ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Sharief Hadi, owner of a halal market and cafe, left Afghanistan in the 1980s and moved to the United States for what he thought was a safer life.
But after the murders of four Muslim men in the city in recent months – including his brother Mohammad Zaher Ahmadi – Hadi’s faith in the American dream is shattered.
“I thought I was living a dream, but it’s not a dream. It’s the opposite,” Hadi, 73, said in a phone interview on Monday. “They took my brother’s good life. I don’t care about my life anymore.”
The wave of killings in the Albuquerque area has stunned the city and rocked the small, tight-knit Muslim community, fueling fears of a racist serial killer on the loose.
Albuquerque law enforcement officials believe the murders of Ahmadi, 62, Aftab Hussein, 41, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, and Naeem Hussain, 25, may be related.
Authorities said on Sunday that they identified a ‘vehicle of interest’ linked to the four murders, and the FBI is assisting local authorities in the investigation. Police said they have yet to determine a motive.
Ahmad Assed, the president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, a mosque attended by the four victims, said in an interview Monday that he felt “broken” and “devastated,” like many in a community he described as “discouraged”.
“They feel a certain helplessness, they are afraid,” Assed said of members of the Muslim community. “Their whole world has been turned upside down.”
He added: “Everyone is very deflated and eagerly awaiting an answer as to why?”
Assed said the Islamic Center is at the heart of social interactions between members of the community. In the wake of the killings, many local Muslims have chosen to stay in their homes, where they feel safe and “don’t take the risk of coming to the mosque”, he said.
Hadi, the owner of the halal market, echoed this comment. He said Muslims in the area seem too scared to come out for fear of being shot for no reason.
“They don’t want to go to the store. They don’t want to go to pray. They don’t want to go to the mosque,” Hadi said, his voice rising in anger. He added that his own business had suffered in recent weeks.
Ahmadi was killed on November 7, according to police. Several months later, three more Muslim men were shot dead. Aftab Hussein, born in Pakistan, was killed on July 26. Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was found dead on a sidewalk last Monday. Then, just before midnight on Friday, Naeem Hussain was also found dead.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest advocacy and civil rights organization for Muslims, said it offered a $10,000 reward to obtain information that leads to the arrest of whoever is behind the murders.
President Joe Biden denounced the killings, saying in a tweet on Sunday may his “prayers be with the families of the victims and that my administration stands firmly with the Muslim community”.
“These hateful attacks have no place in America,” Biden added.
The four men all left behind relatives, friends and colleagues who struggle to understand the bloodshed.
Naeem Hussain’s body was discovered in the parking lot of Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, a nonprofit that had helped him resettle in Albuquerque. Hussain was born in Pakistan and came to the United States as a refugee several years ago in search of better opportunities, according to his brother-in-law, Ehsan Shahalami. He just became a US citizen on July 8.
Shahalami said during a shopping trip with his wife, children and Hussain last month, Hussain bought a new suit, shirt and shoes for his citizenship swearing-in ceremony.
“He was very excited about this ceremony,” said Shahalami, 37, a resident of Virginia. “Because now he was becoming an American citizen. He was obviously proud of it.”
Hussain worked as a truck driver and saved enough money to buy his own truck which he insisted on driving when the pandemic started. “A lot of drivers basically took unemployment because of the Covid situation and in regards to Naeem, he said, ‘You know, the country needs us more than ever right now. So we have to keep driving and try to influence other drivers to keep driving,” Shahalami said.
“Naeem should be remembered for who he really was – a genuine and generous man,” Shahalami said. Hussain loved being outdoors, especially camping and fishing, and was known to drive around with fishing rods in his car.
Shahalami said that although it was their wives who were sisters, he considered Hussain a brother and the two were very close. They spoke regularly and spent July 4 together in Virginia. Hussain had planned to bring his wife from Pakistan to the United States after becoming a citizen.
“He actually had good business plans for the future, but he obviously didn’t know the future,” Shahalami said. “Those plans are no more.”
Muhammad Afzaal Hussain’s brother, Muhammad Imtiz Hussain, told NBC News he felt scared for his life, haunted by the knowledge that his brother had been shot near seemingly normal residential streets – “places where my children go cycling.
The late Hussain was the director of planning and land use for the town of Española, about 90 miles north of Albuquerque. Vince Baldonado, one of his colleagues, described feeling anxious when Hussain failed to show up for the office last Tuesday.
“We were all like, ‘Did you get a call?’ Did you get a text? Is it stuck in traffic? “We didn’t think the worst…but then we heard.”
Baldonado, 42, finally learned from another colleague that Hussain had been found dead the previous night.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Baldonado said. “I never lost a friend to gun violence. He was my supervisor, my boss, my close friend.”
Baldonado added that he planned to go fishing and camping with Hussain before the end of the summer. He fondly recalled that Hussain still cared about his children, encouraging Baldonado to enroll them in STEM classes.
“He didn’t have a single nasty bone in his body,” Baldonado said.
Guad Venegas reported from Albuquerque; Daniel Arkin and Janelle Griffith from New York.