Muslim attack mum: ‘I won’t be controlled by fear’
Rana Elasmar was 38 weeks pregnant and about to enjoy dessert and coffee to finish a last night out with her friends before the birth of her fourth child.
In the middle of the buzzing cafe on November 20 last year, Mrs Elasmar became the victim of an unprovoked, vicious and racially-motivated attack that created headlines around the country.
For the first time, a brave Mrs Elasmar has chosen to speak publicly about the brutal assault and to shine a light on violence against women and religious-based discrimination.
The 32-year-old former schoolteacher hopes her strength will empower other women and raise awareness that Islamophobia is more prevalent than ever. She and her friends had not even ordered when a stranger approached her table.
Stipe Lozina held his hand out and asked for change. His gaze shifted from the two friends seated with Mrs Elasmar to the expectant mother.
"I felt he did have different intentions, I felt uneasy and uncomfortable," she told The Saturday Telegraph.
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Lozina leaned over the table and threw at least a dozen punches at Mrs Elasmar before she dropped to the floor of the cafe. He screamed anti-Muslim abuse, which Mrs Elasmar will not repeat.
"Once he started hitting I thought: 'I need to protect the baby'," she said.
"I was thinking: 'That's OK, hit my head, as long as you don't hit my baby'."
As the blows continued, Mrs Elasmar wondered why no one had stepped in.
"Finally I was just thinking, praying to my god, Allah please help me," she said.
"You are the only one who can help me. No one else is stopping him."
Mrs Elasmar's two friends yelled for help and tried to pull him away but he towered over the women.
While on her hands and knees in a bid to keep her stomach off the ground, Lozina stomped on Mrs Elasmar's head.
The CCTV footage finally showed a man run out of the chaos and tear Lozina away.
Other bystanders stood back as the assault unfolded, stepping in after the other man did.
"If he hadn't stepped in, he probably might have kept going," Mrs Elasmar said.
"I might have been killed that night, my son might have been killed that night."
Back home, husband Azzam Elasmar received a panicked phone call from his wife's distraught friend.
The pharmacist rushed down to Parramatta as a shaken Mrs Elasmar was being loaded into an ambulance. She suffered head injuries and lingering pain in her jaw and ear.
But, over the following weeks, Mrs Elasmar was increasingly anxious about the health of her unborn child. Scans at hospital did not raise any red flags but Mrs Elasmar felt something was wrong.
Her baby had barely kicked since the assault and doctors warned he may have been affected by her trauma.
"It was extremely stressful," she said.
Finally, three weeks after the attack, Mrs Elasmar gave birth to a happy and healthy baby boy, Zayn.
While the mother-of-four has recovered from her physical injuries, she is still dealing with a ripple effect.
Her voice cracked as she described the impact the attack had on three other children, aged seven, five and three.
In the aftermath, her eldest son and daughter grew anxious when she left the house and cried when a stranger walked past their driveway out of fear he would attack them.
Mrs Elasmar wanted to set an example, especially for her daughters, of what a strong woman should be.
"I wanted to show them that no matter what happens we pick ourselves up and move on and I don't accept people to treat me in that way," she said.
"I won't be controlled by fear. That's the reason why I picked up and started going out again."
Sadly, it was not the first time Mrs Elasmar had been targeted with abuse because of her religion.
After making the personal decision to start wearing a hijab eight years ago, Mrs Elasmar was hissed at in the street and sworn at in the supermarket.
At the crowded Sydney Fish Market with her daughter one day, a man verbally abused her and yelled "Go back to where you came from".
"It was really hurtful because I was born and raised here," she said.
"Just because I wear the hijab doesn't mean that I am not Australian."
Even after her attack, she was inundated with stories from Muslim women about their own experiences of unprovoked abuse and insults by strangers.
A staggering 96 per cent of Muslim women who report Islamophobic abuse were wearing a hijab at the time, according to a damning Islamophobia In Australia report released last year.
Women and children were the most common targets, the report found, with almost half of victims claiming no one stopped to help them.
For Mrs Elasmar, her experience is equally about violence against women as it is about Islamophobia.
"I want to make it known, the issue of violence against women, particularly Muslim women," she said.
"It's a real issue. That man (Lozina) made it known that this attack was based on his hatred of Muslims.
"He was violent, calculated and a lot of the time these attacks are brushed under the rug. Sometimes, there is not enough evidence or the woman doesn't have the courage to come forward and report the crime."
She hopes people understand that her experience is not a one-off and that victims draw strength from her story.
Lozina is due to be sentenced in Parramatta District Court next month after he pleaded guilty to assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
A charge of affray was withdrawn although Lozina pleaded guilty to that offence too. The 43-year-old has a track record of random and vile verbal attacks against Muslim women.
Last September, he hurled Islamophobic abuse at two women, who were wearing hijabs, inside the Westfield Shopping Centre in Liverpool.
The Saturday Telegraph understands the women went straight to Liverpool Police Station and even pointed out Lozina, who happened to walk past when they were talking to an officer. But the complaint was not acted on.
It was only after Lozina attacked Mrs Elasmar two months later, that one of the victims from the Westfield assault recognised Lozina in the CCTV footage. She contacted police and made a statement.
Lozina pleaded guilty to a string of charges, including stalking and was sentenced to a maximum 16 months jail.
The court has previously heard Lozina had a history of mental illness but in determining his fitness to enter a guilty plea, a magistrate said in June he appeared "very lucid".
WHERE TO REPORT HATE CRIMES
* Report incidents of Islamophobia at islamophobia.com.au/report/
* Report the abuse to your local police station or the Police Assistance Line on 131 444
Originally published as Muslim attack mum: 'I won't be controlled by fear'