El Cajon’s Chaldeans

My old hometown, El Cajon, Calif., has a pretty significant Chaldean population.

Chaldean’s are Iraqi Christians.

They are exceptionally kind and generous people. I made friends with many Chaldeans while in San Diego.

And they have the room to be generous because they pretty much have cornered the mini-mart market in San Diego County.

I didn’t need to take a trip to San Diego to find out how the Chaldeans there felt about the liberation of Iraq. I already know, but thankfully CNN sent a reporter there yesterday.

JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It’s hard to decide what is most upsetting about Yaseem Al Habib’s story. That he says his two brothers and cousin were first tortured and then executed by Iraq’s secret police, or that he had to pay officials more than $2,000 U.S. to get their bodies back.

YASEEM AL HABIB, IRAQI EXILE (through translator): This was to cover the cost partly for killing them and partly the electricity for keeping them in the freezer.

VAUSE: Or perhaps, worst of all, that his story is not unique. So many others who fled Iraq say they have similar memories of life under Saddam Hussein.

Spend some time with Iraqi exiles in El Cajon in Southern California, they’ll tell you they still fear Saddam, that somehow, even here, they are still not safe.

Salah Daly fled his country 27 years ago.

SALAH DALY, IRAQI EXILE: When we were there we have this fear and we bring this fear with us where still we have it.

VAUSE: John Kalabat is looked upon as an elder statesman, helping new arrivals to adjust.

JOHN KALABAT, IRAQI EXILE: He looks left and right and we tell him where — you are not in Iraq. You are — nobody’s watching you. Here nobody will report you.

VAUSE: Walk into any mom and pop grocery store in El Cajon and chances are it’s owned by an Iraqi family. John Mansour works for his parents part-time while going to college.

JOHN MANSOUR, IRAQI EXILE: A lot of people are just scared because they still have a lot of families back there.

VAUSE: Which is why when the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called on American Iraqis to stand up and tell their stories, few have been keen to speak out. But they have been working behind the scenes.

Convincing anti-war protesters to carry anti-Saddam signs because they say the Iraqi regime used recent peace demonstrations as propaganda, claiming worldwide support.

But those demonstrations angered Yaseem Al Habib.

AL HABIB (through translator): In my opinion, these people are wrong. Iraq is our Iraq. If there are to be protests, it should be us who are protesting because we are suffering from Saddam’s regime.

VAUSE: And as war looms ever closer, some Iraqis believe it is the only way Saddam will ever be forced from power.

KALABAT: There are two powers only in the world that can remove Saddam. God and America. And there’s no other way.

VAUSE (on camera): And right now it seems almost all of the 30,000 exiled Iraqis who are living here in El Cajon are looking to America to answer their prayers so that one day they may go back to Iraq and that one day they will no longer live in fear.

John Vause, CNN, El Cajon, California.

Further links of interest:

And then there is this DART from Columbia Journalism Review issued in 1995:

^ DART to the San Diego Business Journal and publisher Ted Owen, for a journalistic version of ethnic cleansing. Offended by the appearance on the cover of the Small Business supplement in its September 4 issue of three Chaldean-Americans who, like thousands of their fellow Chaldeans from Iraq, successfully operate grocery, liquor, and convenience stores in the San Diego area, Owen — a retired marine who served in Vietnam — issued an order to the newsroom troops: no more “un-American” photos of Iraqis, Iranians, or Vietnamese on the cover of the publication. In response, Ellen Holzman, the special projects editor responsible for the supplement, resigned, explaining in a letter to editor Martin Hill that “this policy is chauvinistic, jingoistic, and racially discriminatory. . . . I cannot be a part of a newsroom where such policies exist.” (On September l1, in the wake of local media coverage and local business outrage, Owen reversed the ban.)

Who was the reporter who wrote the story that led to the stink? Um … let me see if I can remember … oh, that’s right … it was me. I was a freelancer for SDBJ at the time. A few months later, I was a staff writer.

I should add: I think the world of Ted Owen. He is one of the best newspaper executives I have ever worked for. I’ve known him for 18 years. He can be hard-headed at times and charge ahead on his emotions a little too quickly, but his is passionate about the newspaper business and a real booster of San Diego, and a proud Marine. I know he regrets this whole Iraqi-photo incident.

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