LAKESIDE, Calif (Reuters) - Scores of mourners gathered in a California mosque on Tuesday to pay respects to an Iraqi-American woman who died after being severely beaten in her home by a killer who left a threatening note that prompted police to investigate the murder as a possible hate crime.
Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mother of five, was found unconscious in the dining room of her rented home in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon on Wednesday by her 17-year-old daughter, police said. She died of her wounds on Saturday.
Friends, family, and community members poured into the Islamic Center of Lakeside, with hand-woven carpets on the floor and plastic chairs lined around the edges. Some wore the traditional black cloak and scarf worn by many devout Muslim women, while others dressed in somber but casual black clothing and jeans.
“We want to let everyone know how innocent our mother, this woman, was,” Alawadi’s husband Kassim al-Himidi told the somber crowd in Arabic as his son Mohammed translated.
Addressing his wife’s killer, he said: “The main question we would like to ask is, ‘What are you getting out of this, and why would you do this?’”
Himidi looked drained as he spoke, as his children ages 7 through 17 quietly looked on. He did not make eye contact or speak with anyone after his remarks at the mosque near El Cajon, nestled in the foothills of a long, deep valley 25 miles from downtown San Diego.
San Diego Imam Sharif Battikhi told mourners said the killing had harmed not just Alawadi but the entire community.
“As an Iraqi and an American citizen here, all of us are in the same boat. We stand to save this boat. We stand not to kill each other, but to get to know each other,” he said. “These criminal hands, they don’t just kill (Alawadi). But they kill our community.”
Alawadi’s family was planning to fly her body back to Iraq within the week for burial, according to Sadaf Hane, civil rights director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Police have said they were investigating the killing of Alawadi as a possible hate crime because of a note found near her after the beating that police said was “threatening in nature.” But authorities have stopped short of ruling out other scenarios.
A friend of the family, Sura Alzaidy, told the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper the note found near Alawadi read: “Go back to your own country. You’re a terrorist.”
If hate is confirmed as a motive in the killing, it would be the worst bias crime committed against Arabs or Muslims in years in the area, Hane said. But both authorities and Arab and Muslim groups were being cautious about jumping to conclusions as the investigation continued.
El Cajon and nearby areas are home to some 50,000 to 60,000 immigrants and refugees of Middle Eastern descent, police said, but the area has not seen violent hate crimes in the past.
“We don’t know if it was a hate crime,” Salam al-Marayati, president of Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said at the service.
“We are here to grieve with the family of Shaima. We are here for her today. We are here to show our love and respect for her family. We don’t know what the facts of the case are,” he said.
The FBI was assisting the El Cajon police in the investigation, and has provided agents from a squad that is specifically trained to conduct hate crime investigations, according to FBI spokesman Darrell Foxworth.
“We strongly believe that this is an isolated incident,” El Cajon Police Chief Jim Redman told reporters on Monday. “There is no free-flowing hostility.”
Foxworth also emphasized that the attack was an “isolated incident,” but would not comment on suspects or evidence.
No police were present at the memorial service, but representatives of the Iraqi government did attend and speak at the service.
Silent candlelight vigils were planned in the area by members of a Facebook group ‘One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi,’ which has garnered nearly 6,500 members.
Alawadi’s family will be holding a candlelight vigil on Wednesday in front of the house where she was brutally beaten.
Writing and additional reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Cynthia Johnston