The U.S. government has taken many steps to prevent terrorism since the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Federal authorities have strengthened anti-terrorism laws. This has led to the arrest, conviction and deportation of many people. But residents of one town in the eastern U.S. state of Virginia have come together in support of their Muslim neighbors who are in trouble. The report is narrated by Amy Katz.
Friends and neighbors gather on the Court Square of Harrisonburg, Virginia, a small town about 210 kilometers from Washington, D.C.
One supporter, Earl Martin, explains why he is participating. "I am here to stand with our Kurdish friends who are facing what I consider to be very unjust charges against them."
Another supporter, Jim Wingert, adds "These men were trying to provide for their families and they have gotten in trouble for it. It just seems ironic to me. So I think we need to be here to support them."
The Kurdish defendants are Rasheed Quambari, Amir Rashid, Fadhil Noroly, and Ahmed Abdullah. The four were granted asylum in the U.S. in the late 90s. After the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the Kurds were swept up in a federal government anti-terrorism net. They were prosecuted for illegal money transferring to northern Iraq without business licenses.
Rasheed Quambari, who was one of the first Kurdish refugees to settle in Harrisonburg, was convicted in January. "There are people back there, my parents. I have to support them. This kind of obligation for me and for all these people from there to help people back home whether for food or medicine, during the war their house being destroyed."
Residents banded together in their defense, saying that well-meaning immigrants were being made scapegoats.
"It is wonderful that you are all here. It wouldn't be if you weren’t. So thank you."
Christi Kramer, with her husband who is an imam at the Islamic Center in Harrisonburg, helped drum up the support and form a committee called Standing With Our Neighbors.
"The job wasn't convincing people. It was simply telling the story and people's response has consistently been response of outrage, of disbelief, of how could this happen. And then support naturally (was) following."
Supporters, many of them strangers to the Kurds, have collected donations to pay for legal fees and a full-page newspaper ad signed by 700 residents. Some wrote op-eds in the town newspaper.
Students at a local university made a documentary about the Kurdish residents, which played at a downtown theater.
Ahmed Abdullah, who pleaded guilty in a hope for leniency, says it feels like a big family. "We are not alone in this city. We are not alone in the United States. Actually we came here for freedom. They try to get me free in the trial. I am going to say I am a member of this family in the city."
While the sentencing trial is underway, residents gather outside the courthouse and wait hours for the rulings.
Quambari's worst fears -- deportation to Iraq or a prison term -- disappear. He and the fellow defendants receive probation sentences of one to three years and some fines.
It is a victorious moment for the supporters.
Eileen McGruder, a Japanese-American physician, has been actively involved in the defense. "(I am) really proud to be an American because the Kurdish people told me that if they were in Iraq and this happened, nobody would be able to stand up for them. It is only because we live in a country that truly is a wonderful country, that something like this is possible, that we could speak out."
Yet an important issue still remains.
John Brownlee is the U.S. attorney of the Western District of Virginia. He notes that the defendants have sent overseas up to $2.5 million on behalf of many Kurdish families, including their own. "We are still not sure where all this money goes to. And so when it goes outside the banking system the way it was, that's what creates the danger. So again we are going to continue to try to shut this down."
"Right now what are the families to do, the families who are in good faith providing a service to help people. Now they are unable to do that. And their own families remain in need." said Kramer.
The supporters say they will continue to work together to urge the U.S. government to help establish working banking systems in Iraq so the Kurds can send money to their loved ones -- as many other immigrant communities do.