Family mourns artist who fled violence in Iraq only to be killed in a Sacramento parking lot

03/28/2014 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 12:03 PM

Hassan Alawsi fled murders and kidnappings in his native Iraq, only to be shot to death March 16 in the Home Depot parking lot on Florin Road after a mundane shopping trip. His family said the artist who had taught special-needs youths in Elk Grove loved his adoptive country and planned to return to Baghdad to find a wife and start his own family in Sacramento.

“He left a war-torn Iraq to find a safe place to live with his family, and now he’s going back in a casket,” said Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento Valley chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations at a news conference Thursday attended by a dozen community leaders and elected officials decrying Alawsi’s seemingly senseless slaying.

Alawsi, 46, was the sole breadwinner for his brother and sister in Sacramento. The suspect in his killing, Jeffrey Caylor of Butte County, told relatives he hated people of Middle Eastern descent because of a business dispute with a South Asian immigrant, said Sacramento County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Barnes, supervisor of the homicide bureau.

Alawsi’s killing is being investigated as a possible hate crime, “but we can’t say that yet; we need to have supporting facts to confirm that,” Barnes told the interfaith press conference.

Clad in black, Alawsi’s’s sister Sajidah Alawsi cried inconsolably through the news conference. She and Alawsi’s younger brother Hussein are flying to Paris on Saturday to meet with other relatives, and then they all will return to Iraq to bury him. The slaying has led them to buy one-way tickets, even though Sajidah Alawsi, who taught history at a university in Baghdad, said Iraq is even more dangerous now than it was when they fled to Jordan 13 years ago.

“After what’s happened, we are not sure if we will come back here,” she said in an interview. “I still believe America is the land of the free and the home of the brave, but I was shocked and lost my mind when I saw my brother’s body.”

Sajidah and Hussein Alawsi chanted verses from the Quran over their brother’s casket at a local mortuary. They said they were members of a prominent Iraqi family descended from one of the Prophet Mohammed’s greatest companions, and had all become U.S. citizens.

They thought they had found a safe haven in south Sacramento. “I never did face discrimination in Sacramento,” Sajidah Alwasi said. “Americans showed us the beauty of this country. People always respected us, and I cooked my favorite Iraqi dishes for my neighbors.”

She wondered whether her hijab – a Muslim head scarf – had somehow provoked the killer, but added that she and her brother didn’t have any interaction with the suspect at the Home Depot where they’d gone on a Sunday night to buy some paint for Alawsi’s art projects and herbicides to bring to their relatives in Paris. Hassan Alawsi had been scheduled to have an art exhibit in Paris with his older brother, his sister said.

Hassan Alawsi, who studied art history in Iraq, embarked on a painting career in Sacramento, where he had three shows displaying oils, pastels and watercolors featuring his native Iraq, including scenes from Basra, which some believe to be the site of the Garden of Eden. “He shared the beauty of humanity through his art and wanted to make a difference,” his sister said. “He loved the peace and freedom in the United States, and drew a picture of U.S. soldiers coming back home from the war and hugging their families.”

Hussein Alawsi, a business student at Cosumnes River College, said of his brother, “He was a good guy, never angry, who taught me to be honest and help people.” Hassan Alawsi started teaching art at the Aim Higher Adult Development Center in Elk Grove five years ago and had just gotten a job teaching art at a local community college, said his family’s attorney, Tawfiq Morrar.

“I knew Hassan when he first came to America,” Morrar said. “He was the softest, most gentle person you could imagine. I don’t think he’s capable of fighting with somebody.”

At the press conference, Imam M.A. Azeez of SALAM Islamic Center said Hassan Alawsi used to pray at the mosque and served as a security guard. “I’m not angry; I’m baffled and confused and can’t fathom the amount of hate that would drive such an action,” Azeez said. “This is not a time for retaliation, this is a time for compassion, prayer and exercising self-restraint, and not being swept away by the feelings of hatred.”

Dr. Richard Pan, the state assemblyman whose district office is minutes from the site of the slaying, said Alawsi’s death indicates “we still have a lot of work to do.”

“Since 9/11 so many Muslims and Sikhs have been victims of hate crimes,” Pan said. “We need to educate our children about the dangers of racism and we all must continue to work together to combat hatred.”

Sikh community leader Amar Shergill recalled the murders of two Sikh grandfathers on their afternoon walk through Elk Grove and the severe beating of a gay man in Davis, citing a need to find “the people in darkness and give them the light to change their lives.”

Elkarra said Alawsi’s murder is one of several incidents in recent weeks that seem motivated by hatred. At a Costco parking lot in Stockton, a man allegedly called a Muslim woman wearing a hijab a “terrorist” and tried to run her down with his car, Elkarra said. That case has been referred to the San Joaquin County district attorney. And a Muslim attorney wearing a hijab was subjected to racial slurs at a downtown Sacramento pharmacy, Elkarra added.

“A young African American man came to her aid, or who knows what would have happened,” he said.

T. Sami Siddiqui, a local Muslim leader, suggested the Sacramento region’s more than 30,000 Muslim Americans “need to be careful when you’re walking around outside.”

Representatives from the Florin Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, the Sacramento NAACP, the United Farm Workers, the Interfaith Council of Greater Sacramento, the Organization of Chinese Americans, the Sacramento City Unified School District, the Sacramento Central Labor Council and staff members for state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, Assembly members Mariko Yamada and Roger Dickinson all turned out to call for a united response to Alawsi’s slaying.

“An injury to him is an injury to every family in America,” said Bill Camp, executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “We have to root out and identify those people filled with hate and show them they are truly our brothers and sisters and we all stand together.”

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