Sometimes hospitality must be brave

Lindy Ellis and Rich Shapiro are bold. That much is for sure, whether or not you agree with the Saranac Lake couple’s decision to bail an Indian snowshoe racer out of jail and let him stay in their home.

To some, it’s bold as in brazen — i.e., offensive or foolish to let an accused child molester enjoy the comfort of their home rather than cool his heels in the slammer. People have heaped verbal abuse upon them on social media, and some have suggested voting Shapiro out of his village trustee seat next election.

To us, it’s bold as in courageous. It’s representative of classic Judeo-Christian values such as hospitality, welcoming foreigners and treating others as we would like to be treated. Yet none of the other people in town who profess to believe in Judeo-Christian values — including us — stuck our necks out for this guy.

Tanveer Hussain visited Saranac Lake from mountainous Kashmir to compete in the World Snowshoe Championships. Then a local 12-year-old girl accused him of kissing her passionately and groping her breast over her clothes two days after the race. She and her mother reported it to village police after the mom found alarming electronic messages between the girl and the 24-year-old man. The girl’s 12-year-old friend told police she witnessed the two making out. With that evidence, police charged Hussain with sexual abuse in the first degree, a felony, as well as endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor.

Hussain has said he did not touch the girl in that way and that his affectionate messages were actually composed by a friend in India, whom he asked to write his responses since he didn’t speak English well enough.

While plenty of people are taking sides, none of us (except Hussain and the girl) really knows what happened. It’s wiser to withhold judgment and let the justice system run its course.

If he is found guilty, the judge should assign him an appropriate penalty. The U.S. State Department might also limit his ability to travel to the U.S. in the future. Penalizing him is their job — not ours.

Shapiro says he thinks Hussain is innocent, but even if he is guilty, he is still a human being, a mix of good and bad impulses. If he had family here, no one would fault them for paying his bail, taking him in and supporting him in every way they could. But his mother and two younger siblings are back in India — worried sick about him, we’re sure — and his father died several years ago, leaving him as the family’s sole breadwinner, according to Shapiro.

Ellis and Shapiro are simply playing the role of adopted family for this young man here in the U.S. Whether Hussain is guilty or innocent, their kindness and support will help steer him in the right direction going forward.

Not everyone is called upon to do this job — don’t worry, we’re not trying to make anyone feel guilty — but someone ought to, just as some lawyer has to prepare his legal defense. We’re glad Saranac Lake had people who would. Shapiro said he and Ellis felt a sense of responsibility for Hussain as organizers of the World Snowshoe Championships.

“We just felt sorry for the guy,” Shapiro said. “It’s like the nightmare you’ve seen in TV movies, where you’re an American tourist in Chile, and you got picked up for something and thrown in jail, and you can’t communicate with people, and you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t understand the system. For him, it would be a nightmare. It is a nightmare.”

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, understanding their hardship and doing something to alleviate it — the word for that is mercy. It’s a good thing, even more so when it’s unpopular.