Large Chaldean Iraqi population thrives in San Diego suburb

In Summary

El Cajon's population is more than 70% white, its politics conservative Republican. But it's changing as it becomes home to one of the nation's largest populations of Chaldeans, a persecuted religious and ethnic minority from Iraq.

Walk down Main Street in El Cajon and you feel like you’re on the set of an old Western. The wide street is lined with old-fashioned storefronts selling antique furniture and used clothes. 

On a recent Sunday evening, people were swing dancing to country music at a restaurant called Downtown Cafe. But across the street in a park, there was a different scene: more than 100 people gathered in solidarity with the on-going street protests in Iraq over alleged corruption and economic hardships. They made speeches and sang in Arabic.

Wedad Schlotte is the vice-president of the San Diego chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a leader at the protest. She said the protests demonstrated the dichotomy she inhabits: She moved to the U.S. in the 1980s but still feels a strong connection with Iraq.

“I feel torn between my country, United States, and between my homeland,” she said. “I came to the United States to study and return. But I fell in love with the democracy and the sense of justice and the educational opportunities.”

This dichotomy is something a lot of people feel in El Cajon. The city lies about 10 miles inland from San Diego, and its population is more than 70% white, with generally conservative, Republican politics. 

But in recent decades, the city has been changing — it’s now home to one of the largest populations in the country of Chaldeans, a persecuted religious and ethnic minority from Iraq. They are part of a larger Middle Eastern community in El Cajon, with refugees and immigrants from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

There are about 15,000 Chaldeans in El Cajon, and the community has made its stamp on the city. Restaurants, clothing stores, jewelry shops and corner markets are owned by Chaldeans, catering to their community. Plus, there are Chaldean schools and churches, even a Chaldean radio station.  

Besma Coda, who works for Chaldean Middle Eastern Social Services, a non-profit that helps new arrivals adjust to their new city, said once El Cajon was established as a destination for Chaldeans, that’s where refugees want to come.

“If people first move to Tennessee or somewhere else in the country, when they hear about the community here they would take their stuff after they resettle and they would come to El Cajon,” she said.

But there is still one area where Coda would like to see Chaldeans make more progress.

“Political, we’re not there yet,” she said. “But I’m hoping the new generation, I hope they would be involved with politics and get into higher positions.”

Mike Aqrawi opens the door to his new real estate office in El Cajon. Photo by Claire Trageser

That may happen in the November 2020 election. Mike Aqrawi is one of the area’s top real estate agents, catering specifically to the Chaldean community.

“Seventy percent of my clients are Middle Eastern and Chaldean, and 30% are local residents who are selling their homes to my clients,” he said.

Now he’s running for a seat on the El Cajon City Council, vying to be one of the first to represent the interests of his community. Those interests divide into two groups, he said.

“There are people who migrate, and they are low-income. They live in apartments, and they’re trying to improve their lives; and they have those challenges,” Aqrawi said. “And the other people who are improving their lives, trying to improve El Cajon by opening more businesses.”

The recent arrivals need reduced crime and better services, while people who have been in El Cajon longer need easier permitting processes and better city planning to help open businesses, he said. 

So far, no one is challenging Aqrawi for the City Council seat. 

After years of enduring religious persecution in Iraq, the community is hoping new political power will move them from the sidelines to become an even more interwoven part of their city.

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CalMatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

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