Members of San Diego’s Iraqi community are expressing shock and surprise at the death of Shaima Alawadi, found lying in a pool of blood in the family’s El Cajon home last week. For many, the San Diego suburb has been “nothing but welcoming” to the thousands of Iraqis who have settled there in recent years.
But a series of notes, including one found next to Alawadi as she lay dying from a severe head trauma, have shaken that sense of welcome. “Go home, you terrorist,” it read.
Alawadi was rushed to a nearby hospital, where she died Saturday.
Majed Alhassan, an Arabic-English medical translator and an active member in his community, described Alhassan’s death as a “tragedy and complete shock that nobody would have expected.”
The 44-year-old, who arrived in the United States in 1991 from his native Iraq, added that if it does indeed turn out to be a hate crime, it would mark the worst incidence of violence against the community “since 9/11.”
‘Targeted for her Hijab?’
Alawadi, 32, was an Iraqi Muslim immigrant and a mother of five, who left Iraq for the United States with her family in 1993, initially to the Detroit, Michigan suburb of Dearborn. According to Alhassan, who is also a family friend, her husband Kassim Alhamidi, and their five children moved into their El Cajon home earlier this year.
Relatives, including Alawadi’s cousin, 48-year-old Dhea Alshaher, say the family got on well with neighbors. Alshaher described Alawadi as “an open hearted, respected woman” adding the family was on “excellent terms” with residents in the neighborhood. “They had a great reputation,” he said.
Still, noted Alhassan, there had been incidents involving earlier messages left at the family home, including one taped to the front door. “This is my country,” it read, “Go back to yours, terrorist.” Alhassan said that being new to the neighborhood and fearful of drawing attention to the family, especially if it involved law enforcement, Alawadi dismissed the letters as “teenagers acting up.”
Though police have yet to announce a motive, those in the community suspect Alawadi was targeted for wearing the hijab, a traditional headscarf worn by many female Muslims.
El Cajon, once a largely white suburb of San Diego, is now home to some 40,000 Iraqis, including both Muslim and Christian. Many began arriving two decades ago amid an ongoing war in their home country.
Alshaher, who has spent the past seven years working with the group Kurdish Human Rights Watch in El Cajon, likened the incident to the shooting death in Florida of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American, by a white neighborhood crime watch volunteer. In that case, Martin’s hooded sweatshirt became a symbol of the suspicion minority groups say they encounter from mainstream society.
A Facebook group named One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi was launched Saturday and has since attracted 7000 members.
“No one can jump to any conclusions with regard to who the suspect may be,” he stressed, adding the family “genuinely respects America and the American government and knows the authorities will do their job in solving this case.”
“But we don’t know. How can we be sure that similar incidents will not occur again? It is for this reason that we can’t help but be so concerned and fearful,” he said.
Islamophobia on the Rise
Speaking to New America Media, Lt. Mark Coit of the El Cajon Police Department sought to reassure the area’s Iraqi community. “We belong to the community,” he said. “It’s their department…[we’re there] to help them get through this.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has stepped in to help with the investigation into Alawadi’s death, which has been condemned by officials in the State Department and in Iraq.
Acknowledging the fear many Iraqi residents now feel, Coit added, “It is still going to be a safe place for them to raise their families for generations to come.”
Still, according to a recently released study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups last year rose to 1,018, up slightly from the previous year but continuing a decade-long trend from 2000, when the number stood at 602. Economic turmoil, changing demographics and the election of a Black president were all cited as factors.
The number of anti-Muslim groups, meanwhile, tripled in 2011, jumping from 10 groups in 2010 to 30 last year. Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicates that in 2010, there were 160 anti-Islamic incidents reported. The year before saw 106 such incidents, according to the Anti-Defamation League. In 2001, soon after the 9/11 attacks, there were 481 reported attacks targeting Muslims.
According to the SPLC, however, only about a third of all incidents are actually reported.
“Islamophobia is a problem and it needs to be addressed,” said Hanif Mohebi, executive director of San Diego’s Council on Islamic American Relations. Pointing to negative portrayals of Muslims by prominent media outlets, he said such images affect a “minority of people” in the community who know little to nothing about their Muslim neighbors.
Community members are also often reluctant to reach out to authorities when problems arise, hopeful that lingering tensions “will resolve themselves,” he said. “Often times hate crimes are not reported, but we need to change that.”
Urging greater awareness of their rights and increased cooperation with local law enforcement, Mohebi added Alawadi’s death should serve as a wake up call to the community when it comes to hate crimes.
“It’s sad,” he said, “that it takes incidents like these to remind us that we need to report them.”