Kurdish Defendants Find Support in Town's Clasp
Sunday, June 18, 2006
HARRISONBURG, Va. -- There is a Kurdish section at a cemetery in this Shenandoah Valley town. Four Kurdish babies were born in one recent week. And nearly a decade after the first Kurdish refugees settled here, the community has produced some reluctant celebrities.
Four Kurdish refugees, among nearly 70 Iraqi Kurd families who settled in this town 100 miles southwest of Washington, became a unifying cause when they were swept up in a federal government anti-terrorism net. Residents banded together in their defense, saying that the Patriot-Act era climate had spun so out of control that well-meaning immigrants were being made scapegoats simply for sending money home to their relatives.
"These are men who were trying to do good things and who were good citizens and who were reaching out to needy people," said Michael Medley, an associate English professor at Harrisonburg's Eastern Mennonite University, who has helped drum up support for the defendants. "I just think local folks here, when they hear that, they get pretty upset."
Supporters, many of them strangers to the Kurds, have escorted them to churches to tell their side of the story. They have collected donations to pay for legal fees and a full-page newspaper ad, signed by 600 residents, demanding that government officials drop the cases and "apologize for their actions." They have published op-eds lambasting the cases in the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record, whose editorial board has urged lenient sentences.
The government has not said that it thinks any of the four men have ties to terrorism. Still, in January, one of the Kurds, a poultry plant supervisor, was convicted in federal court of transferring money to northern Iraq without a business license, one of many cases in a crackdown after Sept. 11, 2001, on operations that authorities say can fund terrorism, drug trafficking and other crimes. Two more Harrisonburg Kurds have pleaded guilty to the same offense, and a fourth has been charged.
The four defendants, who do not deny that they transferred several hundred thousand dollars, say they were simply helping loved ones in a region ravaged by Saddam Hussein's persecution and now by war. All face up to five years in prison. The charges are too stiff for what were mistakes made in the spirit of charity, supporters say.
Rasheed Qambari, who was convicted in January, and his fellow defendants worked for U.S. or British-funded aid groups in Kurdistan, a region established as a haven for Iraqi opposition and the Kurdish minority after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. When Hussein's tanks rolled in five years later, the United States evacuated the four men and more than 6,000 other Kurds to Turkey and later to Guam, where they spent months undergoing security checks. In 1997, they were given tickets to freedom in the United States.
Qambari, 38, was one of the first Kurds in Harrisonburg, a town nestled in emerald hills that is home to two universities and a bustling poultry industry. Mennonite churches abound, and the lone mosque is just a few years old.
It is a place whose population of 40,000 has been transformed in recent years by the Kurds, refugees from the former Soviet Union and a steady stream of Latin American migrant workers.
Qambari quickly found work and saved money to bring his wife and children. Equipped with stellar English and boom-voiced confidence, he drew Kurdish refugees who had settled elsewhere. Among them were the three other defendants -- Fadhil Noroly, Ahmed Abdullah and Amir Rashid -- who came with their families. Now, nearly 70 Kurdish families call Harrisonburg home.
They say the town has been good to them. People smile on the streets. The hills and winter chill remind them of Kurdistan. But unlike in Kurdistan, as Qambari put it, they can send their children to school in Harrisonburg without fear that "the bomb comes down and all the kids will die."
Many in Harrisonburg say the Kurds are good for the town, too: hardworking, well-educated family people who stay out of trouble.