El Cajon neighborhood sign
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.
“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.”
Murals outside Ali Baba Restaurant on the corner of Main and Ballantyne
Before wrapping up our interview, Kalasho points out that being Chaldean is not an ethnicity, it is a rite in the Catholic Church.
“There is no difference between Assyrian people and Chaldean people. The divide between the Chaldeans and Assyrians started 400 or 500 years ago, when the churches split. One went with the Vatican and one became an Eastern church. That is a problem, because we are so divided. Had these people been united I think they would have been a force in Iraq and would’ve stopped a lot of the problems going on right now. The Chaldeans don’t want to join the Syrian army and the Syrians don’t want to join the Chaldean army. Divide and conquer is the magic formula. The other side just looks and laughs because you don’t have that on the Kurdish side. If you’re Kurdish you are Kurdish even though there are different kinds of Kurds.”
Al Sanati, a refugee who fled Iraq in the ’70s, has a few opinions that differ from those of Ben Kalasho. Sanati spent a large portion of his life assisting not only Chaldeans, but Cubans, Somalis, and Russians, among others seeking asylum in the United States.
After struggling for a few years upon coming to the U.S., Sanati decided the best way to give back to his people was to help them find safety in America. He says he has assisted hundreds of refugees seeking asylum in the United States.
After Sanati left Iraq in 1976, he spent a few years living as a refugee in Greece before being granted asylum in the United States.
He moved to Detroit, home to the largest Chaldean population in the United States, then to Orange County, and lastly to San Diego in 1989.
“In 1975, the old regime, the dictator regime, bombed and destroyed 225 villages that belonged to the Christians. At the time I worked as a TV journalist. Because of that, I was a target for the government. I had no choice but to leave. I left in 1976. At that time it was very hard to come to the United States. You had to come to one of the surrounding countries. I went to Greece. I stayed there from 1976 to 1979.”
Sanati applied for asylum in the United States but was denied multiple times before being accepted along with his wife in 1979. When asked about his village in Iraq, Sanati becomes sentimental. Upon moving to the United Sates he changed his last name to Sanati in dedication of his birth place, Sanat.
“They call my birth village ‘the lost paradise.’ Iraq was one of the most beautiful countries. We had freedom like here in the United States. If I showed you a picture of how we used to live, you wouldn’t believe it. We were the most educated people. In the time of that regime, [Iraq] had 33,000 scientists. Iraq was almost like a European country. I miss it a lot. I left with my memories and dreams.”
In San Diego, Sanati became very involved in the Chaldean community. Because of his work aiding refugees, many friends and neighbors came to him for help and advice on family members still in Iraq and those who had fled to surrounding areas.
“In 1988, the Iraqi regime attacked the north territory by chemical weapon. Part of my [extended] family was still there. My family crossed the border to Turkey. By that time, it had been almost 12 years since I left Iraq. I was at home here when someone knocked on my door. Some guy I didn’t know said he just came from the camp in Turkey and three of my first cousins were over there. They [gave him] a letter for me. In the letters were pictures. I no longer recognized them because they were just boys when I left. They begged me to do something for them. They thought the Iraqi government were bribing and paying the Turkish to get the Chaldeans.”
Sanati managed to collect donations for his cousins. Despite the risk, he decided he would fly to Turkey and visit the camps.
“People in the Chaldean community heard I was going. They had people in the camps, too, but they were scared to go. Turkey was very dangerous at that time. People sent money and letters with me for their families.”
Sanati flew to Istanbul and from Istanbul to Agra to Kirkuk to the camp on the borders of Iraq and Iran. He stopped at a security point to gain permission to enter the camp.
“They asked me, ‘What did you bring with you?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ They said, ‘Some money?’ I said, ‘No.’ I told them I had several letters with me. They opened the first one, the second one, the third one, they had someone translating the letters. He was a snitch in the camps that worked as a servant serving tea and coffee. His background was Iraqi and he spoke Arabic. After reading one of the letters he became crazy and he slapped me very hard. The officer said something in Turkish. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Sanati was locked up for three days.
“They gave me a little bit of food. They put me in a room all by myself. On the third day the officers came to get me. They asked me, ‘Do you know what is in the letter?’ I said, ‘No, you opened it, not me. He gave me the letter to read and I was surprised. Before I came I told the people if you write a letter, do not include any information that you are sending money with me. Well, some stupid guy from Detroit sent $1000 to his nephew. The first sentence said, ‘I sent a $1000 with this man. You have to figure out how to manage with these stupid Turkish people!’ I told them I didn’t even know that there was a letter that said that. His response was, ‘You lied, you said you didn’t bring money.’ They were about to lock me up again but I negotiated with them.”
Sanati claims he had to fork over $2000 to the guards before they would allow him to enter the camp and that the guards insisted they escort him to convert his dollars to lira. In the end, Sanati estimates he was ripped off another two grand.
“By the time I got to the camp I only had $8000. I had to give them the names of everyone I was seeing at the camp. I asked the nephew of the man who wrote the stupid letter, ‘Why is your uncle so stupid? They threw me in jail and only allowed me two hours to stay in the camp. I lost $4000! I shouldn’t give you anything,’ He was crying and ashamed, so I still gave him $1000.”
That was the first of many adventures Sanati detailed. It is difficult to determine whether Sanati exaggerates or if his life really is like an action movie. He described a trip to Cyprus in which he helped a group of Chaldeans sneak into Greece after a heavy rain storm distracted border guards. He also detailed an account of being detained at the airport in Italy after trying to assist refugees into the country.
“Either I am after the trouble or the trouble is after me. You could write ten action movies about my life,” Sanati says with a small chuckle, the first laugh and hint of a smile he allows to pass his lips during our conversation.
Sanati is a serious man. He is soft-spoken and small of stature — not much more than five feet tall. During our first interview he wore a dark suit, a silk tie, and shiny dress shoes. The next time we met, during the early afternoon, he wore slacks, a freshly pressed black button-down with discrete white polka dots, and a beige sport jacket.
Despite his love of adventure, for now Sanati has put aside aiding refugees through the asylum process. He has moved on to what he believes to be a loftier cause — suing the Iraqi government for billions of dollars on behalf of the Chaldean community. He believes winning the case will cause the United States to up the number of Chaldean refugees allowed to immigrate.
“They allow 72,000 refugees into the United States every year. The Iraqi share is only 2000 to 3000. There are 200,000 people stuck in Iraq. There are 60,000 in Turkey in the camp. There are almost 20,000 to 25,000 in Lebanon, almost 80,000 in Jordan, and 15,000 to 20,000 in Egypt. Those people have hope. We cannot kill their hope.
“If we win our case, [Iraqi immigrants] won’t hurt your economy. They won’t need a penny from the government. We can bring in money by pushing our claim. According to the Iraq constitution, the one forced by the Americans, every single person that was hurt from 1968 to 2003 has to be reimbursed. The Shiites got their share. The Sunni got their share. The only people that didn’t get even one penny are the indigenous people.
“We own the real estate that other people are on. Everyone wants the territory to add to their share because it is the richest piece in Iraq. [The Chaldeans] own a portion of the oil and the wealth of Iraq — billions of dollars. According to the Iraq constitution, the territory belongs to the indigenous [Chaldean] people. I think we will win. I have met with John McCain, Duncan Hunter, Barbara Boxer, and the assistant of John Kerry. I think we are going to win.
“I don’t think people should stay [in Iraq]. That territory is not going to be stable for another 20 or 30 years. A lot of people want to die over there. They don’t want to leave their country, and the church doesn’t want to empty the country of Christianity.”
With the mention of church, Sanati’s normally soft voice goes up an octave. He blames the church for many of the struggles Chaldeans face and for much of the upheaval in his country.
“The church is the worst dictatorship on the face of the earth, because they are not following Jesus. I am against the church 100 percent. Their rules ruined our life. They controlled us for the last 1400 years to be a peaceful people, and we have to follow whatever they say. Four hundred to five hundred years ago there used to be seven million Christians in Iraq. Now there are only 240,000. The church didn’t want us to do anything. Instead, they teach us that our hope is not here, you have to look to heaven. But that is wrong!”
As for the future of Iraq, “I don’t know what is going to happen,” he says. “My brother lives in France now. He says, ‘We are in a war zone; all of Europe is.’ If our government does not do something right now, within two years they are going to be on our soil. If Hillary Clinton becomes president it will make things worse; [her] policy is the same policy as Obama’s. At least Trump clearly says that he will not let any of those people get into the country. Americans, the media, they need to understand that [Muslims], even if they are very educated, when it comes to religion they become crazy. It is their mentality, they came by force. They came by sword; when they read the Koran it says you must use force.”
When I point out the irony that someone who has spent the better part of his life aiding refugees seeking asylum in the United States would be a Trump supporter, he grimaces and says, “I think Trump has the majority of the Chaldean vote. You don’t know. The American people don’t know what is going on over there!” He lets out a weary sigh and repeats again, “You don’t know! If we don’t do something right now, within the next ten years, they are going to take over this country. Don’t you see what is happening in Europe? You have to react. The people need someone strong in the White House. For the last eight to ten years we have gained enemies. The fact that you take over Iraq, and the people were thinking Iraq was going to be paradise because of your help, they receive you with the most love that they have, but now you have turned them all against you, and that is what is happening in Syria because of the policy of Obama. The people they think that if we have a strong person in the White House things will be better.”