If you weren’t paying close attention, it would be easy to mistake Main Street, El Cajon, for any other Main Street across the USA that has been transformed by its immigrant population. Kebabs and falafel are on the menus of most of the restaurants, and the local supermarket sells green olives, hummus mix and a wide assortment of olive oils. The television in one café shows a woman in a head scarf delivering the news in Arabic. Outside another, 2-foot-high hookahs sit on a table, ready to be smoked. These are sights we’ve become accustomed to in many California neighborhoods. But there are other details that make this street a little different. The word Babylon, for instance, is all over the place. There’s Babylon Hair Style, Babylon Restaurant, Babylon Jewelry, Babylon Hookah Lounge. And inside a small deli, where a clerk’s computer screen saver shows a photograph of men in traditional turbans and robes gathered on the floor around a feast of Middle Eastern delicacies, Iraqi flags are for sale near the lamb shanks and the ground meat preferred for a certain type of kebab favored in Iraq.
Where most of Los Angeles’ Middle Eastern neighborhoods are dominated by Armenian and Lebanese shops and restaurants, El Cajon, just two hours south of L.A., is the epicenter of Iraqi relocation in the Western United States. With tens of thousands of Iraqis living in San Diego County, the area is home to the second-largest community in the U.S., after Detroit. The neighborhood Catholic church, St. Peter Chaldean Cathedral, with its distinctive domed roof and large cross, boasts some 37,000 Chaldean Iraqi members. A sign outside the church lists the times for mass in English and Aramaic. And one of its walls is dominated by a stone replica of Iraq’s famous winged Khorsabad bull sculpture.
Still, there’s definitely a California feeling in the air. Athar Luaebi, a cashier in one of the Main Street grocery stores, is a pretty young woman with strawberry-blond curls and blue eyeliner. She moved to the U.S. from Iraq five years ago and spends her shift ringing up Iraqi spices, sweets and other provisions for one Iraqi family after another. When a journalist asks about Iraqi refugees, she points out Sami Bhw, 37, who wears jeans, a T-shirt and flip-flops. On this day, Bhw has been in the United States for less than five months but appears to fit in perfectly. Bhw, with Luaebi translating, says he fled Iraq because extremists surrounded his house and tried to kidnap his 10-year-old son. Bhw’s neighbors managed to protect the child. Fearing another kidnapping attempt, the family left everything behind and fled to Turkey. After four years, struggling to make ends meet without a work permit, Bhw and his family came to the United States as refugees.
As Bhw tells his story, another Iraqi family walks into the grocery store. Luaebi starts to tell me that the younger son has burns on his arms — extremists set their house on fire — but pauses when she sees the look on my face. Luaebi nods her head with understanding and says, “You’ll get stressed if you stay here for two hours and hear all the stories.”
A few blocks from the Iraqi supermarket, on a quiet street in a concrete apartment complex, Kamil Silewa is trying to make a new life in America. To get here, he fled death threats in Iraq in 2005, crossed many borders, worked endless dirty jobs, walked for days through Mexico to Tijuana, and spent eight months in prisonlike conditions at detention centers in San Diego. Finally, Silewa found safety in El Cajon. But not much else.
Inside the apartment there is little furniture. Silewa, 45, shares the space with another Iraqi asylee, who sits in the living room watching the news in Arabic. A friend lent them the television, an old sofa and a coffee table. The two men have been living in El Cajon for months, but neither can find a job. Silewa walks me into the apartment’s single bedroom, which the men share. I start to take out my camera, but there isn’t much to photograph. The Iraqis cannot afford beds, so they sleep on the floor in the nearly empty room.
The three of us gather in the living room, and Silewa’s roommate, Salem Denho, tells me he left Iraq because of the violence. “Danger, bombings,” Silewa says, “everyday killings.” Denho explains that his parents, who are Christian, still live in Baghdad and receive threats because of their religion. “Now they can’t [step] outside,” he says. “They can’t buy anything.” A Muslim militia member killed a friend who lived near his parents. I ask Denho if he wants to bring his parents to the United States. “I wish,” he says, “but how?”