contrarily, the public's reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
"I got emails from London, from Switzerland, from my home county of Syria," Nassri said. "What began as an act of kindness mushroomed to an international act."
Collins said she has received monetary and emotional support from both the Fort Smith community and across the country.
In the world of journalism, Tavernise's story has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. A film company has also purchased the rights to the story.
Tavernise said "The Two Americans" is important in light of the current divisive context of the United States.
"We become so dug in and so angry at each other," she said. "The thing we need to do is to recognize our sameness."
Following this line of thought, Tavernise explained the importance of journalism.
"Without a common set of facts, we can't have a conversation," she said.
In her 20 years in journalism, which included coverage of conflicts in the Middle East, Tavernise considers the work her crowning achievement.
"I got under the skin of something important and explained to the public how complicated it all is," Tavernise said.
Nassri said the event is important for the River Valley community as well.
"I called this event, 'A blessing in the greatest disguise,'" he said. "It shattered the boundaries."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story and an article on page A1 of the Dec. 12, 2017, edition of the Times Record incorrectly identified the title of Sabrina Tavernise's article in The New York Times.