Iraqi-American Family Caught in Sanctions Nightmare
By Anna Boiko-Weyrauch
Photo: Shakir Hamoodi and his family. (Photo Courtesy of Hamoodi Family)
Editorâ€™s Note: An Iraqi-American named Shakir Hamoodi used to run a gourmet food market in Columbia, Missouri. Now, heâ€™s in a federal prison in Kansas. Heâ€™s charged with sending money to his relatives in Iraq in the 1990s, violating US sanctions. Hamoodiâ€™s family is now petitioning President Obama for relief.
During the first war with Iraq, the Gulf War that started in 1990, President George Bush appeared on TV. He said, â€œWe have no argument with the people of Iraq.â€ At the time, Iraq was under U.N. sanctions.
Meanwhile in Columbia, Missouri, Lamya Najem and her husband, Shakir Hamoodi, had migrated to the U.S. They heard Bush on TVâ€”and thought they understood what he said. Today, Najem looks back, resigned. She said, â€œI was never imagine that helping others is breaking the law.â€
In 1990, U.S. sanctions prohibited money transfers to Iraq. Earlier this year, Najemâ€™s husband, Hamoodi, began serving three years in prison for violating those rules by sending money to his relatives in Iraqâ€”and helping other Iraqis in Missouri do the same. Over nine years, the transfers added up, to nearly $300,000.
Najem said the idea came in 1992, when her brother-in-law called from Iraq. They expected news about a new baby. â€œAnd then they said no, the baby, we lost the baby,â€ she said. They asked why. What happened? â€œThey did not want to tell us first,â€ Najem said. â€œAnd then when we kept asking they told us that, â€˜Yeah, because she had infection and we could not find the medicine for her.â€™â€
Hamoodiâ€™s sister-in-law couldnâ€™t afford $10 antibiotics to treat an infection and prevent a miscarriage. Najem said she and her husband had to help. â€œYou can never enjoy the life and sit and be happy, and you know that your family they are suffering.â€
When Hamoodi started sending money in 1994, he knew it was illegal. Hamoodi couldnâ€™t speak from prison for this story. But Inside Columbia Magazine interviewed him this summer. In that interview, Hamoodi said, â€œI felt obligated and responsible to extend a hand of compassionate and mercy to my family in Iraq. So I was sending them some relief funds so as they could buy food and medicine locally there.â€
No one has ever proved that Hamoodiâ€™s money supported Saddam Husseinâ€™s government. But U.S. officials argue that Hamoodi chose to skirt the rules instead of sending aid legally.
Don Ledford is a spokesman for the Department of Justice, which prosecuted the case. He read an excerpt from an official statement. â€œWhen cash is transferred across international borders, itâ€™s difficult, if not impossible, to trace its destination,â€ he read. â€œThere is no way to know whether those funds wind up in the hands of terrorists or innocent family members. For that reason, the very act of smuggling funds in violation of U.S. sanctions is necessarily a crime.â€ Hamoodi, Ledford said, chose to commit a federal crime and the court justly sentenced him.
With Hamoodi now in prison, his family is stumbling through life without him. Najem, Hamoodiâ€™s wife, teaches Arabic to second-graders. She has never been apart from her husband for so long. â€œWe were always together,â€ she said. â€œHeâ€™s always there to help me, support me. So, heâ€™s a big part of my life.â€
Hamoodiâ€™s oldest son, Owais Abdul-Kafi, is in medical school and now also runs the gourmet grocery store his father started. He thinks his fatherâ€™s case is ridiculous. â€œMakes no sense,â€ he said. â€œYouâ€™re taking a very productive citizen, a very highly educated person, who did a noble and humanitarian deed, youâ€™re imprisoning him.â€
Hamoodiâ€™s 15-year-old son, Abdul-Rahman Abdul-Kafi, also feels his fatherâ€™s absence. â€œUsually we would sit as a family after prayer and talk, just say what happened that day and stuff like that,â€ he said. It made the day â€œfinish at a good rate.â€
Craig Van Matre is a pro-bono lawyer in Columbia working for Hamoodi. He flipped through a petition that asks Obama to shorten the sentence. It has thousands of signatures and letters from people Hamoodi has helped. But Van Matre said his petition is a long shot. Obama has only commuted one sentence in his term.
â€œThere are literally thousands of people clamoring for the presidentâ€™s attention,â€ Van Matre said. â€œAnd penetrating that noise to single out this one case is going to be a very, very difficult task.â€
Hamoodiâ€™s son, Abdul-Kafi, said, â€œWe believe that God kind of tests us. Itâ€™s kind of a test of how faithful and resilient we are.â€
In an email, a Justice Department official said Hamoodiâ€™s petition application is being considered.