They are Chaldean, and they are unique. Iraqi immigrants or first-generation Americans, they carry the color and complexion of Middle Eastern blood and more often than not speak English with an accent. They harbor pride and a strong love of their former country. They are also devoutly Catholic.
In some ways, they are living, breathing paradoxes, bewildering to the American psyche-Iraqi-Catholic sounds like more of an oxymoron than an ethnic distinction. In another way, they are everything America has lost and struggled to find again since the 1960s.
They are a fiercely loyal people who prize family above all else. They own a determined work ethic that has turned the impoverished lot of a handful of immigrants, at the beginning of last century, into a bustling, dynamic and wealthy contemporary community of nearly 150,000 residents nationwide. The church is a cornerstone of their society and education is highly regarded-as are material successes and expensive automobiles.
The story of the San Diego Chaldeans is the story of America; more than that it's a story of people. One of those people, Father Michael Bazzi, the Pastor of St. Peter Catholic church in El Cajon, is one of the vital hubs around which the community revolves.
He's become larger than that small breach of space occupied by his flesh and bones-he's an institution. Thousands of people throughout San Diego County and the world-secular and religious alike-say his name with a smile and a gleam in the eye, recognition of a common good.
Now in his mid-60s, the prominent nose and chin on his round and tan face look more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern. There is a hint of Telly Savalas in his substantial frame and balding head, something decidedly Greek.
He is a large and erudite man with an ephemeral grace that's equally firm and gentle. His illustrious education began in 1965 at St. Peter's Catholic Seminary in Baghdad. He later went to Rome and was sponsored by the Vatican, earning a master's degree and two diplomas. He's continued to teach college, preach and write books-in three languages-for nearly 30 years.
One gets the sense quickly that he's set in his convictions, unbending in what he believes. And yet he addresses everyone as Dear, takes time to listen and oozes genuine care-which makes the juxtaposition of his firm beliefs and gentle demeanor the more tenuous.
When talking about Islam, the firm side of his personality becomes evident. He uses his study of the Koran and his first 33 years living among Muslims in Iraq to validate those strong convictions. Though not a believer in denigration of other religions, he admits that he believes the Islamic faith is barbaric and that the Koran preaches hate. He still refers to the Arabs, who have ruled the Middle East since the seventh century, as invaders.
There are moments talking with him when it seems he might be waiting for the day when the Arabs are pushed back to the place from whence they came; the day when he can go home to his ancient city of Nineveh and practice his religion freely in the land of his childhood.
But that is all in some other time and place. Father Michael's life is here now. Like many in his parish, he's a proud American and there's no going back.
Two weeks before Lent the distant winter sun shines brightly upon the teeming St. Peter Church in the stony countryside of El Cajon. The silhouette of the edifice, amid the brawny hills of Southern California desert, harks back to the homeland of the Chaldean congregation-the land between the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The building, completed in 1984, is built in the Byzantine style. It consists of square towers, ringed on the top with low parapets, and a sea-blue dome-adorned with golden doves and stars-supporting a gilded cross that presses heavenward. The façade is of blue and tan ceramics with six-inch indentions, inset with dark-red and blue ornate tiles, running two stories high.
The people who worship here were Iraqi before, and they're American now. For more than 2,000 years they've been Chaldean, which is no easy moniker to define. It encompasses an ethnicity, a shared history, a distinct language and a common religion-a Catholicism that is one in faith with Rome, though different in customs.
With a handful of other ancient ethnicities from the region-Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians among them-they boast one of the oldest recorded histories in the world. According to the book of Genesis, one of their people, Abraham, was born in the ancient city Ur of Chaldea. He went on to father Isaac, whose lineage eventually begat Joseph, the father of Jesus Christ, who spoke the Aramaic language in which mass is delivered by Father Michael on this day, two weeks before Lent.
The church is full, pews seating 600 are overflowing and the sermon has begun. A young girl, no more than 12, enters from behind the congregation. Her outfit is smart; a red business suit lined with a leopard skin collar and supported by power-broker shoes. Her skin is dark, her hair and eyes brown, flirting with black. She is of Iraqi blood-first-generation American.
She pauses at the door and looks to Father Michael at his pulpit. He's bathed in the soft blue light falling from a huge cross of stained glass behind him. A massive likeness of Jesus hangs in perpetual discomfort about the aqua window. Father Michael speaks emotionally in Aramaic, which passes for Arabic to the untrained ear, but is closer to Hebrew.
The girl bows her head slightly and looks up again. She slowly moves her hand from her head to her heart, to the right and back across again, before smiling softly and moving in the direction of the crowded pews.
She knows that bombs are about to fall in the homeland of her people-on and about aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. She doesn't know her parents' angst, though, or understand that type of incessant worry that can't be alleviated. Nor does she understand the irony. It will be Muslims in the Baghdad countryside who will open their doors to those Christian aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents fleeing the city as the day of aggression approaches.
She knows Father Michael, but she probably doesn't know or understand his bitterness about the Islamic faith and the persecution it's inflicted on his life. She certainly doesn't know he still sleeps, after 30 years in the United States, with a hallowed pebble from his hometown beneath his pillow.
She knows this for sure: two weeks before Lent the church is full and finding a seat is nearly impossible.
The two eldest Arabo sons were 3 and 2 years old when the family moved to the United States. Auday, the oldest, is now a deputy attorney with the San Diego District Attorney's Office. The second oldest, Kusay, a deacon at St. Peter Church, has recently begun his residency as an optometrist.
The two are typical of first-generation Chaldean-Americans-they're well educated, hard working, exceptionally polite, well spoken and instilled with a healthy American set of objective-based goals.
They're also named after Saddam Hussein's two sons.
“I was born in '76 and my brother was born in '78,” Auday explains. “At that time, Saddam was coming into power and he was loved by a lot of people. He hadn't shown his true colors.”
The children following are Steven, Mark and baby-sister Madeline. “It's easy to tell who was born where,” Arabo says with a smile.
A sturdy man, blessed with looks as sharp as his mind, Auday is a head shorter than his little brother. His caramel skin and jet-black hair is different as well-he could pass for Mediterranean, even Latino. After graduating from San Diego State University, he moved to Washington D.C. to work as a congressional legislative correspondent. He returned four years ago, graduated from California Western Law School and was picked up a year ago by the DA's Office.
He is an embodiment of the values Chaldeans are instilled with in their youth, and his family offers a model of the Chaldean process of American assimilation. They have owned grocery stores in San Diego County for the better part of two decades after arriving in the United States with virtually nothing.
They were neither poor nor religiously persecuted in Iraq, but rather a well-to-do Catholic family living in the suburbs of Baghdad. Two of Arabo's uncles had moved to the United States to avoid the draft for the Iran-Iraq War of 1982 to 1988, a conflict that cost the country more than 350,000 people.
It was his grandmother, the matriarch of the family, who wanted to move to the United States. Family legend has it that her husband had been threatened by the Mukhabarat, Saddam's secret police.
In Chaldean culture, the word of the head-of-household is sacred. As Father Michael points out, until recently the American institution of the nursing home was unthinkable to new Chaldean arrivals (though they've taken to the idea in the past several years, opening one next to the church).
“The mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers live with their families until their last moments,” Father Michael says. “They're the kings and queens of their families. What they say is golden.”
The Arabos left their jobs, possessions and money-even the hotel they owned-and emigrated with practically nothing, first to the larger Chaldean community in Detroit, then to San Diego. Arabo's parents worked hard and made enough to buy a grocery. They now own three supermarkets.
Like many other first-generation Chaldean-Americans, Auday and Kusay are not following their parents into the family business. Their degrees in law and medicine are common for people of their age in the community.
Working in grocery and convenience stores has been a necessity, Arabo explains, for immigrants who came to this country with language difficulty and limited resources.
“Money's universal,” he says. “A lot of these people couldn't speak English well enough to use the degrees they had from home, but they could figure out how to take a store and work hard and make a profit at it.”
In the beginning of April, Arabo will forfeit his post with the DA's office and become the executive director of the Independent Grocers and Convenience Stores of California-a venerable position within the Chaldean community.
The 2001 St. Peter parish census indicated 745 of the Chaldean families in San Diego owned a business; 109 owned two or more. Arabo says the number of Chaldean-owned businesses in the area has now topped 900.
Their entrepreneurial spirit is no surprise to Nathan Mansour, St. Peter parishioner and owner of Power Trucking Inc. of Escondido. The 1994 University of San Diego accounting graduate explains that because the Koran prohibits followers of Islam to imbibe spirits, Christians in Iraq were historically the owners of liquor stores and bars. Not unlike the politics of speakeasies in prohibition-era America, power came with ownership as Muslim police, government officials and others frequented those establishments, developing a sort of complicit camaraderie with Christian proprietors.
Mansour was born in the United States, the progeny of a frenzied tryst between true love and the American dream. He's a large man, standing taller than 6 feet and weighing more than 250 pounds. He's extremely polite, a trait he wears with charm on his large frame. His smile is ubiquitous.
His looks are clean and sharp, carrying the dark features of his lineage. His black hair is cut short and his dark eyes ride above the ridgeline of a prominent mid-eastern nose. He grew up speaking Arabic at home and has twice visited the homeland. Like most Chaldeans he's bilingual, speaking English and Arabic fluently. He also understands Aramaic. At the same time he's 100 percent American, of Gen-X vintage. Obscure references to American movies and song titles are not lost on him and his accent is educated, white middle class. He's better spoken than a majority of his Gen-X counterparts on topics of history, politics and geography.
“I guess I got hit over the head with a two-by-four,” Mansour says of his entry into the construction trucking business. The opportunity was a good deal. He knew he could do the numbers, and his partner, Gory Maria, was versed in the operations side of the company. Business is good, he says.
While his awareness of politics and world events has been raised through reading, it's obvious his knowledge of the Middle East and events there is not only thorough but also has been shaped by the experiences of his parents.
Their story, though long and twisted, is as simple as the girl next door. Mansour's father, Hikmat, a middle class youth in 1950s Iraq, planned to move to the United States. He was also in love with his next-door neighbor, Mary. Her father, however, forbade her to move halfway across the world. Hikmat made his way to Detroit and the large Chaldean community there.
He eventually took a wife and had three daughters, but his first wife developed cancer and passed away. After some time he wrote a letter back home, inquiring about his old love next door. Mary was still living at home and her father had died. Hikmat went to Baghdad, married her and brought her back to the U.S. She gave birth to Nathan soon after, and the family has lived in Fletcher Hills for nearly 30 years.
Nathan Mansour still lives with his family, the custom in both the Chaldean community and the Middle East. As with many other cultures-Mediterranean, European, South and Central American among them-it's common for young adults to live with the family until they marry.
That's one of the many differences Mansour says exist between American and Gulf cultures-as do a number of misconceptions about Iraq. In the end, though, he says people are people; there are far more commonalities between the two cultures than differences.
CHALDEANS IN SAN DIEGO
It's late night at Aunt Emma's all-night diner on E Street in Chula Vista, 1966. Forty-six-year-old schoolteacher Wadie Deddeh and a handful of friends chat apprehensively over an early breakfast. Deddeh, a believer in miracles, goes compulsively to the payphone every 15 minutes.
At 4 a.m. the county registrar on the other end of the line tells him there are more votes to count, but the results are conclusive-there's no way he can lose. He has simultaneously become the first Chaldean in American history to hold public office and launched a 27-year career as state assemblyman and senator, a small miracle for an accented immigrant granted limited funds to match his opponents' and less of a chance at victory.
“I said [to the registrar], ‘Is it for sure? Can I then send a cable to my favorite uncle in Baghdad and tell him I won?' And he said, ‘Do that.' Next I called my mother in Detroit to tell her. She said, ‘I knew you won, Son, I was saying the rosary all night long. How could you lose?'”
Thirty-seven years, several miracles and more than 1,800 Chaldean families later, Deddeh is amazed at the growth of the community in San Diego. They've built two churches, a ballroom, a retirement home and, most recently, a new office for the Bishop. Deddeh's son, Peter, has since become the first Chaldean superior court judge in U.S. history.
Deddeh arrived in the post-war United States with nothing, save a degree from Baghdad University. After earning another degree at the University of Detroit, in political science, he applied to the U.S. Army Language School in “a place called Monterrey,” which he knew only as being somewhere in California-he was hired, sight unseen.
He met his wife there, a California girl; they moved back to Detroit, had a baby and decided Southern California was a better fit. They joined the barely existing San Diego Iraqi community in 1957. The growing group soon interceded, talked to the Bishop in Baghdad and had a priest reassigned to them.
It didn't take long, he says, for the 30-odd families to realize they were in no financial position to support a priest and a parish. It was with heavy hearts that a small cadre of community leaders met to collect money to send the Reverend Peter Kattoula-after whom the church is named-back to Connecticut.
“[Parishioner] Jack Najor said to the priest, ‘Father we're here to tell you we cannot take care of you, and we're going to give you a few thousand dollars to go back. But, how can we face our children and grandchildren? How can we tell our Chaldean community in Detroit, our Chaldean relatives in the [Iraqi] village of Telkais, that we could not take care of a Chaldean church?'”
The group mustered what they could, thus beginning the first miracle. They all wrote checks, then went store-to-store in the community and raised far more than the few thousand dollars they'd hoped for. Far from putting Reverend Peter on a plane, the group went to a Realtor and put a down payment on the five acres the church sits on today.
“In my heart of hearts I say this is a miracle because God wanted us to build this church-and we built it,” says Deddeh.
In the years since those miracles, Deddeh's prominence in the community has been mirrored by his work on the state and national levels. He's been sent twice to Baghdad and once hosted an Iraqi delegation, on the orders of presidents Carter and Reagan. A personal commendation, thanking him for his contribution to the United States' foreign relations, from former Secretary of State George Shultz, lies in a desk drawer in his third floor office.
The first day of America's war on Baghdad, Deddeh sits with his back to an office window and its sprawling vista of the I-8 corridor. A fit and slim man with thick, white hair and a mind quicker than most people half his age, he talks candidly of conversations with former presidents. He was a natural fit, he says-perhaps the only one-to make those trips to the Iraqi capital with explicit instructions to reestablish diplomatic relations.
It's been two hours since the first bombs fell on Iraq. Saddam Hussein's compound and possibly other parts of the city have been obliterated. Deddeh is well aware of the latest events as he talks calmly, reciting the names-a who's who of top-ranking dignitaries-of the men he rubbed shoulders with, dined with, negotiated with and became friends with in those trips. He must realize that many of those men have possibly died within the past few hours. If he is preoccupied, he hides it well.
He talks on, calmly and with refinement, about U.S. foreign policy and the bellicose history of his homeland, since that first fateful coup-the one he witnessed in 1936. Nearly every regime since, he says, has been supported by the military, up to and including Saddam Hussein, whose Ba'ath Party took control by coup in 1968. It was Hussein who rejected the proposal of Deddeh's 1979 delegation sent to reestablish ties.
In 1984, with Iraq hopelessly mired in the war with Iran, Deddeh was personally invited by the Iraqi government to bring a delegation to Baghdad. This time, they were received like lost sons, the trip was a success and the U.S. was soon pumping military aid and intelligence into Iraq.
The turning point, he says, came in 1988, after the cessation of the Iran-Iraq war. Hussein invited the heads of state of all the Gulf region countries to Baghdad, where he both announced his victory and pledged that should Israel attack any Arab country, he would “burn half of Israel.”
“I played my role and then things went berserk,” Deddeh says. “I blame nobody but Saddam Hussein. The victory against Iran went to his head. In that half-hour speech he offended and scared two nations [Israel and the United States], enough that Israel was ready to launch a pre-emptive attack.”
Israel, according to St. Peter parishioner and former college professor Wisam Kosa, has played a central role in the unstable region, especially politics with Iraq. After losing the Shah of Iran as its right-hand-man, the United States began backing Iraq, he says, for two reasons. Iran was now a hostile U.S. enemy; and pitting the two Arab countries against each other offset their power, promoting the security of Israel.
After Iraq emerged victorious from war with Iran, Hussein's targeting of Israel came with the realization he was both heavily armed and within missile range of Jerusalem. From that point, Kosa says, war with Iraq was a necessary and inevitable policy of the United States.
INSIDE IRAQ Kosa's wife, Tabatha, is restless and visibly apprehensive. As a doctor and mother of three young children, she juggles household duties and church responsibilities while keeping a nervous eye on the news-she has friends and family under the gun, a half-world away.
With a rich complexion, light brown hair and dark eyes, it's not hard to see what lured Wisam into returning to the Middle East to marry her after the first Gulf War. She's a quiet person, with a quick mind and firm convictions. It's evident she's seen more than enough of the ugly, pragmatic realities of world politics and international sanctions for one lifetime.
Working in a small village in the countryside of Iraq, in 1988, before the Gulf War or the debilitating U.N. sanctions, she says watching 30 to 40 fetal deaths per month left her with no doubts that statistics-claiming 5,000 Iraqi babies are dying every month-are accurate.
She took her OB-GYN medical degree in Baghdad in 1982-the same year Wisam came to the United States to avoid the draft. They kept in touch, by letters and phone, until after the Gulf War, when they reunited in Amman, Jordan.
“We had to go through 10 years of my life, telling her everything I'd done in the U.S.,” Kosa says. “After about two weeks of vacation, I told her [I wanted to marry] and said I would come back if she needed more time, but no, she said she'd made up her mind.”
A soft-spoken man and former professor of computers at Pima Community College in Tucson, Kosa is currently a technician with NCR-and a wealth of Gulf Region socio-political knowledge. His thick, salt-and-pepper hair and dark complexion lend him a classic Arab appearance.
The Kosas and other members of the Chaldean community paint a detailed, often surprising picture of the culture and political climate of modern-day Iraq. The country, contrary to popular conception, is a liberal leader and bastion of Western tenets in the otherwise Muslim-run Gulf region.
Saddam's Ba'ath Party is both secular and socialist. Unlike its neighbors, the people of Iraq are constitutionally free to worship the God of their choice-though Jews and Jesuits have been expelled since the 1960s. It would be unlawful and unthinkable for Catholics to practice, as they do in Iraq, in other Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.
Experiences within the community vary. Some, like Mansour's parents, practiced freely in Baghdad and had strong relations with their Muslim neighbors. That was in the 1950s. Others, among them Father Felix Al-Shabi-who preached in Iraq as recently as three years ago-say social pressure and discrimination are obtrusive. Non-Muslims, he says, are treated as second-class citizens, much like the Black community of the South in 1950s America.
He also refers to a new system of genetic cleansing-“Arabization”-that's been reported by several human-rights organizations. Father Michael claims government officials show up at hospitals with official lists of Arab names for newborn Christian babies as a means of erasing ethnic identity.
Kosa says it's more societal pressure, not governmental, that has repressed Catholics-2 to 3 percent of the Iraqi population-enough to where a third of them have left the country.
Whatever the case, he says Saddam Hussein is not a religious man. His modus operandi is cold, calculating and secular. His family, in fact, comes from a Catholic village and his deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, is Chaldean. Though initially he didn't discriminate based on religion or creed-so long as one was either non-political or a supporter of his Ba'ath Party-things may have changed since 1991.
“After the Gulf War,” Kosa says, “Saddam felt he had to lean on religious principles for support, to take advantage of the fact there are more than a billion Muslims in the world.”
In absorbing the many experiences of these people it's clear that they view Saddam Hussein as somewhat Machiavellian regarding religion. Control is his objective; he conducts religious affairs as determined by politics.
Another surprise for many Westerners is that Baghdad is the jewel of the Gulf region in terms of women's rights and education. Medicine and higher schooling in Iraq, a wealthy country prior to decades of war and sanctions, have traditionally been free and open to all. For years, people from nearby countries relocated to Iraq to take advantage of its free university system. Unlike other countries in the region, women have been fully integrated into working society, taking prominent positions in all fields.
Most in the Chaldean community say life in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, the former metropolitan heart of the region, can be lived happily and free-so long as one doesn't speak out against the regime or get involved in the political structure.
It's clear Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who rules with an iron fist. While seemingly impartial in terms of religion and gender, he's brutally myopic in all things concerning the Ba'ath Party and his rule.
An interesting point made by some is that it might take such heavy-handed leadership to keep the country under one rule. With clashing ethnic groups, a subservient Shiite majority and national boundaries that were hastily drawn after WWII, the area is a cauldron waiting to boil over, as noted by the periodic revolutions and coups that defined the region's 20th century.
After mass, two weeks before Lent, Father Michael and Father Felix sit down to a traditional Iraqi meal in the new parish house. Father Felix, an educated man in his mid-30s, is slight. His dark eyes glitter beneath a shock of darkish hair. After two years studying in Rome he's come to the St. Peter parish to work on his English and absorb American culture.
When asked about the thoughts of the common citizens of Iraq and their level of belief in Ba'ath propaganda, Hussein's claim to victory in the first Gulf War, and his reported pillaging of the national economy, Father Felix laughs.
“But he did win the Gulf War,” he says in his heavy accent. “For Saddam Hussein, to be alive is victory-and he is still alive.”
“The people know what's happening,” Father Michael adds. “But what can they do? If you speak out against the government, they come and kill you, they burn down your house and they put your cousins out of business-it's not possible to speak out.”
He went on to offer a sentiment echoed by many others in the parish: “It's the people who will pay for a war in Iraq. It's always the people.”
The Chaldeans are unified in two sentiments: Saddam Hussein is a humanitarian's nightmare, a brutal dictator who needs to be deposed. At the same time, they seem in universal agreement that his forcible removal is the wrong way to handle what is an explosive situation-a veritable Pandora's Box.
But they are also unified in their support of the United States government, whichever path it chooses. They respect their freedom of choice with the care and genuine concern of a people who know what it means to live without it.
And that may be the most instructive lesson to be gleaned from those outside their community.