by Roxana Popescu
They come for the fish, they
come for the Arabic music, but mostly they come for the memories.
Nahrain Fish and Chicken Grill, in a sun-parched strip mall in El Cajon,
is one of the only places in San Diego where you can get masgouf, the
Iraqi style of fish wood-fired in a clay oven.
The restaurant on El Cajon’s Main Street, next to a Middle Eastern bakery, is thriving these days.
County is home to the country’s second largest Iraqi immigrant
community, after Detroit. At least 40,000, and perhaps more than 50,000,
Iraqis live in El Cajon. More than 13,000 of them have moved here since
the Iraq War began in 2003, according to the State Department.
Diego’s Iraqis have different feelings about the 10th anniversary of
the start of the war, which falls this week. Some say it caused their
diaspora. Some are grateful because it led to Saddam Hussein’s death.
Some are angry because of the aftermath: the Shia government takeover,
Christian persecution, the rampant corruption and lawlessness.
U.S.-led invasion was “the worst day of Iraq’s life. A million people
left their country, where everybody was comfortable, and now they are on
Main Street looking for a dime,” said a man eating at Nahrain, who
called himself Naz.
man in the restaurant said the war had one good result: “There was no
other way of being able to remove Saddam Hussein from power, except this
A few things
Iraqi immigrants and refugees agree on: the war may be over from an
American perspective, but it continues in Iraq. For anyone with
relatives there or a dream of going home, the pain and struggle are far
from over. And in the new country, it helps to stick together.
of the Iraqi immigrants are Chaldeans, an ancient branch of Catholicism
persecuted under Iraq’s Shia government. St. Peter Chaldean Catholic
Cathedral in El Cajon is a robust center of resettlement activity.
few days ago, women were reciting prayers in Aramaic in a side room of
the cathedral. Their soft, rhythmic murmurs filled the air as a lone
worshipper sat near the altar.
an office next to the church, Noori Barka runs a dual-language
newspaper with neighborhood, national and Iraqi news, and a Chaldean
Internet TV station — the only one in the United States, he says.
is president of the Chaldean American Institute, a research and
advocacy nonprofit. He lists the church’s activities: Aramaic classes
for 600 children, a separate collection at services that has rendered
almost half a million dollars since 2008.
he’s not there, Barka, an immunologist, runs a biotech company. He left
Iraq in 1980. Why, after more than 30 years, is he helping Chaldeans in
America? “It’s in my blood.”
Why did so many Iraqis end up living in East County? Tight family bonds and the weather.
Besma Coda, co-founder of
Chaldean Middle Eastern Social Services, said the very first Iraqi is
believed to have come to the United States in 1890. A community sprouted
in Michigan, where jobs were easy to find and winters were hard.
the late 1970s and early 1980s, a wave came to San Diego from Iraq and
from Michigan. El Cajon, the city of broad, flat avenues stretched
between dusty hills, reminded them of home. It was sunny and it was
Most in that early
group were educated professionals, and 20 percent ended up running
businesses in San Diego, Barka said. A few of those seminal families
brought their relatives.
A second wave, mostly Muslims targeted by Hussein, came during the Gulf War.
Chaldeans came after 2007, when the State Department made it easier for
them to seek refugee status. San Diego has the country’s fastest
growing Iraqi refugee population. Other refugees include Assyrians,
Kurds and Mandaeans.
last resettlement is colored by the devastation of a homeland, a
cultural climate that resulted in bias against Middle Easterners, and
the economic downturn that makes it hard for U.S.-born workers, let
alone refugees, to find jobs.
of these people came at the worst time, because our economy was a
tragedy,” said Bob Montgomery, executive director of the San Diego
branch of the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that serves
Tony Yousif, a
Chaldean who moved to the U.S. when he was 14, tells the story of a job
hunter over a plate of fish at Nahrain: “I was talking to this newcomer a
couple months ago. The guy broke my heart. He said, ‘Listen. Please
find me a job. I’ll work for $2 an hour. I’ll work for one day, and the
second day is free.’” He repeated that line, flabbergasted. “They’re so
desperate. They’ll do anything. You would do anything if you had kids.”
46, moved to San Diego three months ago. He and his hijabbed mother,
Saad, shared a fish that covered the width of their table. In the same
breath, he talked about the big bucks he was earning in Iraq as an
engineering supervisor and the savagery he faced. A conflict with a
neighbor about landscaping escalated to threats on his life. He couldn’t
count on the police for safety. He sought refuge in America. “I had a
big position. All my dreams are broken. Now I need to start over,” he
A different kind of hope
Starting over in a new country is hard. Starting over in a new country when your homeland is destroyed is harder.
offered a surprising insight about the lack of hope for Iraqi refugees:
their grim awakening has made it somehow easier to dive in head first
and commit. This is especially true for Chaldeans, he said. “At some
point, they have to say, it’s not realistic to think (of going back) any
more. … Now we have to look forward. We have to look for opportunities
for ourselves and our children, because our future may not be in Iraq.”
At the downtown El Cajon
offices of Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services last week, the
hallways and meeting rooms were packed with families in limbo. A
volunteer translator who asked to share only his first name, Ayman, said
he was a lawyer in Iraq. He’s been in the U.S. for 10 months and he’s
still looking for a job. He has given up hope of finding equivalent work
but said he may take paralegal courses.
he and others said they’re confident knowing the U.S. is a country with
rules. Follow those rules, work hard, get ahead. There’s a transparent
system here, and that’s worth a lot.
they go, these newcomers stumble across reasons to hope things will
improve for them: a cousin’s college graduation here, a parent’s stable
job there. The tens of thousands who came before them, who run markets
and doctor’s offices, are more evidence.
at the diners at Nahrain, feasting on red snapper and tilapia. This is
not the tilapia used as generic filler for fishsticks and other
processed abominations. This fish is roasted whole, its flesh white as
ivory, its crisp, caramelized skin the color of honey or a Mesopotamian
Globally, the Iraqi
diaspora created hubs in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and
Australia. Source: United Nations Human Rights Commission.