Life in El Cajon

Along Main Street in El Cajon, California, many once-empty storefronts are now thriving businesses owned by Chaldeans. From clothing boutiques to restaurants, they are bringing shoppers back downtown. The city’s mayor, Mark Lewis, has even dubbed East Main Street “Little Baghdad” for its many Middle Eastern markets and shops.

As many as 50,000 Chaldeans have found a new home in the El Cajon area, where inland San Diego County’s sunny and warm climate evokes memories of their homeland.

In other ways, the regions have sharp contrasts. El Cajon celebrated its centennial last month; the century-old city epitomizes small-town America. Residents take pride in an Old West heritage of pioneers and gold miners, cowboys and Indians.  But demographics are changing due to immigrants, including Chaldeans, who comprise a quarter to a third of the city’s 110,000 residents.

Since the Iraq War began, many Iraqis have come to El Cajon, which now has the largest population of Iraq War refugees in the world and the second highest Chaldean population in the United States after Detroit.

Two Chaldean churches serve the community. El Cajon’s Chaldean newspaper, Betha Kaldaya (Chaldean House), stopped publishing last spring but owners expect it to be back up and running soon. And a Chaldean TV station broadcasts globally over the Internet. 

Classes help keep the Aramaic language alive. The annual Chaldean festival in September, sponsored by the Chaldean American Institute, draws thousands, celebrating ancient heritage and new traditions. Last year’s festival included TIMZ (aka Tommy Hanna), an American-born rap singer of Chaldean descent.

“Like so many others before them, these immigrants came to the United States to find a better life,” said Cindy Miles, chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. “It’s our goal to do everything we can to help them find work, to better themselves, and to become contributing members of our society.”

Some students have succeeded against all odds.  Bushra Rezoqi, a Chaldean mother of three young children, fled Iraq in 2001 and lived in South America before coming to America. In 2010, she graduated as valedictorian at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon with an associate degree in accounting. 

“Do what’s in your heart and you will succeed,” she told fellow students in her commencement speech. 

California Dreaming
San Diego has long been home to a small population of Iraqis who found opportunities here, notably Wadie Deddeh, elected to the California Legislature back in 1966. He later served as a judge; his story is told in the documentary film The Lion’s Journey. 
Polly Haisha Shamoon of El Cajon is California’s first female Chaldean judge, appointed to the San Diego County Superior Court in 2008.
Joseph Ziauddin, president of East County Refugee Center in El Cajon, estimated in 2010 that 90 percent of Iraqis here are war refugees. Their needs are great and resources are limited in El Cajon, which has the county’s highest poverty rate at nearly 30 percent.

But there has been some strive between the established community and the newcomers. In February 2010, El Cajon’s fire marshal shut down an event at the Chaldean-Middle Eastern Services office offering help to Iraqis seeking social services, after 500 to 1,000 people crowded into stairwells and a second-story hallway, creating unsafe conditions.

“How do we assimilate them into our culture?” Mayor Lewis asked about Iraqi refugees in 2010.  He cited a need for more English classes and more federal aid, which has been cut sharply for refugees. 

Deddeh, who is on the opposite side of the political aisle from Lewis, has also called for English immersion classes to help Iraqi immigrants assimilate.

Many early immigrants from Iraq became prosperous by owning markets and convenience stores. But as the influx of war refugees has grown, many arrive impoverished and traumatized. Challenges to help them become self sufficient have also grown.

Lewis praised the Chaldean community. “They are very family-oriented,” he said, also complimenting business skills of many Chaldeans. 

Trouble in Paradise?
The transition has not always been smooth.  Some immigrants have encountered prejudice; not everyone in El Cajon has welcomed signs in foreign languages.  

A law enforcement raid in August 2011 shut down the Chaldean Social Club, a card room, breaking up a drug and gun trafficking operation linked to both a Chaldean crime ring and a Mexican drug cartel.  Several hate messages were reportedly received by St. Peter’s Church as a result.

The arrests led to a ban on card rooms and card-playing in restaurants.  After a backlash, the city council softened its stance, allowing limited card playing to accommodate the social customs of Chaldeans, while retaining restrictions to prevent gambling.

Police say another challenge has been educating the city’s Middle Eastern arrivals on differences in laws between the two regions, including treatment of women. Adapting to western ways in everything from diet to dating has been daunting for some. Some Chaldeans have also faced mistaken bias targeting Iraqi Muslims in the wake of occasional terrorist attacks.

One prominent case sparked concerns throughout the Iraqi community. Shaima Alawadi, a young Muslim mother, was beaten to death in her El Cajon home last March.  A note at the scene called her a “terrorist” and urged her to go home to Iraq. The crime sent ripples of fear through both the Chaldean and Muslim Iraqi communities after police called the murder a possible hate crime. The death sparked protests around the globe. But in November, police arrested Alawadi’s husband and announced that they now believe the tragedy was actually domestic violence, relieving community tensions.

Entering Politics
Chaldeans are now becoming politically active in El Cajon, where the council is composed of five white men in a city where minorities, which also includes Hispanics and African-Americans, are the majority.  

In March, council members drew strong criticism for filling by appointment a vacancy due to a resignation. The mayor refused to accept applications from the public, including a Chaldean businessman, Ben Kalasho, and an African-American woman who had served on the Planning Commission. Instead, the mayor appointed a white male Planning Commission member.

But several months later, in May, council members showed signs of reaching out to the Chaldean community. They appointed a Chaldean, Adel Dahnka, to serve on the city’s Planning Commission — historically a steppingstone to higher office — from a field of six candidates.

In the November election, Kalasho and a second Chaldean candidate, Christopher Shamoon, ran unsuccessfully for council.  Kalasho, a Democrat, narrowly missed defeating El Cajon’s longest-serving incumbent councilman by less than 1 percent, or about 398 votes out of more than 48,000 cast. Shamoon, a Republican, placed seventh in the eight-candidate nonpartisan race. 

“There is a huge demand for me to run again,” Kalasho said.  “Not just from the Chaldean community … but concerned citizens who believe in me and in my direction for our city.” His calls for diversity and job creation “attract many kinds of voters,” he said.

Kalasho and his wife, Jessica Deddeh (a relative of Wadie Deddeh), registered 916 Chaldeans to vote. “We also registered dozens of Muslim and Kurdish Americans,” said Kalasho, who speaks four languages.  His wife, who is part Hispanic, also registered many Latino voters.

Kalasho faced powerful forces backing the Republican incumbents, including the conservative Lincoln Club, which convinced major downtown property owners to ban political signs for challengers and only display signs touting incumbents.  “Signs held up by tycoon contractors with cranes and lifts were displaying partisan banners in a nonpartisan race,” Kalasho said. 

Next election, he hopes to see more public forums — and won’t rule out the possibility of joining forces with a like-minded candidate to form a slate.  Kalasho also plans to be involved in other local civic organizations.

Mixed Feelings
For some Iraqi Americans, there is irony in making a new life in a nation that invaded their own. Sentiments about the invasion are mixed. Some praised liberation from Saddam Hussein’s rule, while others opposed American intervention. All mourn the devastation in their homeland. 

For Chaldeans in El Cajon, ending the Iraq War also brought conflicting feelings. Some welcomed the news, while others voiced trepidation over Iraq’s future. 

For better or worse, however, most are determined to embrace their new lives here.

“History shows that those who leave do not go back,” said Bishop Bawai Soro during a symposium at St. Peter the Apostle, adding that Chaldean’s roots have been “ripped out” in Iraq.

He, like many here, believes that Chaldeans’ 4,000-year-old Babylonian heritage must be preserved. The Bishop has suggested that Chaldeans christen their newfound neighborhood “New Babylon, because the world respects Babylon.”

“We look forward to establishing a new Babylon. This is something many of us have dreamed of,” he said at the symposium. “Life is good here. We love America.”

Miriam Raftery is a national award-winning journalist and the editor/founder of www.EastCountyMagazine.org, a nonprofit online media site in San Diego’s East County.


article by: By Miriam Raftery