Zinah Marzana’s blue-green eyes fill with tears as she recalls the
moment her life changed forever. It was December, and she was holding
her infant son as her husband, Zergo, drove along the road outside Tel
Kaif in northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plain. Her brother sat in the front seat
beside her husband. Somehow, they’d lost their way.
“My husband asked for directions from another driver,” Ms. Marzana
says. At that point, the family discovered the men in the other car were
armed. “They asked where we came from and if we were Christian. We told
them yes. My husband — he stepped on the gas to try to get away.”
But it was too late. The other car sped after them. Bullets ripped
through the air, striking and killing her husband. Ms. Marzana was also
badly injured by a bullet that lodged in her spine. Paralyzed for six
months, she was unable to care for her son, Fadi. Her voice breaks as
she describes the helplessness she felt.
“I was nursing my son at the time and I heard him crying. I heard some ladies at the hospital asking, ‘Who will feed him?’”
It was an agonizing two years before the soft-spoken, petite woman
could walk normally. At that time, in 2009, she and her family decided
to leave Iraq.
“I couldn’t stay there — it was too hard,” Ms. Marzana says quietly.
Her younger sisters nod, relieved to be far from a place where mortal
danger is an everyday fact of life. Vian, 19, sums up their feelings:
“Our religion — it means everything to us. We were so scared there.”
Aunts, uncles and cousins of the family number among the tens of
thousands of Christians, as well as Yazidi and other Iraqi minorities,
forced from their homes by ISIS in August 2014, who now live in
makeshift housing or in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, or further afield. Ms.
Marzana and her sisters hope to be reunited one day with their
displaced family in their new home: a quiet suburb outside Phoenix,
Arizona, a world away from the violence that drove them from their
Before finding their way to Arizona, Ms. Marzana and her family first
settled in El Cajon, California, home to some 60,000 Chaldean
Catholics, most of whom hail from Iraq.
For decades, Chaldeans have been building communities in the
southwestern region of the United States. Now, as ISIS drives Christians
from their homes in Iraq, these communities have grown into a base of
support and hope across the globe.
Over the years, El Cajon, which lies east of San Diego, has taken on
the shape of its growing community of Iraqi Christians. Signs in many of
the city’s shops and restaurants are in Chaldean or Arabic, leading
some to dub East Main Street, “Little Baghdad.” A stroll through the
grounds of St. Peter Chaldean Cathedral is more reminiscent of the
ancient city of Babylon, with sculptured lions of Ishtar guarding the
entrance to the hall.
From this city, Bishop Sarhad Jammo, a native of Baghdad, leads the
Chaldean Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle, a jurisdiction spanning 19
states in the west of the country. Second only to Michigan — the cradle
of the nation’s other Chaldean eparchy — California has grown into a
major Chaldean hub, with ten parishes and two missions. El Cajon alone
also boasts two convents, a monastery and a seminary alongside a
catechetical program serving 1,000 children, who learn to pray and
celebrate the Qurbana, the eucharistic liturgy of the Chaldean Church,
in a modern form of the Aramaic language.
On a warm Friday morning in mid-August, a red-haired altar server
sweeps the floor in the hall at St. Michael Chaldean Church, where some
70 or so parishioners had just finished a morning game of bingo. Born in
Baghdad, Domunik Shamoun, 11, came to the United States in 2008 with
his two older brothers and parents. He expresses pride in his heritage.
“I think it’s cool that Jesus spoke Chaldean when he was alive. I
speak the same language,” he says during a pause from his work. At home
he speaks Chaldean to his parents and English to his brothers.
El Cajon’s Mar Abba the Great Seminary — the only Chaldean seminary
outside of Iraq — reflects the vibrancy of the Chaldean community in the
western United States. In 2015, Bishop Sarhad ordained four priests;
three were born in the United States, and a fourth arrived with his
parents when he was 3.
“I don’t think Chaldeans are just one nation among nations,” Bishop
Sarhad says. “They have a major role in the redemptive plan of God.”
That great destiny, he says, is not his own invention, but rather
foreshadowed in the Bible when God called Abraham from the land of
“He’s the one who said there is one spiritual God, the creator of
humanity. I am the heir of that heritage. I cannot escape it,” Bishop
The Chaldean heritage is evident from the moment the blue dome
of St. Peter Cathedral appears along the highway that snakes through
this sleepy town in Southern California. For Chaldeans, the church is
the center of their lives.
Standing inside the cathedral on a late summer afternoon, Mark Arabo,
a San Diego businessman and community leader, translates for Romey
Saed, an Iraqi immigrant still learning English who arrived in El Cajon
two years ago. His brother, who is now displaced in northern Iraq, hopes
one day to join him.
Mr. Saed works in a store, just as he did back home, but with one
major difference. “Here, I don’t worry about my kids. I don’t worry
about my wife. It’s nice. I do what I want.”
Mr. Arabo is well known in the Chaldean community and beyond for his efforts to assist those displaced by violence.
“They’re just so happy to be in America,” Mr. Arabo says. “A lot of
them do have posttraumatic stress. Some of them still think that ISIS
will come get them.”
Noori Barka, a local businessman, works with many of the refugees. His company employs 35 people, 30 of whom are Chaldean.
“The church is number one in our lives,” Mr. Barka says. “We are a small community. Everybody knows everybody.”
Mr. Barka has worked to build a strong relationship with city leaders
and help bridge the cultural divide. At first, residents were uneasy
when they saw signs in Arabic; by 2014, they had grown comfortable
enough to declare September “Chaldean-American Month” in El Cajon. He
has spoken at events throughout the area, sharing the message that
Chaldeans are descendants of some of the earliest Christian communities
in the Middle East — something he says surprises audiences. He serves on
the board of the Boys and Girls Club, where many Chaldean children
participate in after-school programs.
Mr. Barka is also in the process of creating a program to help
Chaldeans establish businesses, something he says is in their blood. The
idea sprang from his experience helping many of his relatives set up
“Here they have opportunity. This is the place in the world that you
can have nothing — no degree, no money — but you still can make it,” Mr.
Deacon Martin Banni, 24, a student at Mar Abba the Great Seminary,
has only been in El Cajon two months. He and his pastor were the last
two people to leave the village of Karamlish, near Mosul, when ISIS
swept through the area last year, threatening Christians with death or
the jizya tax if they would not convert.
“Father called the bishop and he said, ‘It is finished. You have to
go,’” Deacon Martin recounts. “So we rang the church bell. It was 11
p.m. Our people, they knew something bad was happening.”
After helping carloads of villagers pack up, Deacon Banni and his
pastor took the Bible and the Eucharist and left St. Barbara Church,
built on the site where local tradition believes the third-century
martyr gave her life.
“My body is here, but my heart is there,” Deacon Banni notes
wistfully. Though he has found safety in North America, along with his
parents and older brothers, he longs to return to his native Iraq, to
serve his brothers and sisters who are suffering for the faith.
Chorbishop Felix Shabi, a native of Karamlish who leads the Chaldean
vicariate of Arizona, says his brother priests share similar sentiments.
“I want to be with my people in their time of suffering,” he says,
though he acknowledges the Chaldean community in Arizona needs its
Chorbishop Shabi, known throughout the eparchy as “Father Felix,”
came to the United States in 2002. He served seven years in El Cajon and
erected St. Barbara Church in Las Vegas before relocating to Phoenix in
“Here we are spread out. Our people are in Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe,
Glendale, Surprise,” the priest says, ticking off a list of some of the
suburbs that comprise the Phoenix metropolitan area. Once a month, he
travels two hours to Tucson to celebrate the Qurbana and attend to the
Chaldean families who live there.
“Many of them, their family has only one car, so if one is working,
the rest of the family cannot get to church.” Chorbishop Shabi dreams of
the day he can unite the Chaldeans of Phoenix in one church building.
For now, the community rents two churches — one on Phoenix’s northwest
side and the other on the southeast side.
Mar Abraham Chaldean Church, the community’s headquarters in Arizona,
was founded in 1995 by 70 Chaldean families who settled in the state.
Raad Delly was among them. His uncle, Mar Emanuel III, led the Chaldean
Church as patriarch and cardinal, and died in San Diego in 2014.
Mr. Delly doesn’t have any grandchildren yet, but says that when he does, he will teach them their Chaldean heritage.
Maha George, who sings in the choir at the Chaldean mission in
Gilbert, outside Phoenix, says the same. Mrs. George left Baghdad years
ago after being shot by one of Saddam Hussein’s men while she was eight
months pregnant. Her husband, Luay, worked three jobs to help establish
their family, which now co-owns two car washes.
“It’s our roots. It’s a great history to belong to,” Mrs. George
says. “America took us in, thank God, but we don’t want that history to
get lost. Somebody has to keep it.”
The eparchy’s four new priests have all pledged to help preserve this
legacy. Although only in their early 20’s, the men are steeped in their
The Rev. David Stephan, 23, spoke before a packed cathedral at his
ordination, sharing the tale of his journey in faith. Reared close to
the church, he first felt called to the priesthood when he was 8 years
old, and for a time he briefly considered entering the Jesuit novitiate
after high school. Then Bishop Sarhad stepped in for what would prove an
“He said, ‘If you are at your friend’s house and you hear that your
house is on fire, and another house in your neighborhood is on fire,
where would you go to first?’ I said, ‘My house, of course,’ like
‘what’s he talking about? Of course it’s logical that I would go to my
house first.’ And then he just stared at me for about two minutes until
finally it clicked, what he was trying to get through. This is my home.
This is my house,” Father Stephan said to thunderous applause.
The Rev. Simon Esshaki, 24, ordained in July, said new priests are key to preserving their identity.
“Bishop Sarhad taught us that worshiping God is the most important
thing you can do on this earth and that the Chaldean liturgy has
treasures that are centuries old,” Father Esshaki said.
At a celebration after the ordinations of two new priests, seminarian
Rami Georgis reflects on the Chaldean identity, forged in the crucible
“Our faith is in our blood. We are not scared of carrying our faith.
Our fathers, they shed their blood for the faith, for the community and
In this, he says, the Chaldean Catholic community grounds itself.
“When there is no church, they don’t feel alive,” he says. “So they
start from square one, ask for a priest and establish a church.”
Looking ahead, he sees hope. “God is going to be with us to defend us. He will carry us and renew us and make us strong.”