∗ ∗ ∗
It is a dank, dark parking lot from the outside. But beyond Kevin’s Hair Salon, among a dozen parked cars, clumps of men stand around talking and smoking outside a modest entrance. Twenty feet of windows stretch either side of the door, and through them you can see men at tables, playing cards or backgammon or dominoes.
When I turn up around 9:00 p.m., the group outside clusters round me and asks what I want. Soon the word sahafi — journalist — is doing the rounds. And that opens a floodgate of emotion as the men crowd in to tell of the humiliation of the night of the 17th.
“Look at us. Old men!”
“They gave no respect to old people! They have no respect for Chaldeans! Many of us worked for the U.S. Army in Iraq. We are Americans. This is their thanks?”
“They had us on our faces, on the ground, for three hours. More. From 7:00 to 11:00. Hands tied behind our backs! They left us there. We couldn’t breathe!”
“I have lived in San Diego for 20 years. Never been in jail. We pay taxes. They had an old man in a wheelchair. They cuffed him! This is really insulting. Insulting to the Chaldean people.”
“I have asthma,” says Saad Younan. “I have to take my inhaler. I told them. They took me out to the road. Two men, one either side of me. I went to lift my inhaler; they reached for their guns! I said, ‘No! It’s just an inhaler.’”
“They came here expecting to find drugs and guns and gambling,” says George Kharat. “They didn’t find shit. They were just after propaganda. And drug deals behind the coffee shop? They looked. If they’d found anything, they would have arrested us all. They didn’t arrest anyone. And of the 60 arrests they’ve made since, only what…five are Chaldean? Every society has its problem kids.”
Kharat points to that white-painted cinderblock wall at the end of the parking lot and the apartment buildings beyond. “Yes, a few punks in that alley and those apartments sometimes do deals. We call the El Cajon police. We have called a dozen times to tell them when it’s happening. They don’t respond! They have two Chaldean cops, but they won’t let us deal with them because they’re afraid they’ll be too easy on us. What can you do?”
But what about the money that authorities said they collected off the members?
Someone produces a paper. “This is all we have of it. Our money.”
“Chaldean people,” says Kharat. “We like to carry cash. Not credit cards. When we buy something, we like to pay cash. Yes, there were people with cash that night. But not for drugs, not for gambling. But they took it from us! To get it back we have to go before a judge.”
And suddenly there’s a flutter of papers. Men bring out the U.S. Department of Justice — Drug Enforcement Administration “receipt for cash or other items” that agents gave them in exchange for the money they lifted from their pockets. Kharat gathers them up. The amounts vary from $133, taken from someone named Jojis, to Kajy Wadea ($1405) to Sybi Kheder ($1620) to — wow — $10,207 that belonged to Kamal Odeesh. He’d had the money in his pockets, in two wads.
“You can understand them believing he had brought this to gamble with, can’t you?” I ask.
“I tell you,” says George Kharat, “that is our way. We carry our money in our front pockets. Cash. There’s no hiding. The Chaldean police officers would have understood. But they did not bring them.”
Kamal Odeesh hauls out another piece of paper. This is a typed, notarized statement.
“I, Nabeel Qiryakos, hereby state under the penalty of perjury under the laws of the state of California that on August 17, 2011, I had an appointment to meet Mr. Kamal Odeesh at 8:30 pm at the Chaldean Social Club located at 811 East Main Street, El Cajon, CA 92020 to sell him my 2008 Toyota Camry.
“Mr. Odeesh had promised to pay me $8,500 in cash for my vehicle as agreed previously when he first looked at my car.
“When I arrived, the club, the building and the surrounding streets were blocked by the police and federal agents.
“I decided to go back to my house and await a call from Mr. Odeesh.
“Later that night, at 12:00 midnight, Mr. Odeesh called me and informed me that the police had taken his cash money that he was carrying with him to purchase my car.
“Therefore I signed and dated this Statement in front of a notary public.”
“My wife and daughter helped me get this money for the car,” says Mr. Odeesh. “They work at a Subway and a hotel. And another [relative] in Germany sent a gift for the car.”
“We are being penalized because of a few punk kids,” says Kharat. “I know some of their families. The kids have been thrown out. And thrown out of high school. They get desperate for money. It’s not easy here, so they do bad things. We tried so many times to call the cops before it got too big. It’s not easy to talk to these kids. They’re 19, 20, 22. But people they’re dealing with… [The kids] say they can’t get out, even if they wanted to.”
“Come in now,” says Saad Younan. “We didn’t know you were coming. So we have arranged nothing. Come in and see if you can find anybody gambling. The winners get tea, Pepsi, yogurt, or water. Or the losers pay for the food. Maybe $5 or $10. So, where’s this high-stakes gambling?”
I realize that high-stakes games could happen tomorrow. But tonight this looks like the normal Middle Eastern men’s social club. Men sit around tables crashing domino tiles or playing backgammon or a card game called 51. No sign of roulette wheels, money flying around, or alcohol.