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.
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.”