COLUMBIA — Picture this: You are an immigrant, and you are thriving in the U.S., the land of milk of honey. You're proud to have earned your American citizenship. You own a small business, you work hard, and you are able to support your expanding family, and your wife also works hard as a teacher. You love your new country, its fresh air and clean water, its freedom and the opportunities for all. So you are eager to be a part of your community, and you contribute to its welfare in many ways.
But things are not going well back home. There is a dictator who has dragged the country into war, the economy is crashing, and you hear from your family there that life is getting more and more difficult. Your elderly mother and eight sisters and two brothers and extended family are suffering from the consequences of war, defeat and the implosion of the economy. They turn to you and plead for help.
In the long and rich tradition of immigrants in this country, you don't give it a minute of thought, and you start sending as much as you can back home to your mother, who is blind, and to your siblings and to other members of your extended family. Then your friends here who also have families in need back home want to send help to their families, and you undertake to help them do so as well. On average, you and the other families are sending less than $150 a month, but because the currency there is so devalued, it is enough to make a huge difference. You are proud to be able to afford this generosity to your loved ones because you know that it is a matter of life and death for them.
It is hard to imagine anyone behaving differently under the circumstances, and I am convinced that most of us would have done the same thing. I know I would have done what my friend and fellow Columbia resident has done to help relieve the nightmare his family was experiencing in Iraq. Because the picture I have been painting above is a true story, it is Shakir Hamoodi's story.
Shakir who typifies the all-American immigrant success saga upon which our country was built, who traveled to the other side of the world because he wanted a better life for his family, who worked hard getting an education and providing for his family, who made sure that his children took advantage of the opportunities offered them here and who put down deep roots in his chosen country.
Every day he heard the first President Bush on television telling the world that the U.S. was not against the Iraqi people, only against Saddam Hussein. Shakir felt encouraged by this because he knew he was not helping Saddam Hussein, but only his family.
Then in 2003 Saddam was deposed, and the war was over. The sanctions against Iraq were lifted. Economic conditions improved because of free trade, and salaries went up so the Iraqi families no longer needed the help of their relatives in the U.S. So that small, but nonetheless lifesaving, flow of money that had started in 1991 was no longer needed and therefore ceased. It wasn't until three years later in 2006 that Shakir actually read the president's Executive Order and was horrified to learn that it had been illegal for any American to send money to Iraq during the period of 1990 to 2003, even if you were sending it to your own family.
So now Shakir has just been sentenced to prison for three years for sending money to his family during a period when, unknown to him, an Executive Order made it unlawful. Our government, who raided his house in 2006 and took his computer and papers and receipts, has conceded that they found no evidence that his money went to anyone but to his family, certainly not to help the government of Saddam Hussein or to terrorists. Shakir has cooperated with the government every step of the way and has admitted that he broke the law and that he is very sorry for that, and he pleaded guilty to the charges against him.
One has to wonder what incarcerating Shakir would accomplish besides devastating him and his family and crushing their American dream. He was unaware of an Executive Order that made his act of generosity illegal and only learned about it three years after he had stopped sending any aid at all. And now almost 10 years after that, he faces prison.
Was anyone hurt by his actions? Was there criminal intent? Will the U.S. or we as Americans be better off because he goes to jail? No, no and no! It seems to me that his sentence should be rescinded in favor of probation. Probation in fact has been granted in some cases similar to his. Shakir should not go to prison for his acts of compassion, and I want everyone in Columbia to know his story and to show him that Columbia is behind him.
Go to his store, World Harvest Foods, behind Gerbes on Nifong Boulevard, and buy some of the wonderful imported products he's brought to our community. Shake his hand and tell him you understand and that you support him. Tell him, as I did, that you feel that an injustice has been perpetrated and that this is not who we are and that you won't be satisfied until justice is done in his case.
Aline Kultgen is a Columbia resident and friend of Shakir Hamoodi. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.