EL CAJON, CALIFORNIA — Here in America’s second largest Iraqi community, people are understandably nervous.
“It could have happened to me. It could have happened to my family,” says Keyfi Mustafa, 37, a Kurd who immigrated from Iraq 21 years ago.
“It” is the murder of Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi immigrant and mother of five. She was brutally beaten in the head on March 21 and died in a nearby hospital three days later. A note reportedly calling her a terrorist and warning her to go back to her own country was found near her body, though her murder has not been confirmed as a hate crime. The police note that there is other evidence in the case, and Islamophobia is only one possible motive. She was buried in Iraq Sunday.
Though Alawadi was a Shi’ite Muslim, and Mustafa is not religious, Mustafa says it doesn’t matter to Americans. “They think I’m an Arab or I’m a terrorist bottom line,” he says. He notes that El Cajon’s Kurds have been targeted before, Mustafa recalls, when several families’ homes were broken into after 9/11, he feels, “just for looking Middle Eastern.” Mustafa moved his family to a different, nearby suburb four months ago and says he feels very insecure in El Cajon these days.
Many Iraqi residents of this city of about 100,000 residents east of San Diego declined to talk to a reporter, or would not speak on the record. Many Muslims are nervous, says Hanif Mohebi, a spokesman for the local Muslim community. While El Cajon had only two murders in all of 2011, Mohebi, executive director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says the murder occurred against a backdrop of an increase in Islamophobia and hate crimes against Muslims in San Diego county, and across the U.S. Where it had 13 civil rights cases in the region in all of 2011, this year CAIR already has “12 to 14 open cases all in different areas of discrimination, whether it be school bullying, employment, or law enforcement harassment,” Mohebi says.
Chaldean and Catholic
The irony in El Cajon is that the majority of Iraqis here are Catholic, not Muslim. Iraqi-owned shops prominently display crosses, statuettes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and images of the Last Supper. Most local Iraqis are also not Arabs. According to Father Michael Bazzi of St. Peter’s Chaldean Catholic Cathedral, 40,000 of the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Iraqis in the area are Chaldean, who speak Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) and are ethnically Assyrian. Chaldeans are a persecuted minority in Iraq that began moving to the U.S. in the 1960s. Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in 1979 meant more Chaldeans came, followed by Kurds (mostly Sunni Muslims). After the first Gulf War, Shi’ites came, fleeing retribution for their failed rebellion.
Mohebi: Before anything else she’s a mother…
Najah Kedaya, 68, a Chaldean who emigrated here 31 years ago from Iraq, is less worried than Mustafa. “It is some kind of isolated incident,” he says. He is not concerned about whether anti-Muslim sentiment motivated the murder.
The murder has not dampened immigrant enthusiasm for America. Sam Tobias, 31, is a Chaldean who left Iraq at 17, and is now a manager in a Middle Eastern market in El Cajon. He says Americans are very friendly to him. “America gave me more than back there, more freedom, more everything. You feel like you are safe here,” said Tobias.
Of course, Chaldeans don’t wear the hijab, the distinctive head scarf worn by Muslim Iraqi women like Shaima Alawadi.
Patriots to the core
Mustafa, a Kurd who was raised Muslim and is now an American citizen, still prefers the U.S. over the home he left in Iraq. His childhood was spent escaping Saddam’s troops from village to village, and his family finally left when Saddam used chemical weapons on the Kurds in 1988, fleeing their home at three in the morning. He relishes the freedom he enjoys in the United States, and even with the recent difficulties he says, “To me, this is a great life.”
Mustafa’s fierce patriotism for his adopted country might surprise Americans. “To me as a Kurd, America is a hero just for going in and getting rid of Saddam and his sons,” he says. “I love this country. I’d die over this country.” He even spent 20 months serving as a translator in Iraq during the second Gulf War.
One thing the members of the Iraqi community agree upon, no matter their background: Shaima Alawadi deserves justice. Says the Catholic Chaldean Kedaya, “It is a killing and whether it was an Iraqi or not an Iraqi, it was a brutal killing. The killer should be found and punished and that’s what it’s all about.”