(NEW YORK) — Vilma Kari was on her way to church in New York City on March 29 when a stranger knocked her on the ground and kicked her in the face, after yelling a racist slur and telling her she didn't belong.
In the weeks since then, the 66-year-old has been recovering from severe physical injuries, including a fractured pelvis, and coming to terms with the vicious attack, which is being investigated as a hate crime.
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“I've been asking those questions... Why me? Did I do something wrong? What did I do to provoke that? And all [my friends] could say to me is maybe there is a plan for you because you were spared and you're a strong woman,” Kari told ABC News. “Maybe God is telling you to do something. So, with the help of my daughter… she kept telling me, ‘Your story can be an awareness for what's going on with the community, with Asian Americans.’”
Kari’s attack is one of the numerous horrifying incidents caught on camera across the US in recent months.
From March 2020 to March 2021, the organization Stop AAPI Hate received 6,603 reports of hate incidents, a dramatic rise from the 3,795 incidents reported before March 2021.
Kari said her daughter Elizabeth Kari told her that "there are so many victims that have not been heard from," and encouraged her to tell her story.
On March 31, The New York Police Department arrested 38-year-old Brandon Elliott in connection to the attack. He was charged with assault as a hate crime, attempted assault as a hate crime, assault and attempted assault. He has pleaded not guilty.
Two workers in the luxury building that Vilma Kari was passing when she was attacked were also fired. Surveillance video of the incident showed them watching the violence but appeared to doing nothing to help her.
The workers were later fired. Their union said “the workers did assist the victim and flagged down the police, as was shown in a longer version of the building’s camera footage.
Today, Vilma Kari courageously aims to transform her attack into a vehicle for change despite saying she still feels fearful.
“I feel I just have to accept and be open … even though that fear is in my heart,” she said. “But if we let fear overcome all these things, then nothing will happen. We have to rise above fear and be stronger than that -- be stronger than fear.”
Vilma Kari came to the U.S. decades ago to pursue a masters degree in business administration and major in economics. Shortly after arriving, she fell in love, got married and had a daughter.
Her husband died 8 years ago, and during the pandemic she decided to visit her daughter in New York so she wouldn't be so lonely in Chicago.
“I felt so alone. I figured, let me stay with my daughter. I haven't seen her, you know, or stayed with her during this pandemic,” Vilma Kari said.
She and her daughter had just reunited before she was attacked.
“All I have is my mom. I don't have any others. I'm an only child… I've had moments where I thought about what if it played out in a different way,” Elizabeth Kari said. “I have no idea how the situation would have turned out otherwise and I would have been totally by myself. I I don't know what the next step would have been at all.”
Vilma Kari said she lost her brother to COVID-19, and weeks later her beloved family dog passed away. While she says she’s had an extremely trying time, she said, the support she’s received has been overwhelming.
“[I’ve received prayers and support and love from the people all over the world that I don't even know them,” she said. “I would like to tell all of them thank you from my heart because it has helped me and it's still helping me in my recovery. Physically, I'm healing well, but mentally [and] emotionally, I'm not there yet.”
For her 66th birthday, Vilma Kari said all she wanted to do was go to church, attend mass, light a candle and pray.
“Pray for all the blessings, pray that I'm alive and I'm OK. And pray for everyone. For everyone, including even. My attacker, I prayed for him because I felt he needed prayers,” she said. “That's part of our belief. You know, we pray for those who persecute us or those who have harmed us, and show them love. You know, that's the only thing, because love is the most powerful thing in the world.”
Elizabeth Kari says it’s “amazing” to hear her mom giving grace to her attacker.
“I don't know if I could have said the same things myself. I've been watching her over the last couple of weeks. Just the emotional growth of her getting to that point. I actually hadn't heard her say that,” she said.
Elizabeth Kari has not only been a pillar of strength for her mom, but also an advocate for action, helping other Asian Americans.
She founded AAP(I Belong), a safe place to share stories and words of encouragement for anyone who has experienced anti-Asian hate. Elizabeth Kari says her mom is part of the process and helps review submissions.
“I am amazed. I was so full of pride for what she's doing,” Vilma Kari said. “It's [a place for] people to just tell their stories and show the world that this has been happening and we are not alone. … There's a community who could help them.”
Vilma Kari acknowledged the divide between her generation and her daughter’s, but she has come around to better understand her daughter’s point of view -- to keep informed and speak out about injustice.
“I think my generation should listen to the second generation or ... the younger generation, because our time, this is not our time anymore. It's their time,” Vilma Kari said. “Our times are changing, and we just have to listen back and forth, talk to each other.”
Now Vilma Kari says she's found her voice, and is using her attacker's words against him.
“That's what I heard mention to me, that I do not belong here and I, I say I belong and I want to insist I belong,” she said. “I have contributed to the success of this country in my own way, no matter how small is that, you know. So I think that. I just belong.”