Iraqi community perplexed, wary after slaying of Iraqi-born mother

Officials are cautioning residents in El Cajon, Calif., against jumping to conclusions while the death of Shaima al-Awadi, an Iraqi immigrant, is investigated. She died after a brutal beating last week in her home. Police have not ruled out a hate crime.

Denis Poroy/Reuters
Mourners look on during a memorial service for Shaima al-Awadi held at the Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib Center in Lakeside, Calif., Tuesday. Mourners gathered to pay respects on Tuesday for al-Awadi, a Iraqi-American mother who died after being severely beaten in her San Diego suburb of El Cajon home by a killer who left a threatening note suggesting a hate crime, a Muslim rights group said.

Those in El Cajon, Calif., have many questions after an Iraqi-born mother of five was fatally beaten last week, a threatening note said to be found at the scene.

Shaima al-Awadi lived with her husband and children on a calm, ordinary street in El Cajon. Last Wednesday, she was found unconscious by her 17-year-old daughter on their dining room floor. A note nearby said, “This is my country. Go back to yours, terrorist,” according to the daughter, Fatima al-Himidi.

A similar note, Fatima says, had been found on the front door earlier this month. Fatima says her mother had dismissed it, considering it a prank. The family had moved to this home, a rental, two months ago.

Ms. Awadi was declared dead on Saturday, with the police describing the beating as “vicious.”

On Tuesday, several hundred people went to the Lakeside Islamic Center to pay their respects. But Salam al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, cautioned those at the memorial against calling the death a hate crime.

“It would be irresponsible to jump to conclusions,” he said.

Indeed, the investigation into Awadi’s death is ongoing, say both Mr. Marayati and the El Cajon police.

Although Police Lt. Mark Coit would not comment on details of the investigation, he did say the police were studying the available evidence and keeping an open view to “avoid missing anything important.” He didn’t rule out the possibility of a hate crime.

This is the worst instance of violence involving an Iraqi immigrant in the area, says Imam Muhammad Falah al-Attar of the Imam Ali Center of San Diego. But, he notes, verbal aggressions are not unheard of, especially toward women wearing the hijab, or Muslim head scarf.

“My wife has had people tell her to go back to her country. Others have experienced this as well,” Mr. Attar says.

He characterizes Awadi, whom he knew since her arrival in the San Diego area almost 20 years ago, as a “deeply caring individual.”

Hanif Mohebi, executive director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, describes how some members of the community are viewing Awadi’s death.

“Given the threatening nature of the note, people have assumed that it is a hate crime,” he says. “Many people do fear that if it can happen to Shaima, it can happen to us.”

Awadi’s husband, Kassim al-Himidi, issued an emotional plea after the memorial on Tuesday.

“We want to ask, what are you getting out of this and why did you do it?” he said in remarks translated by his oldest son, 15-year-old Mohammed al-Himidi.

Mr. Himidi asked for help in finding his wife’s killer, stating, “Our family, our community has lost a mother.”

The family is sending Awadi’s body back to the city of Najaf in Iraq for burial. Her father is a well-known cleric in what is considered one of the holiest cities of Shiite Islam. The Iraqi government is assisting the family with the repatriation and burial.

In El Cajon, where Awadi and her family lived since 2008, members of one of the largest Iraqi immigrant communities in the United States were going about their business, buying groceries and selling desserts in storefronts often marked with signs in both Arabic and English. Most are Chaldeans (Christian Iraqis), while a smaller number are Muslims, having fled Saddam Hussein’s persecutions of Shiites and others who rose up against his regime.

Awadi’s death has left them perplexed and seemingly reluctant to talk.

Nadine Azer shook her head as she rang up baklava at Shakira bakery.

“I’m Christian,” she says. “She was Muslim, but who would want to do something like that to that poor woman?”

A clerk who declined to give her name took comfort in the fact that the police consider the crime “an isolated incident.”

“Only she, the person who did this, and God know what happened,” she says.

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