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

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

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.”

Murals outside Ali Baba Restaurant on the corner of Main and Ballantyne

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.

Al Sanati

Al Sanati

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.”

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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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callforeducation May 16, 2018 @ 3:38 p.m.

It is so sad to see so much ignorance and hate on these posts. We are talking about fellow human beings. If you've grown up privileged and are safe and secure, you have no right to judge others. If you haven't experienced being a refugee - having to flee from your home, having mass violence erupt around you, educate yourself - talk to those who have before you make sweeping generalizations. Make the difference you want to see. If you want people to work - create jobs for them or help those people find ways to do that. But please don't just sit there and spread your hate - educate yourself!

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