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Iraqi Exiles Cast a Hopeful Eye on Homeland

November 10, 2002|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

EL CAJON — At a rotund 73, John Kalabat makes an unlikely revolutionary. But the poet and Iraqi exile snacking on pita bread and hummus in a local nightclub said that he wants to help bring down Saddam Hussein and rebuild his shattered homeland.

"I can be a translator," he said. "A guide. I'm ready to participate."

Kalabat's view is widely shared -- though not universally -- in this San Diego County community. It is home to what local leaders say are 30,000 Iraqi immigrants, including about 20,000 Catholics, about 6,000 Kurds and 5,000 Shiite Muslims.

From liquor stores to university offices to auto body shops, news of Friday's U.N. Security Council vote calling on Hussein to disarm or face consequences whipped through the Iraqi community and provoked a range of emotions.

Some were fearful of what punitive military action could mean for relatives in Iraq who have already suffered much in the war- and sanctions-ravaged country. Others believe that war is wrong or that Hussein might back down and thus hold on to power. Still others allowed themselves to hope that they may one day go home -- if only for a visit.

"We are really happy that eventually this will result in a changing government," said Arkan Somo, an Iraqi Catholic who was born in Baghdad and now lives in Rancho San Diego. Somo is president of a trade association that represents hundreds of Iraqi Christians, or Chaldeans, who own liquor shops -- as many did back home, where Muslim custom frowns on it -- and grocery stores.

"The concern we have is the innocent children," he said. "The fathers and mothers and families will be bombed, and will be homeless and will die and suffer."

Beginning with a trickle in the 1950s, and in great waves in the 1980s and 1990s, Iraqis have been drawn here by relatives who helped ease the way. The language, the culture, the whizzing cars and fast-paced life took some getting used to. The welcoming climate, at least, was familiar, a daily reminder of their beloved homeland.

The largest concentration of Iraqis in the U.S. is in Michigan. In California, in addition to the San Diego community, which is the state's biggest, Iraqi emigres have established sizable enclaves in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Most of those are Shiite Muslims who chafed under the rule of Hussein's Baath Party, which is dominated by another Islamic sect, Sunni Muslims.

Most of the Kurds who settled around San Diego have come since the mid-'90s, according to Alan Zangana, program director for the Kurdish Human Rights Watch office there.

Catholics, who have lived in Iraq since antiquity, fled by the tens of thousands around the time of Iraq's war with Iran in the early 1980s. Thousands more came after the 1991 Gulf War, and they are coming still, pushed by continuing discrimination against Christians and a search for a better life.

And they have found it. The close-knit community revolves around two El Cajon churches, where established immigrants offer a network of social and economic support to new arrivals.

"We came to America with nothing, just basically our family," said Leanne Barbat, 23, a law student. "But everyone knows everyone, and if anyone has a problem ... we always have a family member there."

Up to 80% of independent liquor stores in San Diego are run by Chaldeans, according to community estimates, and new arrivals quickly find work in them. Established proprietors co-sign loans for the newcomers, and "after that you start working every day, seven days a week," said Leslie Barbat, Leanne's mother.

The Barbats immigrated in 1977 and started a grocery store. "You save up," Leslie Barbat said. "You buy a house. You buy a car." And you can pay for your children's education.

"When my daughter graduated from college, it was the happiest day of my life," she said. "When you are young in Iraq, the girls get married fast, and they don't have the opportunity to go to school."

Community life here revolves around the church and social clubs. Father Michael Bazzi, a priest at St. Peter's Chaldean Catholic Church, where Barbat's family worships, said new families move to the parish each week. They come directly from Iraq or from other countries where they stayed while waiting for permission to immigrate.

Last summer, St. Peter's became a cathedral after the Vatican made San Diego the second Chaldean Diocese in the United States (the first is in the Detroit area), responsible for Chaldeans from Alaska to Nebraska. Services are held in English or Aramaic, which many members proudly note is the language that Jesus spoke.

For Chaldeans who were forbidden to study Aramaic in Iraq because of anti-Christian dictates, the church offers twice-weekly Aramaic lessons and provides translation services.

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