The 17-year-old was on his way home from school, on FaceTime with a friend, when a stranger sat down next to him, pulled his earbud out of his ear and asked, “What trash are you speaking?”
The teenager, a Syrian refugee who had moved to San Diego three years ago, replied, “Arabic.” The man then punched him in the face multiple times, yelling obscenities and racial slurs, according to Hatem Mohtaseb, the regional organizer at a local advocacy organization who helped file a police report.
On Monday, nearly three weeks after the attack, on a San Diego Trolley car, the man, Adrian Vergara, 26, pleaded guilty to the assault, which the authorities charged as a hate crime, according to Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office. He also pleaded guilty to an unrelated 2018 robbery charge.
Mr. Vergara is expected to be sentenced to five years in prison, Ms. Sierra said. It was unclear on Tuesday whether Mr. Vergara had a lawyer.
The teenager, who was not identified by the authorities and has only spoken to local news outlets anonymously, was attacked for “no apparent reason” while riding a trolley car on Oct. 15, the police said in a statement.
There were a handful of bystanders on the trolley car, but no one stepped in despite the teenager’s repeated pleas for help, Mr. Mohtaseb said.
“He was really upset about the fact that no one helped him,” Mr. Mohtaseb added. “He kept repeating this thing: ‘I don’t understand why people didn’t try to stop him.’”
Several minutes after the attack, the teenager and his attacker exited the trolley at the 62nd Street station in Encanto but went separate ways, he said.
When he got home, the teenager had his hood up and went straight to his room, Mr. Mohtaseb said. His mother, sensing something was wrong, checked on him and saw the dark bruises around his eye. She immediately called Mr. Mohtaseb at the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, an advocacy group for refugees, and began filing a police report within two hours of the attack.
Investigators found video evidence from the trolley that supported the boy’s account.
The Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department arrested Mr. Vergara one week after the attack for an unrelated misdemeanor narcotics charge, the police said. The authorities recognized him and transferred him to the San Diego Police Department, where he was booked into jail, the police said.
The teenager was emotionally traumatized and has not been on the trolley since the attack, Mr. Mohtaseb said, adding that the teenager is being home schooled until the end of the semester.
The teenager released a public statement a week after the attack, saying his family “came to this country under the belief that we would have civil rights and liberties and safety.”
“There are many people who don’t know Arabs and Muslims and believe that we are violent,” he said. “However, I want to show that this is not true. When I was attacked, I could have fought back. However, I chose to stay calm and not fight back.”
The teenager said that when his family first moved to the United States, his brother experienced a hate crime that the family did not report. He said he did not want to stay quiet this time.
“I urge others who are victims of such attacks to speak up and not stay silent,” he added.
The Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, which was founded five years ago, works to resettle refugee families in the area, according to Ramla Sahid, the group’s executive director.
There are more than 80,000 refugees in San Diego, the largest resettlement location in California, and a few hundred in the neighborhood where the attack happened, Ms. Sahid said.
“How do we protect each other?” Ms. Sahid said. “It’s not the responsibility of the Muslim community. It’s the responsibility of the city of San Diego and this country to make sure negative rhetoric is not normalized.”
Hate crimes are not uncommon in the city, according to Dustin Craun, the executive director of the San Diego Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.
The trolley attack happened one week after three young women wearing hijabs were attacked in downtown San Diego, he said.
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