CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - On Wednesday, Jamil Swedat received the Mecklenburg District Attorney's "Above and Beyond Citizen's Award." To understand why, consider these numbers:
In August 2014, while he was working behind the counter at his uncle's convenience store on West Boulevard, Swedat was shot by a customer during a dispute over 46 cents.
Over the next year, the 27-year-old Charlotte man underwent three surgeries to repair his internal injuries.
More than 2 1/2 years went by before Swedat would swallow his nervousness, put his hand on the Bible and testify at the trial of the accused shooter, Juharold Vann. Based in part on Swedat's testimony, Vann was convicted and sentenced to six to eight years in prison.
Swedat is a newcomer to the city and the U.S., immigrating from Jordan in 2010. He learned English and developed his occasionally colorful speaking style, he says, by talking to his uncle's customers..
"I could be goodbye right now," he says of the shooting. "I thank God I'm alive."
He also acknowledges that during his time in Charlotte he hasn't made a lot of friends. But one of his admirers, Mecklenburg Assistant District Attorney Brett Few, says as Vann's scheduled trial dates came and went, Swedat displayed an unshakeable belief in the legal system of his new hometown – a faith that went far beyond what prosecutors expect from most crime victims. Nor, they say, did Swedat let his injuries or his fears blind him to what he felt was his civic duty.
"The thing that stood out to me about Jamil was the trust he put in myself, the district attorney's office and law enforcement," says Few, who nominated Swedat for the citizen's award. "He never questioned the process. He had faith in it from day one. I'm not saying we don't see that elsewhere. But it's not as common as we would like."
When asked this week what he wants other victims of crime in Charlotte to take away from his experiences, Swedat's words tumble out:
"I would tell them ... 'Fight for your dream,' " he said. " 'The government is with you. The law is with you. So keep your head up. It's tough in the courtroom. But hey, at the end of the day, it's your case. And you're doing the right thing.' "
For Swedat, the long path toward public responsibility began on Aug. 11, 2014, at the store his uncle, Mamoud Albdoor, operated for 20 years. He was working the cash register, with his uncle beside him. A young man approached with a couple of Game cigars and put $2 on the counter. The bill was $2.46.
You're short, Swedat says he told him. The man did not respond. Other customers began lining up. Swedat tried again.
This time the man answered. "Why you talking s--- to me?"
Swedat says he was taken back, but he also wouldn't negotiate the bill. The man demanded his money back and turned to leave, swatting a Slim Jim display on his way to the door that send the sticks of jerky flying.
Swedat, stunned, said he asked his uncle if angry customers ever came back. Albdoor told him not to worry.
Ninety minutes later Swedat says he was selling a lottery ticket to a female customer when the man returned – an orange T-shirt covering his face. Swedat said that out of the corner of his eye he saw the man's hand rise up with the outline of a gun. The bullets – as many as five, Few says – came flying over the female customer's left shoulder and straight at Swedat.
He fell to the floor. "Uncle, are you OK?" he says he asked. He estimates that 30 to 60 second passed before the burning started in his lower abdomen, and Swedat could not feel one of his legs.
Months and then years passed. When the trial finally started, Swedat said he was nervous about telling his story in court.
"If he was nervous, he did a good job of hiding it," Few says. "He was so determined that he was going to stand up and do what was right and confront this guy who had done this thing to him."
Swedat put it this way: "Why would somebody try to kill you over 46 cents? What if I had not done what was right? What if he killed someone else?"
On Wednesday, Swedat was the first of seven "Above and Beyond" award winners called to the podium by District Attorney Spencer Merriweather. The county's top prosecutor thanked Swedat for his bravery and said his office's success in fighting crime "would not be possible without those who stand with us in the community." As Swedat returned to his seat near Few, a burst of sustained applause followed him.
Today, fully recovered from his injuries, he still has trouble sleeping. He says the shooter's face is still in his head and that the night brings certain fears that he never felt before.
But he says he has no regrets doing what he believes every citizen of Charlotte has an obligation to do, to stand up for what is right.
"I'm still alive and healthy," he says, "and I thank God for every day of my life."
And he adds this message for crime victims:
"Don't be scared."