El Cajon neighborhood sign
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Downtown El Cajon is classically American. Main Street is a wide, two-lane road with a rundown western vibe. A quaint bakery, a dress shop, and a café vie for attention. An old hand-painted typewriter-repair sign remains etched on one building. During the summer months, Main Street hosts weekly antique car shows.

Babylon Market on Main Street

On those days, downtown El Cajon looks like a midcentury time-warp. But perhaps what aids the most in making Main Street authentically American is the multicultural vibe. Most notably, the steady stream of Middle-Eastern owned restaurants and grocery stores. Many business signs are written in Arabic — not surprising, as El Cajon is home to the largest population of Iraq War refugees in the world. It hosts the second-highest population in the United States of Chaldeans — Aramaic-speaking Christians from Iraq.

Roughly 50,000 Chaldeans live in El Cajon. With an influx of refugees fleeing their homelands due to religious and political persecution, those numbers are growing.

Ben Kalasho

“I think it is going to end up being troublesome,” worries Ben Kalasho, founder and president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce. “While non–Middle Easterners think it, they won’t say it because it is not politically correct. A poor town like El Cajon cannot sustain it. Forty percent of the people live below the poverty line and that was before the refugees came in.”

(City data indicates the 2015 poverty rate in El Cajon is 26.4 percent.)

Kalasho sits in his office at the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce inside a half-way renovated home in Fletcher Hills. He immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq in the 1990s. He is 32 now but looks younger. Even in a perfectly pressed suit with pocket square he looks boyish. “I was nine when I came [to the United States]. My dad used to invest here in the ’80s. We came right before Desert Storm. My father was here and knew they were going to close down flights [from Iraq]. We ended up getting chartered out of there. We left everything behind because we thought we were going to go back. We only had, like, ten grand. After the war happened, our house got bombed and the hotel we used to own got turned into a weapons manufacturer. We ended up having to start from scratch here. It was pretty crazy.”

Kalasho feels strongly that his family benefited from having to assimilate to their new country. He is concerned that the established Chaldean community in El Cajon has become, in a sense, a hindrance to the Chaldean refugees coming in now.

“It’s funny, I just read an article about what happened in Brussels and people want to attribute [the attack] to alienation. They are saying that alienating Muslims creates super jihadist and terrorist extremists. That is bullshit. [My family was] alienated, not on purpose, and we adjusted well. We didn’t join ISIS. We didn’t feel like blowing anything up.”

Kalasho continues, “There are pros that outweigh the cons of being in America. It’s not the perfect country, nothing is, but many times refugees don’t see all the good parts that America has. They complain a lot. They will say things like, ‘I wish Saddam was still there.’ They will say things like that because they are closed in this box of El Cajon. They don’t leave El Cajon. They go to Arabic stores. They converse with their neighbors in Arabic. Speaking English is eighth on their priority list because they don’t need to learn it. That’s a problem. It is a lot different than the Hispanic community. A Mexican crossing the border and coming over here is starting the initiative toward a better life. People coming in from the UN refugee program signed up to come here because it was one of the countries on a list. They don’t want to come here. That is why I would like to see them more spread out and more diverse.”

Kalasho acknowledges that his views are not shared by many others in the Chaldean community.

“[Other Chaldeans] are going to have a more biblical view. They will say, ‘We have to save all the Christians!’ Mine is a more pragmatic approach. It’s about human beings. I am not going to get behind a Chaldean agenda just because it’s Chaldean. That doesn’t make any sense. The local economy affects me more than the national economy. I care about my home values. A priest at a church, he is going to tell you differently. He wants refugees to come here because he wants to grow his congregation. They want more money.

“What we want to push for — the pragmatic individuals within the Chaldean/Assyrian community — is to create a safe haven; a new province in Iraq where it houses a lot of these minorities — Chaldeans, Assyrians, Yazidis, and what have you. The western-developed countries like France, Germany, United States, and England [could] carve out a piece of land, like the Plains of Nineveh, which is mostly modern-day Mosul, and train a force there made up of these people and to say this is a new province that has our blessing. That would pay dividends to both sides. It just seems like there isn’t a return on investments for the western countries to do that. I think it’s more about getting a cheap workforce like what is going on in Germany. There is actually talk right now in Syria about creating a federation within Syria for the refugees, so it’s obviously possible.”

However, Kalasho is unsure if Chaldeans are up for the challenge.

“Chaldeans aren’t really fighters, especially the ones in Iraq. Their whole lives revolve around going to church. It’s like having an army of Jains. You can only protest so many times. You can only go to the United Nations and cry wolf so many times. The Kurds have a female army. You can’t even get a male army on the Christian side. The teaching is so passive. If someone slaps you, give them the other cheek, love your neighbor. If you look in the Koran, that is just not in their book. How do [Chaldeans] fight them when they want to die? [Chaldeans] could have a gun and [Muslims] will have a spoon and they will still fight you. That is a problem. That is the thing that no one wants to talk about.”

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Comments

Ponzi April 20, 2016 @ 12:13 p.m.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on the health of Iraqi refugees who settled in the United States after 2009, 67 percent of adults are unemployed, including 85 percent of those over 45 years old.

This could be caused by a number of factors. Maybe someone can answer why there are so many Iraqi men that do not work?

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NewzUuse April 21, 2016 @ 10:43 p.m.

Ponzi.....I can answer your question. Because, it takes some time to build an economic structure. The refugees in El Cajon, are striving daily, to meet, and exceed, the requirements, set down, by local, state, and federal offices. And, are in fact, doing it LEGALLY!!. One look at the robust, and rapidly growing business community here in El Cajon, I can assure you Ponzi, does NOT jive with the stats you posted. You see, this story is about El Cajon refugees. By looking at the data concerning only these folks, you will obtain the answers you seek.

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Ponzi April 22, 2016 @ 8:50 a.m.

It takes more than 7 years? It takes Mexicans one or two weeks to find work.

I can see it with my own eyes driving through El Cajon. Adult men standing around on every corner, smoking cigarettes and talking. They are not looking for work, they are content with welfare. Most are uneducated and illiterate and unskilled.

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Ponzi April 22, 2016 @ 9:11 a.m.

NewzUuse, says "The refugees in El Cajon, are striving daily, to meet, and exceed, the requirements, set down, by local, state, and federal offices."

Would you care to cite your sources? What requirements are they suppose to meet?

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NewzUuse April 22, 2016 @ 1:14 p.m.

Ponzi....You can get the info at HHSA

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NewzUuse April 22, 2016 @ 1:18 p.m.

Ponzi.....You can get the info from the HHSA.

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NewzUuse April 22, 2016 @ 1:30 p.m.

Ponzi....You can get the info from the HHSA in San Diego.

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AlexClarke April 21, 2016 @ 7:12 a.m.

El Cajon is known as Little Bagdad. Poverty and crime is a way of life. El Cajon will be the incubator of future terrorists. There is a huge white flight going on and El Cajon is resembling a third world toilet. Soon businesses will suffer as no one will want to venture into Little Bagdad.

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TimS April 21, 2016 @ 1:14 p.m.

Uh....just because you say something doesn’t make it so. Go tell your BS to Starbucks, Jamba Juice, and Marriott whom have all committed more capital to building in El Cajon in 2016 and 2017. El Cajon represents 5 zip codes including many gated communities, Rancho San Diego, and excellent schools can also be found here. There are “good" areas and their are “high-crime" areas. There are shacks and multimillion dollar homes. For you to classify the entire area and its population in a few negative words, is careless, wrong and obviously full of hate. Posts your vote for Trump and move on. Oh, and I’m a White guy that moved here in the last few years and love it! I have never had a problem with any other race, in fact my one encounter with crime was a white guy walking his pit-bull without a leash.

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AlexClarke April 22, 2016 @ 6:54 a.m.

I was writing about the two zip codes that make up the City of El Cajon. There are nice areas surrounding The Box (Fletcher Hills, Horizon Hills, etc.) The central part of EC is a third world toilet with slum apartments filled with welfare rats. There are once nice working class neighborhoods that are now run down slums filled with the scum of the earth.

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Ponzi April 22, 2016 @ 9:04 a.m.

Ooo. Jamba Juice. That will rock the economy. I hope they accept EBT so the locals can have a smoothie.

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NewzUuse April 21, 2016 @ 11:47 p.m.

WOW!!! I just finished eating a huge plate of spaghetti with meat sauce, sausage, and wonderful oven baked bread,(and real butter) in LITTLE ITALY...then we went to LITTLE BAGDAD and enjoyed the most wonderful deserts and coffee....then we went to LITTLE ARGENTINA and Tango the night till our shoes afire.....then we went to breakfast at LITTLE DZ AKIN'S and got our Mott-za ball on......then we went to LITTLE CHINA and swam in shrimp with lobster sauce, X-tra crunchy noodles please.....then we went to LITTLE HARLEM for the ultimate Fried Chicken and coleslaw.....then we went to LITTLE TIJUANA, watched a bullfight and learned the flamenco.....then we went to LITTLE SAN DIEGO, oh wait, my bad, we never left LITTLE SAN DIEGO....Sorry AlexClark, your mind is playing tricks on you.

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edprice April 22, 2016 @ 2:52 p.m.

Exactly where in San Diego did you "watch that bullfight?" Beyond that, sounds like as long as you have a variety of ethnic foods, you don't care what the hell happens to America. What's your problem, Twinkies can't buy your allegiance anymore? America would be far better off importing some cookbooks rather than yet another batch of diversity.

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Ponzi April 21, 2016 @ 1:13 p.m.

I'd like to see a conversation about why they don't work. Mexicans that come over illegally mostly manage to find work even if they have to hang out in front of Home Depot to find work. It seems the Iraqi's have an aversion to work. Is it because the asylum welfare is enough to keep them happy. Do they work under the table at their various liquor stores. 85% of Iraqi men over the age of 45 unemployed? Is it really a good policy to keep inviting these people here if they are going to remain unproductive residents?

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NewzUuse April 22, 2016 @ 1:12 a.m.

Ponzi.......I hung out in front of home depot for about 2 years. Times were very tough for us. This was a blessing though. I saw how people, no matter what race or creed, physical ability, handicap or social position, work together. A truck would pull up to the curb, you, you, you, the man at the wheel would indicate. Didn't matter what you was, but what you can do. You single out Mexicans, why? It seems, it only seems to you, Iraqi's have an aversion to work. Where, or by what method did you come to deduce this as fact. I'll wager at some point in YOUR lifetime you did work under the table. And as for coming over ILLEGALLY in mass amounts as Mexicans do, Iraqi's can't, because there is a huge physical distance to traverse, and many stations to pass through. Unlike our southern friends that just have to jump on the Orange Line and Stay with relatives who are also ILLEGAL. There is NO badge of honor to be worn by just working. And in addition, the monolithic pile of unreported, unpaid payroll deductions including tax, state and federal by these Mexicans is a reflection of their character. The typical Mexican has always been portrayed as a lazy man taking a siesta under his sombrero at midday. My neighbor has a ceramic figure in his garden. Each culture has it's own way of seeking honest work. Iraqi's pay their taxes and are a welcome addition to El Cajon commerce. In closing Ponzi, tell us what type of productive resident are you?

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Ponzi April 22, 2016 @ 9:01 a.m.

Coming from someone who claims to have "hung out in front of home depot for about 2 years" I doubt we can have an intelligent debate. Our backgrounds are different universes.

You said "the typical Mexican has always been portrayed as a lazy man taking a siesta under his sombrero at midday." That is a negative stereotype. Most Mexicans are hard-working, family loving, people who learn our languages and customs and integrate into our society. They can find work in a few days, not 7 years.They don't marry off their children, make their wives wear ridiculous headwear and treat women as second class citizens.

The previous mayor said something about the Iraqi's driving up to the welfare office in Lexus and Mercedes Benz's. The Iraqi's have learned real fast how to scream discrimination and squelch speech using politically correct dogma. And they have apparently learned how to game the system.

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NewzUuse April 22, 2016 @ 1:27 p.m.

Ponzi.....Are you an El Cajon resident? If so we meet at the park next to the Library. I'm sad you are doubtful we can not have an intelligent conversation. Most Iraqi's are hard working family loving people who learn our languages and customs and integrate into our society. I invite you to stroll along Mainstreet and interact with our new neighbors, because you and I must be ambassadors of OUR country and set the good standard.

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Ponzi April 22, 2016 @ 10:31 p.m.

No I am not an El Cajon resident. Years ago I operated a business in El Cajon. But given the current demographics I would never consider operating a business or owning real estate in that community. It has become a refugee welfare state-city. Who would want to operate or own anything here there is so much tension between the "new guard" (lazy perma-welfare collecting Arabs) and the old guard which is dying, leaving and disinvesting in what is to become a "no-go-zone" cultural island.

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