The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Killing of Iraqi refugee has Texas Muslims on edge

Ahmed al-Jumaili with his wife, Zahraa. Jumaili’s death last week came amid a wave of anti-Muslim incidents in Texas, but police have no evidence that his shooting was a hate crime. (Courtesy of the Council on American-Islamic Relations)

Ahmed al-Jumaili’s American dream ended just 20 days after it began.

Last Wednesday night, the 36-year-old Iraqi refugee, who had moved to the United States less than a month earlier, stepped outside his Dallas home with his wife and brother-in-law to watch his first snowfall. But the moment was swiftly ended by a hail of bullets, one of which hit Jumaili. Soundless black-and-white surveillance footage released Monday showed four people fleeing the scene on foot. Off-camera, Jumaili’s wife, Zahraa, was screaming for help, handing her phone to a neighbor and begging him to call 911.

Jumaili was taken to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where he died a few hours later.

So far, police know very little about the killing. It’s unclear whether Jumaili was targeted or if he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The family had no previous interaction with the gunmen, and nothing said during the shooting indicated that Jumaili was being shot for his faith, according to Alia Salem, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Dallas police released video of two suspects in the shooting death of Iraqi refugee Ahmed Al-Jumaili. (Video: YouTube/Dallas Police Department)

“We don’t know. I can’t refute that, and I cannot corroborate it,” Dallas Police Maj. Jeff Cotner told the Los Angeles Times about whether the shooting should be considered a hate crime. “If they were a target? That’s a possibility.”

But the shooting death of a Muslim man just three weeks after the slaying of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C., made national news — and amid a wave of antagonism toward Dallas’s Muslim community — has sparked unease in the region. And Salem said fears that Jumaili was targeted illustrate just how vulnerable Muslims in Texas are feeling.

[Three Muslims killed in shooting near UNC; police, family argue over motive​]

“The family and the Muslim community at large is just really on edge right now,” she said in a phone interview. “I had one lady call me in tears, saying she didn’t know if she should move, she didn’t know if she should get her kids out of school, feeling physically afraid for her life.”

CAIR issued a statement the day after the attack, calling on law enforcement to address community concerns about its motive. The statement pointed out that Jumaili’s wife was wearing a hijab, or religious headscarf, at the time. The organization also announced Monday that it had raised $7,000 in reward money to assist the investigation.

Although the details of the shooting remain unclear, some on Twitter were quick to draw connections between the two incidents, often appending the hashtag #muslimlivesmatter created in the wake of Chapel Hill.

And in Dallas, which is home to a sizable Iraqi community, Salem said there is a “palpable fear” Muslims have become targets. At a vigil for Jumaili on Sunday, participants held signs that read “Stop the hate, face the hate” and “He came in search of safety and found violence.”

“Ever since the Chapel Hill shootings happened, there has been an uptick in hate-crime reporting,” Salem said. “We started seeing things turn really, really scary. People were assaulting others with deadly weapons. I personally got death threats.”

In mid-January, a conference in nearby Garland titled “Stand With the Prophet Against Terror and Hate,” intended to teach Muslims how to combat negative perceptions, drew thousands of protesters carrying signs that read “Sharia-free zone” and “You’re not welcome here.”

About a week later, celebrations for Texas Muslim Capitol Day in Austin were likewise marred by protests, according to the Houston Chronicle. One woman briefly seized the podium, proclaiming “Islam will not dominate the United States, and by grace of God it will not dominate Texas” to shouts of approval from a small group of onlookers. Molly White, a state representative from central Texas, posted on Facebook that she left an Israeli flag on her desk and instructions for her Austin staff to ask Muslim groups to publicly declare allegiance to America.

“If you love America, obey our laws and condemn Islamic terrorism then I embrace you as a fellow American,” she wrote in a comment on the post.

In February, an imam scheduled to give a benediction at a Fort Worth stock show and rodeo canceled the second of two prayers in response to anti-Muslim backlash. “Islam is against all other religions and I for one won’t attend an event that allows a darkness to be spoke over me!” one commenter wrote on the show’s Facebook page.

According to Salem, members of the Muslim community are targeted as they go about their everyday lives — in supermarkets and in parking lots. Omair Siddiqi, a university student returning from a vigil for the Chapel Hill victims last month, told local ABC affiliate WFAA he was accosted after a event by a man who cursed at him and told him “go back to your country.”

“Something that gave me shivers, when he said, ‘the North Carolina incident is just the beginning,’ ” Siddiqi said.

The vigil was also intended to combat rising anti-Muslim rhetoric across North Texas, according to WFAA.

“You have to understand, that’s the context of what’s going on in Dallas-Fort Worth,” Salem told The Post.

“It’s another Muslim who’s died in a very violent way,” she said. “I think it’s natural for them to come to those conclusions.”

Though the circumstances of Jumaili’s shooting remain murky, the reality of his loss is sharply, painfully clear.

He just bought a car; he was trying to find a decent job to start his life,” Jumaili’s father-in-law, Mohammed al-Taae, told NBC

Jumaili had recently arrived in the United States to join his wife, who fled Iraq a year before. Jumaili choose to stay behind to save money, and the couple had spent less than two months together since they were married. In an image posted to a crowdfunding page Salem created to raise money for Jumaili’s family, Zahraa holds up a sign she created for their reunion. It reads: “I’ve waited 460 days, 11,040 hour, 662,440 minuts for this moment. Welcome home.”

Now, Salem said, Zahraa is inconsolable.

“They’re finally together, and it’s just snatched from them,” she said. “There’s an incredible sense of loss and sorrow and heartache.”

The bitter irony of the fact that Jumaili fled violence in Iraq only to be killed in the United States was not lost on Salem.

“We paint our country as this beacon of hope, this promised land. People, they come here for safety and security,” she said. “And he gets shot and killed just like that, and that’s exactly what he’s trying to get away from.”