COLUMBIA — Just as they do every sundown during Ramadan, the Hamoodi family gathered to break the day's fast. Shakir Hamoodi poured his family glasses of whole milk and passed around a bowl of sticky-sweet Tunisian dates. They prayed together. Then they feasted.
Hamoodi heaped fish and spiced rice onto his family's plates and savored the lamb soup, with orzo, mint and garbanzo beans, that his wife, Lamya Najem, had made — her version of a Libyan recipe.
As it neared 10 p.m., Hamoodi became quieter and his eyelids began to droop. He stared down at the tablecloth, hands folded by his face, forehead resting for a moment on his thumbs. At times he would snap to attention to laugh at a joke or offer guests even more watermelon and baklava. Then he fell back into thought.
"It has been very tense," Hamoodi said.
At 2 p.m. on Aug. 28, Hamoodi — Columbia businessman, community leader and former MU nuclear engineer — will begin serving 36 months in federal prison for violating U.S. sanctions against Iraq, the country where he was born. He was sentenced May 16 for arranging to send $270,000 over nine years to his relatives and those of 15 other Iraqi families.
His sentence was timed to begin after Ramadan, so he could spend the holiday with his family.
It's an already busy period for the family members, who fast from sun-up to sundown and attend mosque daily. The Hamoodis and their friends have been consumed with preparations for his departure. The family expected him to receive a period of probation — conditions imposed by the court without prison time — so the 3-year sentence passed down by U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughrey caught everyone by surprise.
This summer, Hamoodi drove to California to attend one son's college graduation, and to Michigan to say goodbye to old friends. He has been working to pass along years of knowledge about his store, World Harvest Foods, to his son Owais and new employees.
He has also been preparing a dossier to apply for a presidential pardon, including supportive letters and comments from people who were inspired by one of his inter-faith lectures on Islam.
One Thursday morning, after arriving home late the night before from evening prayers, Hamoodi arose at 3:30 a.m. to assist with a bimonthly order of cheese and olives. Fasting through the day, he helped guide a replacement worker through an order of two wheels of Argentine Parmesan for a customer.
"There are really a lot of things to do, and I have only a few days," Hamoodi said.
At 2:15 a.m. one Sunday in July, their house, in a quiet cul-de-sac in south Columbia, was vandalized with a smoke bomb. The family was the target of similar acts of vandalism in 2006 before their house was raided by the FBI in connection with the investigation that resulted in the charges against him.
"It makes the headache worse for the family," Hamoodi said.
Cash to Iraq
No one was supposed to be there, but Hamoodi's son, Owais, and daughter, Lamees, had gone home to pick up Lamees' forgotten cellphone. FBI agents escorted the siblings out of the house and spent all day packing up and carting away boxes filled with books, documents and computers, including Owais' laptop with his school work, Owais said.
"That's the best excuse for why I don't have my homework," he said, and laughed darkly.
Three years later, on Dec. 22, 2009, the U.S. government charged Shakir Hamoodi with conspiracy to violate sanctions, arguing that from 1994 to 2003 he sent $270,000 into Iraq, in violation of Executive Orders that designated Iraq a threat to the United States.
"Mr. Hamoodi conspired with others to get cash into Iraq," said Garrett Heenan, an attorney in the federal Justice Department, during the May sentencing hearing.
Hamoodi pleaded guilty to the felony, which carries a five-year maximum sentence. His lawyers argued that the money was sent specifically for food, living supplies and medical and dental care to help his eight sisters, two brothers and blind mother, who is in her 80s. Some money went to the families of other Iraqi immigrants living in the Columbia area.
"All the funds sent into Iraq with the assistance of the defendant were donated for humanitarian purposes," according to the plea agreement Hamoodi signed.
Lawyers for the government said Hamoodi planned various ways to "circumvent" the prohibition, such as wiring money to a cousin's bank account in Jordan or designating donations through a Michigan-based charity.
They argued that sending cash was against the law because there was no way to prove it didn't help the Iraqi government through taxes.
"The problem is that during the Saddam Hussein era, it was a black box, we don't know where that money necessarily went," Heenan argued.
Further, while the U.S. government allowed individuals to apply for a license to send humanitarian aid to Iraq, Hamoodi never applied for one.
However, Hamoodi's attorney, J.R. Hobbs, argued during sentencing that there was no evidence the money went anywhere but to Hamoodi's family and the families of others.
"There's absolutely not a scintilla of evidence before the court that any of this money went to something other than an intended recipient," Hobbs argued.
His side of the story
In 1992, when Hamoodi received a call from his brother in Iraq, he expected to hear that a baby girl had been born into the family. Instead, his brother told him the infant had died of an infection that $10 worth of antibiotics could have prevented.
It was $10 the brother's family did not have. Under U.S. sanctions, inflation squashed the value of Iraqi salaries, and the $2 monthly salary of Hamoodi's brother — a surgeon — was not even enough to buy two dozen eggs.
Hamoodi started sending $10 to $20 a month to his siblings and mother, whose eyesight increasingly faltered during that period.
"You see your mother needs $20 a month to survive, how could you not help her?" Hamoodi said.
Other families approached him to help send money to their relatives, too.
Now 23, Owais remembers his father encouraging the Hamoodi children to donate half their $10 a month allowance to their cousins in Iraq.
"We knew that food and medicine were very, very hard to come by, so it felt good to help out," Owais said.
The family made other sacrifices, like raising the five children in a two-bedroom apartment on North William Street, so they could send more money home. Hamoodi's wife, Lamya, said they couldn't go about their lives — safe and well-fed in the U.S. — while their family was struggling to meet their basic needs in Iraq. She remembers watching President George H.W. Bush on TV, saying that Saddam Hussein's government — not the Iraqi people — was the enemy.
"I never knew helping people would be breaking the law," she said.
Besides Hamoodi, a handful of other people have been charged with violating Iraqi sanctions, including some in Columbia.
In 2003, Washington state businessman Hussain Alshafei was sentenced to eight months' prison time and a fine of $5,000 for helping transfer $12 million into Iraq over six years. In 2005, Syracuse-based oncologist Rhafil Dhafir was sentenced to 22 years for violating sanctions, as well as defrauding the IRS, Medicaid, and donors to his unregistered charity.
On Jan. 11, employees of the now-defunct Columbia-based Islamic American Relief Agency were sentenced to various punishments for their roles in sending more than $1 million through Amman, Jordan into Iraq.
CEO Mubarak Hamed was sentenced to four years and 10 months. When the organization was listed by the Senate Finance Committee as possibly funding terrorism, Hamed hired former Michigan Congressman Mark Deli Siljander to lobby Congress on the agency's behalf to remove the designation.
As a result of that work, Siljander was charged with failing to report his IARA income and activities to the government and sentenced to one year and one day for obstruction of justice and working as an unregistered foreign agent. IARA fundraiser Abdel Azim El-Siddig was sentenced to two years' probation for his role in hiring and paying Siljander for lobbying.
Two other men received six months' probation: IARA board member Ali Mohamed Bagegni, who signed off on money transfers to Iraq; and Ahmad Mustafa, who raised funds for IARA all over the U.S. to be transferred into Iraq.
A surprise sentence
Hamoodi attended the IARA case hearings in January and noted the three probationary sentences Laughrey, the federal judge, handed down. As for the prison sentences, one defendant was the CEO and the other was a former congressman. Hamoodi thought, what do I have in common with them?
He was confident he would get probation, not prison time. He went home and carried on as usual, doing business at his store.
In fact, Hamoodi was so confident he went ahead and ordered $25,000 of Italian "Acetaia Reale" balsamic vinegar and whole grain French "Moutarde de Meaux" Pommery mustard.
If he had known what was about to happen, he would have saved the money for his family instead.
On May 16, Hamoodi appeared in court before Laughrey for sentencing. The prosecution representing the U.S. government noted Hamoodi's "substantial assistance" to the investigation and asked for a 48-month sentence, lower than the guidelines of 57 to 60 months' imprisonment.
Hobbs, Hamoodi's attorney, reiterated his client's leadership role in Columbia and his history of community service. He made the argument that incarceration would be unnecessary and inappropriate.
"This is truly an individual where a felony alone sends a deterrent, a loud message," Hobbs said. The attorney asked the judge for probation for Hamoodi, as the men involved in the IARA case had received.
After a 17-minute recess, Laughrey returned. She sentenced him to 36 months in prison and two years' probation.
Laughrey said she took into account Hamoodi's role as a community leader and his cooperation with the prosecution, so the sentence was less than the government guidelines and the prosecution's request.
But she didn't see the parallel between Hamoodi's case and that of the IARA defendants, who had received probation.
"The defendant here was the leader, or at least one of the leaders of this conspiracy," Laughrey said in the official hearing transcript.
"He did know the consequences of his conduct, so I do not believe that he is entitled to be treated in the same way."
Repercussions at the market
The family continues to deal with the fallout of that day, especially for the family business.
Waist-high stacks of fancy French mustard and Italian vinegar in the back of the store are one annoyance. The biggest challenge is training others to run the shop, when it was Hamoodi who built the business — even the wire shelves — with his own hands.
"Most of the things are just on top of my head, and I need to write them down and tell someone," Hamoodi said.
One of those people will be Tawfiq Thabit, originally from Baghdad, who volunteered at a food pantry before he heard about the judge's ruling and decided to come "help a brother."
Now he's getting acquainted with the slabs of gourmet cheese in three large display cases at the front — which of them should be melted, and which served with crackers. Thabit said he hopes customers will bring steady business once Hamoodi is gone.
"They love to come when he's around, because they like to talk with him." he said. "I hope they will support him when he's not in the shop."
Effect on the family
While Thabit works the front, first-year MU medical student Owais will be in charge of signing the checks.
In addition to the greater workload, Owais said he is still emotionally processing the situation.
"I guess some of me feels that he won't go, but he will," Owais said.
At the end of summer, most of Owais's siblings will return to their adult lives outside the family house, and only he, his mother and 14 year-old brother, Abdul-Rahman, will remain.
Lamya doesn't want to think about it.
Now a full-time Arabic teacher, Lamya recalls how her husband always packed her breakfast and lunch: Two different kinds of sandwiches so she wouldn't get bored eating kebab, chicken or falafel more than once a day.
She was 19 when they married and moved to the United States. She's finding it hard to imagine life without him.
A petition for pardon
Columbia residents have stepped up to support the family. At a May 23 news conference following Hamoodi's sentencing, additional funds were raised for the recently-created Hamoodi Family Benefit Trust, which now totals more than $6,000, said Kit Salter, MU geography professor and a friend of Hamoodi. The money will support the shop and the family — in particular, educational fees — as designated by a board of trustees.
Salter said a steering committee formed to support Hamoodi envisions holding fundraising events at the store, such as dinners featuring food for sale at the market and auctions of cultural items.
Other Columbia residents, including Salter's wife, Cathy, have volunteered to help staff the store on weekends.
However, the planning has not yet reached such a "pedestrian level," Salter said.
Instead, the Hamoodis and their supporters have been focused on creating a packet to submit to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, with the hope that it will attract President Barack Obama's attention. The packet will include letters of support from people across Columbia and the petition created in May, which now bears thousands of signatures.
The effort is being overseen by Columbia attorney Craig Van Matre, who has worked with Hamoodi for years.
"I am personally convinced that we need to do everything we can to help him because this is just not right," Van Matre said.
The pardon packet can't be submitted until Hamoodi is in federal custody, so Van Matre said he will express mail it to Washington, D.C., so that it arrives the day after Hamoodi reports to prison. Anything could happen — from absolutely nothing to a full pardon — but supporters don't expect any news from the pardon attorney until after the November elections, Van Matre said.
Supporters said they are still trying to understand what they need to do.
"The 'Pardons for Dummies' book has not been written," Salter said.
Ramadan is a time when patience is tested and generosity is greatly rewarded by God. These are the lessons Hamoodi delivered in a sermon one Friday during afternoon prayer at the Islamic Center of Central Missouri.
He stood at the front of the hall, one hand holding a black microphone and the other slicing the air for emphasis.
"(God) put a unique place in paradise for people who are keys of goodness," Hamoodi said.
The sermon was part of a fundraising drive for the Islamic School of Columbia-Missouri, where Lamya and his daughter Lamees teach.
"This could be the last Khutbah (sermon) for me for a while," he said.
Hamoodi encouraged those gathered to be generous with all their heart.
"When you have to believe, you should have no hesitation in what you believe in," he said.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.