Forty thousand Iraqis live in El Cajon, California, where this week, Shaima Al Awadi, a devout Muslim mother of five, died after being beaten inside her home with a tire iron and left next to note reading “Go back to your country, you terrorist.” Coming on the heels of the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, there would seem to be many parallels between the two crimes—the hate speech, the prejudice, the innocence of the victims. A One Million Hijabs for Shaima Al Awadi page has even been launched on Facebook, but it’s doubtful that the movement will really catch on because Iraqis still considered dangerous infiltrators in the eyes of Americans.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has led to a massive displacement of Iraqis—some five million fled their country between 2003 and 2007, filtering into Syria and Jordan, many reduced to tatters, living on the streets of Amman and Damascus. Our country was one of the least receptive to the plight of Iraqi refugees during the war, allowing in just a few thousand every year. After 2007, the US eased its restrictions and between 2007 and 2011, out of 166,084 Iraqis referred to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, 58, 811 have been resettled in the U.S., many of them living in pocket communities like El Cajon.
It is true that Iraqis, and especially Muslim Iraqis (many of the new arrivals are Christians seeking asylum), have not been assimilating easily into America. They have a hard time finding jobs in the down economy, they actively resist having their daughters fall into western teen lifestyles, and unfortunately, covered women are the very public face of a religion that many Americans still associate with terrorism. But Iraqis are not “terrorists.” They were among the most educated and secular people in the Middle East for decades before being mercilessly abused by a vicious dictator, then economically sanctioned by the West, followed by Shock and Awe bombing, and ten years of invasion and civil war.
Moreover, Iraqis living in the United States are by no means a homogenous group. A few years ago, I wrote a story about the Iraqi community in Lincoln, Nebraska, a corn-and-beef plains city where it is now common to encounter women in head scarves and long dresses. After only a few days there, it became clear that even small Iraqi expat communities are a mosaic of very different religions and ethnicities, including Shi’a, Sunni (the minority that ran the hated Saddam Hussein’s political regime,) Chaldean, Assyrian, Yazidi.
The police in El Cajon are still looking for Al Awadi’s killer, whose family reported that they had found a similarly menacing note tacked to their door a week before the attack, which they had dismissed as a joke. The hijab is not the hoodie—yet. Police do not profile muslim women as they most certainly do black men. But only when we see people for their humanity and not their clothes or religious beliefs are we living up to the principles on which this country was founded and should now be evoking.