By Robert Mills
LOWELL -- UMass Lowell students filled tables and dined on rice and falafel yesterday afternoon in a show of support for the owners of Babylon, an Iraqi restaurant on Merrimack Street where a man threw a rock through a window last month.
The university's Student Government Association rented the roughly 50-seat restaurant from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. to show support in the wake of a Jan. 4 incident in which someone hurled a 20-pound rock through a front window.
The vandalism prompted fears the restaurant was targeted since it is owned by Iraqi immigrants.
Lowell police identified the man who threw the rock, and plan to summons him to court to face charges in May. Police do not believe the vandalism was prompted by hate.
There have already been two "eat-in" events at the restaurant, one held by a local veterans' organization and church, and another by Occupy Lowell.
Yesterday, UMass Lowell students, including 26-year-old Iraq War veteran Mike Hubbard, of Methuen, ate at the restaurant to show their support.
Hubbard, a freshman political-science major who served in Iraq with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division from January 2007 to March 2008, said he learned to appreciate the Iraqi culture while serving in and around Baghdad.
"It's such a vibrant culture, with such incredible food -- so I'm very happy to be here," Hubbard said.
Student Government Association President Brian Dano, of Merrimack, N.H., said the SGA earlier passed a resolution supporting the restaurant. Dano said students want to become more involved in a positive way with downtown Lowell after recent troubles.
Freshman Senator Phil Geoffroy, of Chelmsford, offered an amendment proposing the move. He said he thought it was important for the university to stand behind the restaurant's owners as soon as he heard about the incident.
"It was important to let it be known that they're welcome here," he said. "The incident that happened here is condemned by the Lowell community."
Babylon owner Leyla Al-Zubaydi said business has been good since the earlier eat-ins, with many of those who showed support returning for other meals.
"We are doing much better," she said. "It's really amazing how bad things can convert to good things. It's beautiful. It's amazing."
UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan, who has visited Iraq four times, said he is proud of students for taking the initiative to send such a powerful message, especially in regards to an incident that has garnered national media attention.
"I am so proud of the fact that our students organized behind this cause to send a clear message," Meehan said, addressing the crowd gathered. "You guys spoke volumes to what we are about as a community and as a university."