Grief and Fear in Sacramento Over a Death That Set the World on Edge
SACRAMENTO — The body of the man whose death, 7,000 miles away in Iraq, unleashed a geopolitical crisis lies in an unmarked grave below a mound of moist earth, on plot E-233 at the Greater Sacramento Muslim Cemetery. His grieving widow remains behind closed doors.
It’s been almost three weeks since Nawres Waleed Hamid, a naturalized citizen who grew up in Iraq, became the latest American to die in the United States’ nearly two-decade-long military entanglement in the Middle East. His death in a rocket attack in December in Kirkuk, where he was working as a translator for the American military, was quickly seized upon by President Trump, touching off a chain of events that for several days set the world on edge.
An Iran-backed militia was blamed for Mr. Hamid’s death, and President Trump responded by ordering the assassination of a prominent Iranian general, prompting retaliatory missile strikes by Iran against American troops inside Iraq.
Though tensions between Iran and the United States may have lessened since that moment when the two nations edged close to war, in Sacramento a sense of unease remains.
Citing Mr. Hamid’s death as a reason for military action against Iran — calling him an “American contractor” without mentioning that he was an immigrant — made the president’s posture especially stinging to some Muslims here, who have felt marginalized and vulnerable in recent years as the Trump administration has clamped down on immigration.
“That an Iraqi American Muslim immigrant was used as a pretext for military action in the Middle East is ironic,” said Basim Elkarra, the executive director of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It was shocking.”
Like Mr. Elkarra, many people in Sacramento’s sizable Muslim community are angry over Mr. Hamid’s death, but have mostly chosen to keep their outrage private. Partly, that is because Mr. Hamid kept a low profile, with one foot in the United States and one in Iraq, and few people in the Sacramento area knew him personally. Mr. Hamid studied in California to become an American citizen, yet returned to Iraq to work — something he kept silent about with his circle of acquaintances.
Still, the reticence and angst offers a glimpse into how many people in Sacramento are wary of attracting attention because of their ties to the Middle East and fears over racist attitudes toward Arab immigrants.
Even for a United States citizen like Mr. Hamid, for example, going to work for the American military in Iraq can be as controversial as it is lucrative, and not something to showcase. In Iraq, Iraqis who work for the American military have long been targeted as traitors by anti-American militias, and have sometimes been killed. Even in Sacramento, going back home to work can be difficult: Iraqis in the city may be proud American citizens, but many are still critical of American policy in Iraq, blaming the United States for the violence and destruction of their homeland.
“You could be a translator at a time of peace for the U.S. embassy in Switzerland, and there would be no issue,” said Mounir Kaddoira, an American of Palestinian heritage who runs the funeral home in Sacramento that prepared Mr. Hamid’s body for burial.
Mr. Kaddoira said the Muslim immigrants he knows love America, but are tired of endless wars in the Middle East and want American forces out of the region.
“But God forbid, if someone was attacking California, I’d grab a gun and fight,” he said.
Many in Sacramento are reluctant to even discuss Mr. Hamid’s death, for fear of retribution against relatives in Iraq, where armed groups are known to monitor digital media.
“People are afraid to comment online about the political situation because it can affect their families back home,” Mr. Elkarra said.
The Sacramento Valley is home to some 75,000 Muslims, according to Mr. Elkarra, including thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who fled wars. There are more than 20 mosques in the region, each serving different sects and ethnicities, as well as countless cafes, restaurants and grocery stores that cater to Middle Eastern immigrants.
But the numbers of new arrivals has dwindled substantially during Mr. Trump’s presidency, and the possibilities for family members back home to join their relatives in America have been curtailed.
“It’s not openly discussed, but everyone knows he’s a racist, and against Muslims and asylum seekers,” said Sajad Janmohamed, a retired doctor who runs the Muslim cemetery in Sacramento, in reference to Mr. Trump. “It’s so cruel. Jesus was an asylum seeker.”
Mr. Janmohamed hastily arranged for Mr. Hamid’s funeral on Jan. 4 after Mr. Hamid’s body arrived from Iraq. On the morning of the funeral, a message went out on a WhatsApp group that many area Muslims belong to, asking for attendees.
“He was the only person I knew here,” Noor Al-Khalil, Mr. Hamid’s widow, said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee, which first reported his burial. “It still does not feel real. It is difficult to accept that he is no longer here.”
The exact circumstances of Mr. Hamid’s death on Dec. 27 are still mysterious. Mrs. Khalil said that he had stopped responding to her telephone messages, and then a representative from his employer appeared on her doorstep bearing the grim news.
The company, Valiant Integrated Services, issued a brief public statement, calling the death tragic and describing Mr. Hamid as a consummate professional who was “cherished and valued by his colleagues.”
Angela Pruitt, a spokesman for the company, declined to provide any further details about Mr. Hamid’s work.
He was the second interpreter working for the company to be killed in the Middle East in 2019. Ghadir Taher, a 27-year-old Syrian-American from East Point, Ga., died in a suicide bombing in Manbij, Syria, last January.
The company paid for Mr. Hamid’s burial, The Bee reported.
Mr. Hamid studied computer science at American River College, a community college near Sacramento, between 2013 and 2018, but did not graduate, according to Scott Crow, the spokesman for the college.
Mrs. Khalil, a medical technician, declined to be interviewed by The New York Times.
She said in the interview with The Bee that the couple had two sons, aged 8 and 2. She was pregnant with the first when the couple arrived in the United States in 2011, she told the paper, and that her husband was naturalized in 2017.
For the moment, she said, she plans to stay in their adopted homeland to raise her children.
“What would I return to in Iraq?” she was quoted as saying.
At the quiet funeral, Mr. Janmohamed was struck by how few friends of Mr. Hamid’s were in attendance, and by the empty stare of his wife. “It was almost like she wasn’t there,” he said.
To make the funeral arrangements, Mr. Janmohamed dealt with a Virginia man who said he was a friend of Mr. Hamid’s and had worked with him in Iraq, but offered no other details about the manner of Mr. Hamid’s death or the work he did in Iraq. The man insisted that he remain anonymous, especially to the press.
“He said, ‘Don’t give my name to anybody,’” Mr. Jammohamed said.
Stacey Solie and Kimberly N. Chase contributed reporting from Sacramento.
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