Edmonton refugee group standing by man accused in water park assaults

An Edmonton refugee support group is standing by the man accused of sexually assaulting a number of teenage girls inside the West Edmonton Mall water park.

‘We’re all waiting to find out what the facts are’

Dave Trautman says his group River City Refugee Project is supporting Soleiman Hajj Soleiman, in spite of his charges, after sponsoring him as a refugee from Syria. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

An Edmonton refugee support group is standing by the man accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls inside the West Edmonton Mall water park.

Soleiman Hajj Soleiman, 40, is on trial in Edmonton provincial court this week for six counts of sexual assault and six counts of sexual contact with a child.

"We all want to support him and are surprised to hear he is accused of this," said Dave Trautman from the River City Refugee Project.

The group, which Trautman said has about 30 members, sponsored Soleiman, his wife and their six children to come to Canada from Syria in January 2016.

He said the Soleiman family lived in a refugee camp for about four years before arriving in Canada.

'It feels bad'

The refugee group's support for Soleiman continues in spite of the troubling accusations against him, Trautman said. 

"I'm not really focused on what he's accused of," he said outside court on Wednesday. "I want to show him that he has a community."

Three teenage girls testified this week they were inappropriately touched or grabbed from behind by a man in the wave pool on Feb. 4, 2017.

Six girls complained to police they were inappropriately touched at the West Edmonton Mall water park on Feb. 4, 2017. (Facebook/West Edmonton Mall)

They gave evidence from behind a screen in court with Soleiman on the other side.

When the teens were asked to come out from behind the specially concealed area to see if they recognized the man responsible, each pointed directly at Soleiman.

'We all trust the system'

"When I'm seeing this stuff, it feels bad," Trautman said, adding that it has been an emotional few days hearing the young girls recount their experience.

"You can't hear a child describe things that happened to them without feeling," Trautman said. "I have a child and I've been in wave pools and if it happened to my kid, it would be similar pain."

Soleiman's defence lawyer has raised the possibility with the complainants that they misidentified his client. 

Trautman and his group share that concern. He said their biggest question is whether the young victims singled out the right person in a crowded wave pool and whether security followed the same person to the change rooms.

The Crown agrees this a key issue in the trial but is confident with the evidence.

Trautman said he has avoided asking Soleiman what really happened that night so as not to influence anything

"We all trust the system," he said.

Group's support may change depending on verdict

Trautman, 63, said he has been impressed with the way the facts and evidence have been presented in court.

"It's really hard to listen to, of course, because it's something that happened to people that shouldn't," Trautman said.

No one from his group has changed their support for the accused or felt let down about his current predicament, but that could change, Trautman said. 

"We're all waiting to find out what the facts are," he said. "We might have to change some things but we will let the judge decide that."

The trial is taking longer than first expected and will continue into next week. 

That's because everything said in court has to be translated into Arabic.