Living Together in Little Baghdad

Chaldean Iraqis find religious freedom in San Diego, but at a cost.

Kalyana Naamo remembers his house in Tel Eskof, just north of Mosul. A kitchen big enough to be a whole apartment, a garden with yellow flowers and a room for every one of his children, he recalled. Ghanem Mammo also owned a house in the same Iraqi Chaldean village, and he remembers it being big enough to fit even extended family when they visited.

A Muslim extremist gang gave me and my family 48 hours to leave Iraq.

Naamo and Mammo are both retired men in their late sixties, and were reminiscing on a park bench in El Cajon, San Diego, where they often spend their days with fellow Iraqi Christians, exchanging stories and praying with beaded rosaries in their hands. Sometimes they listened to old Iraqi songs on a cell phone.

These elderly men all came to the United States to seek safety from religious persecution. Christians in Iraq are a persecuted religious minority group. Almost half of Iraq’s Christian population has left the country since 2003, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Memories of happy times in their home country quickly turned solemn when they talked about why they left their homes.

I received a letter threatening me,” said Naamo, sliding a bead from his rosary under his finger, “a Muslim extremist gang gave me and my family 48 hours to leave Iraq.”

Naamo said he had returned home one day from a walk in the park to find the threatening note hanging on his door, and that’s when he quickly took his family to Mosul, and then to El Cajon in 2008.

Mammo also received a letter. “They asked me to pay a ransom, but I told them I didn’t have any money. They did it three times, and on the third time, I took my family and left,” said Mammo, who came to the city of El Cajon in 2012.


Following the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's government in 2003, Iraqis bore witness to several years of violent conflict between different religious and ethnic groups. Since the formation of the Sunni Muslim militant group, ISIS, the UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, reported more than 3 million Iraqis displaced inside and outside Iraq, and about one million displaced before 2014. The organization also reported that mass executions, rape and acts of violence are widespread in the country.

Kalyana Naamo and Ghanem Mammo spend their time with friends at Prescott Promenade Park on Main Street in El Cajon.

“I sacrificed everything because of the horror we endured. We needed to feel safe,” said Naamo, “I would leave the house not knowing if I would come back home, or if my daughters would be there when I got back.”

76 percent of the refugee arrivals in San Diego County during the last five fiscal years are from Iraq, and the majority of Iraqi refugees are settling in the city of El Cajon, where there is an established Iraqi community, according to a 2016 report by the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, which also reported that the majority of Iraqis in San Diego County are Chaldean.

“We left the killing and the persecution and came here, and entered into this new problem where we can barely make rent and live easily,” said Naamo.

Though they feel safer in California, life in the United States has required many sacrifices. Leaving their large homes behind is only the tip of the iceberg, especially for Iraqis who don’t speak English, have to support large families and deal with higher living expenses.

Main street in El Cajon is sometimes called "Little Baghdad" because of the number of Iraqi owned businesses and Arabic signs on the street.

What Makes El Cajon's Main Street, "little Baghdad."

From Arabic signs to traditional foods, a stroll down Main Street in El Cajon is reminiscent of streets in Iraq.

St. Peter's Chaldean Cathedral in El Cajon teaches children how to read and write in Aramaic.

A Sacrifice for Religious Freedom

Refaat Yaldo at a charity event in St. Michael’s Church in El Cajon.

Leaning on a railing at a charity event in St. Michael’s Church in El Cajon, bags of donated food and blankets at his feet, Refaat Yaldo’s eyes filled with tears as he recalled life in his home country, Iraq, before the spread of religious militias.

Artwork at Syriac Catholic Church in El Cajon.

He spoke of his old job as a party planner in “the most prestigious event hall in Baghdad,” and how it all abruptly ended, and he found himself packing meat for a living in the San Diego.

“I was threatened to leave by a terrorist group whose name I don’t even know,” Yaldo said, “But the letter was addressed to me. It had my name on it.”

Yaldo is also a Chaldean Christian, and said he came to El Cajon almost three years ago, after fleeing from Iraq to Turkey, and then to San Diego through the U.N. refugee resettlement system.

“We were exhausted from years in Iraq. We saw explosions and received threats and saw all kinds of terrorism.” Yaldo said, “I thought I would come here and rest. But we work night and day because the government welfare isn’t enough.”

The father of four said that just two months after arriving in San Diego, he fell off a faulty ladder at work, injured in his leg and couldn’t find other employment.


My 19-year-old son had to drop out of school to work and help out. He works at the carwash,” Yaldo said.

El Cajon city has the highest number of refugees in San Diego county, according to a report by the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, which also said that the city has an unemployment rate of 11.1 percent, a figure that is higher than the county’s overall 8.1 percent unemployment rate.

Noori Barka is the vice president of the Chaldean American Association.

The vice president of the Chaldean American Association, Noori Barka, said that after securing refugee entry to the U.S., Chaldeans choose to come to El Cajon because of the already established community and most importantly, the presence of Chaldean Catholic houses of worship.

“Whenever there’s a church, people will gather around it,” said Barka, “the church, for us, is like our home. We have to be close to the church and there aren’t many Chaldean churches in America.”

El Cajon has two main Chaldean places of worship: St. Peter’s Chaldean Catholic Cathedral, and St. Michael’s Chaldean Catholic church.

Barka said that the importance of leaving Iraq for the safety of Chaldean families, far outweighs attachments to big houses or economic assets back home. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s all smooth sailing for the families when they finally arrive in the country where they are seeking refuge.

“When they arrive here, they’re basically below the zero mark. They have nothing to work with,” said Barka, “they have to face limitations with language, health issues and sometimes, even the fact that their kids were growing up without going to school.”

However, Barka said that his organization has seen conditions improve for people after spending more time in the country.

“The first two years will be very hard, but after that it’s more solid,” Barka said, adding that there are now several Chaldean-owned businesses in El Cajon that employ Iraqi newcomers.

At “Ali Baba” restaurant in El Cajon, Salman Hummi served dishes of glistening grilled meats and saffron-dyed rices.

Hummi said he owned a restaurant back home in Iraq, and now works as a waiter in El Cajon. He said he didn’t have trouble getting a job at the Iraqi restaurant when he came to El Cajon in 2002, and he is happy with his new life.

“Our wish was to come to America and wear the cross,” he said, pulling out a golden cross pendant hanging on a chain around his neck, adding, “we couldnt have done that in Iraq.”

“There's no other reason to leave home,” Hummi said.

Artwork on a wall near Babylon Market on Main St. in El Cajon. The painting depicts Iraqi singer Kathem Al Saher, who is oftentimes named "Iraq's Ambassador to the world."

Meet Chaldeans in "Little Baghdad."

Take a walk through El Cajon and meet some of the Iraqi Chaldeans living and working in the city. Many of those interviewed talked about being threatened by religious militias to leave their homes. They also said they were having a hard time paying their rent with what they felt was insufficient welfare and limited job opportunities for immigrants without prior experience in the United States.

A woman holds an Iraqi flag at a protest at Prescott Promenade Park in El Cajon.

The Iraqi Community Coming Together

In November, Iraqis gathered at Prescott Promenade Park in El Cajon, to protest an Iraqi bill that would lower the legal age that girls can be married at. Protestors sang, held up signs and spoke against the bill.


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Fighting Discrimination

Outside a recreation room in a public library in El Cajon, the sound of drums could be heard. Sometimes, it was aggressive and out of tune, other times in harmony. The room was occupied by a group of Iraqi, Syrian, Afghani and Iranian refugee women. They all sat in a circle facing each other. Some wore their hijabs tightly wrapped around their heads, while others wore theirs hanging loosely and several had dark curls and waves on display. But they all had one thing in common: they had all witnessed war in their home countries.

Dilkhwaz Ahmed at a protest in Prescott Promenade Park in El Cajon.

The group gathers in the same room every month as part of a musical therapy session for refugees, led by Dilkhwaz Ahmed, a Kurdish-Iraqi refugee who runs a nonprofit called License to Freedom. The organization works to help Middle-Eastern victims of domestic abuse in El Cajon.

Ahmed said she felt that discrimination exists between refugee women of different religious backgrounds, even if they were born in the same country before coming to the U.S..

“I had a Chaldean woman come to me with bruises on her face and I was helping her,” Ahmed recalled. “She said, ‘you won’t believe it. Our neighbor called the police, although she’s Muslim, she’s a very nice person.’”

At the drum circle, the women wearing hijabs sat closely on one side of the room.

“There's discrimination between Arabs themselves, between different tribes and even discrimination between non-refugees to refugees,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed said she has felt discriminated against on several occasions while playing her role as a community leader for refugee women. She said that other non-profit leaders doubted her ability and said she shouldn’t get funding.

“It’s so hard to be a woman of color, to be in El Cajon and to run a nonprofit organization,” Ahmed said. “They just say that a refugee woman cannot run a program unless she is lead by non-refugees, they said it to me. It really hurt me.”


Hear About a Therapeutic Drum Session for Refugees in El Cajon, San Diego

The sessions are organized by "Musical Missions for Peace," and are called "shifaa circles," which translates to "healing circles" from Arabic.

Dilkhwaz Ahmed and Arie Hanovar facilitate therapeutic drum sessions. The two said they were in their home countries at the same time, on opposite sides of the Iran-Iraq war when they were children.