By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"They are real Americans, you know?" said Mayor Larry Rogers, though he reserves judgment on the cases, adding, "we have bad seeds in all cultures."
Soon after they arrived, the refugees wanted to aid those left behind, and Qambari, Noroly, Rashid and Abdullah emerged as the mediums. They said they sent their own money and that of other Kurds to family or charities. The funds paid for utilities, medicine and food, they said.
"Big families. No work," said Noroly, 40. "They need money."
But Kurdistan's banks were unequipped to handle international transfers. So Noroly and the other men said they resorted to depositing it in accounts in neighboring nations and having it carried across the border. Qambari said he sent money from his checking account to a friend's account in Turkey, often charging a small amount to cover transfer fees. He never considered it a business.
The three other defendants said they sometimes sent money to accounts of people they did not know personally. Abdullah, 31, and Noroly said they occasionally reaped small profits. But they said they obtained business licenses from city officials and were unaware of other requirements.
The Kurds say their American idyll darkened after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The FBI began visiting and asking questions, as it did of many Muslims across the nation. The defendants said they told investigators about their transfers and were told not to worry. No one told them that the law involving money transmission had changed, they said.
Before 2001, the section of the U.S. criminal code under which the men were charged applied to those who operated money-transmitting businesses and knew they were doing so illegally. Under the Patriot Act, operators no longer have to know they are transmitting money illegally.
Federal authorities have since targeted unlicensed money-transfer businesses, sometimes called hawala s. From late 2001 through mid-September 2005, investigations resulted in the arrests of 155 people nationwide, 142 indictments and the seizure of $25.8 million. Some immigrant groups say that their relatives' financial lifelines have been cut off in the process.
In August 2004, agents raided several Kurdish homes in Harrisonburg. In October 2005, agents arrested the four men.
Through spokesmen, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia and the FBI, which led the investigations, declined to comment. But Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, said it does not matter whether unlicensed transmitters help criminals -- they are soft targets all the same.
"Yes, many of them are used by immigrants to send money home to relatives," Boyd said. "But we found that a lot of the criminal element will go to those that operate underground. It's a backdoor way to get your money into the financial system."
Qambari, a father of five, chose to go to trial.
"The action didn't fit the charges. The charges didn't fit the crime," Qambari said, explaining why. "And in my heart, there is no crime at all."
It took the jury less than an hour to find him guilty.
With that verdict in mind, Rashid and Abdullah pleaded guilty in hopes of avoiding prison. They and Qambari are scheduled to be sentenced June 26. Noroly, who faces trial in July, is still mulling a plea. He sat on a recent day in the muffler factory where he works, its machines clanking around him, and shook his head in bewilderment.
"I cannot say guilty," said Noroly, who worked for an American medical team in Kurdistan. "At the same time, it's better to say guilty."
The defendants, who all have petitioned for U.S. citizenship, said they fear felony convictions will jeopardize their applications -- or even lead to deportation. That thought instills more fear: Qambari said he is sure he will be killed by pro-Hussein insurgents if he returns to Iraq.
Kakahama Askary, a Kurd who is imam at the Islamic Center of Shenandoah Valley and a professor at James Madison University, and his wife, Christi Kramer, were so rattled by the cases that they invited a few acquaintances to meet the defendants over tea. Word spread, and dozens came.
A committee formed, called Standing With Our Neighbors.
Some wrote letters to the federal prosecutor. Students at Eastern Mennonite University made a documentary about the town's Kurdish residents, which played in April to two packed showings at a downtown theater. Members of one Mennonite church have made plans to hold hands in a circle around the outside of the courthouse in Harrisonburg during the June 26 sentencing.
Ruth Stoltzfuz Jost, a lawyer who is a Mennonite, wrote an op-ed article for the town paper.
"This is one of the ways God judges us ethically -- how do we treat our neighbors?" Jost said. "When we see the government trying to cut people off at the knee like this, it goes down really hard."
Eileen McGruder, a Japanese American physician, said her faith -- and the legacy of her ancestors' detention in World War II internment camps while no one came to their aid -- drove her to organize activities for Kurdish children at her Methodist church in Harrisonburg. To show them, she said, that "Americans do care."
Even as their fellow Kurds reel from the raids and arrests, and even as they face uncertain futures, the defendants say that message has resonated.
"We were thinking before, I have a brother here and a couple of cousins in another state," Abdullah said. "But now we see we are a big family here."
Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.