Town Backs Kurds Who Sent Money Back to Iraq
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
In a small Virginia town, a recent court case is raising questions about the Patriot Act. Several Kurdish refugees in Harrisonburg have been convicted of violating the act for sending money overseas. They have no known connection to terrorist groups, and they say they were only trying to help relatives in their homeland. They've won the sympathy of many Harrisonburg residents.
NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.
ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:
This summer, on Harrisonburg's Main Street, more than 100 people turned out to show solidarity with four of their neighbors, four newly convicted felons.
(Soundbite of people singing)
CROWD: (Singing) In Christ there is no east or west, in Him no south or north...
HOCHBERG: Local religious leaders organized this rally to support four Kurdish refugees who broke the law by sending money overseas without proper licenses. The four are among dozens of people nationwide charged with violating that law, since Congress toughened it in 2001 as part of the Patriot Act.
At the rally, United Methodist Minister Jeff Butcher pledged that Harrisonburg would stand behind the four defendants.
Reverend JEFF BUTCHER (United Methodist Church): We are gathered today as people who are concerned about our neighbors and are standing with them, and to make a circle of love around our brothers who are in need today.
HOCHBERG: The four men the town rallied around are part of a growing community of Kurdish refugees who found steady work and a quiet lifestyle in this remote Virginia city. With help from U.S. authorities, they fled the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq to escape the oppression of Saddam Hussein. Amir Rashid, one of the four defendants, left home in 1997.
Mr. AMIR Rashid (Kurdish Refugee): Everybody knows Saddam Hussein was destroying Kurdistan villages, city, everything. They killing human being without no reason. So that's why I'm coming here.
HOCHBERG: Once he arrived in Harrisonburg, Rashid got a job driving a truck and started sending money home to his family. He did it through what he says was the only means available to transfer funds to war-torn Iraq, an ancient informal system known as hawala, in which brokers move money outside the conventional banking system.
Mr. RASHID: We sending back to our home to helping my mother, father and relative, neighbor, whatever they need money. Because we know every system in Kurdistan has been destroyed, we cannot send money through bank.
HOCHBERG: Rashid says he didn't know his hawala transactions broke the law. But an FBI terrorism taskforce became concerned about them, especially when investigators learned the refugees not only were sending money to their own families, but also were serving as middlemen for other Kurds in the U.S., helping them too transfer funds around the world. U.S. Attorney John Brownlee says all told the three men transferred more than $3 million.
Mr. JOHN BROWNLEE (U.S. Attorney): American law and state law require that if you become a business of transferring money to places outside the United States, you have to have a license.
HOCHBERG: Brownlee charged the men with felonies. In a plea arrangement, three of the four were fined and received suspended prison sentences. The fourth is scheduled to be sentenced in late September. Brownlee concedes there's no reason to think the men had evil intentions, but he says nonetheless they put America at risk.
Mr. BROWNLEE: What they have admitted to is raising money from people that they don't know, and sending it oversea to people that they don't know. Well, the terrorists will take advantage of these kinds of banking systems to get their money overseas. Not saying that these folks did that or these folks would even know that. But this created a danger.
HOCHBERG: Since 9/11, federal agents have put a high priority on investigating hawala transactions. They've arrested more than 150 people around the country, but none of those arrests has been directly linked to terrorism, and experts say the vast majority of people who use hawala are harmless.
Former Treasury Deputy investigator Patrick Jost now consults on money laundering issues for the British firm Risk Global.
Mr. PATRICK JOST (Risk Global): Like any money transfer mechanism, hawala can be abused. But if you were to take a look at what these people do, most of them are very decent, hardworking people, and they're using hawala to send money home.
Unidentified Woman: What kind of danger are you (unintelligible) about for that?
HOCHBERG: Back in Harrisonburg, the guilty pleas have done little to dampen support for the four refugees. This group of volunteers continues to meet at Reverend Butcher's church to assist the men, who now worry their convictions will hamper their efforts to become American citizens. Butcher says people in the Shenandoah Valley town, with its strong church community and three local colleges, feel a strong obligation to help.
Rev. BUTCHER: These men had been offered hospitality in this country by our government. They have been good neighbors and citizens since they've been here. So when we heard they had run into legal difficulties, we felt the need to reach out and say, no, this is not how we're going to treat people for whom we offered hospitality.
HOCHBERG: In court, the federal judge handling the case said community support influenced his decision to give the men lenient sentences and not send them to prison. But John Brownlee, the prosecutor, stresses that the crimes they committed are serious and warns he'll remain vigilant in making sure refugees in Virginia follow the laws of their new country.
Adam Hochberg, NPR News.
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