Chaldean Catholics constitute a significant chunk of the East County population — as many as 81,000 call San Diego County home, by some estimates — but the portion of Chaldean business owners who affiliate with the broader business community through the region’s various chambers of commerce is negligible.
Chaldean entrepreneur Ben Kalasho hopes to change that with the San Diego East County Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce, which launched last fall.
Kalasho says that if Chaldeans want to move up the economic ladder from behind the counters of liquor stores and fast-food restaurants, they must venture beyond their cultural enclaves and engage with the broader business community in La Mesa, El Cajon, Santee and elsewhere in the region.
Kalasho, who was born in Iraq and immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 8 years old, is “semi-retired” now after successfully starting and selling several businesses, including a scaffolding company, a cell phone contracting firm and a car wash.
His interest is in getting people together to make connections and bridge divides, especially among the more recent Chaldean refugees from Iraq who are often less warm to the idea of assimilation, he said.
“Refugees have an opportunity to change their life now, and we’re helping them do that,” he said.
The organization has grown rapidly over the past few months, claiming 167 members, including doctors, attorneys, real estate agents, entrepreneurs, nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
The chamber is open to everyone, not just Chaldeans, and Kalasho believes the inclusiveness of the organization is what has made it so successful in such a short time.
“We’ve attracted the movers and shakers in our community,” Kalasho said. “If you’re an American attorney, what better way to penetrate the Chaldean community than to join the chamber?”
The chamber’s board of directors is a mix of Chaldeans and other local leaders such as Jack Doyle, former mayor of Santee; Joel Scalzitti, member of the Helix Water District board; Cathy Hilton, realtor and investor; and Dan Goar, an officer in the plumbing and pipefitting union, UA Local 230.
“I think it’s about time that the Chaldean community had a bigger piece of the pie in East County with buyers and sellers,” said realtor Linda Nickerson, who serves on the chamber’s board, at a launch party for the chamber last November.
Kalasho’s group joins a crowded field that includes the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, among others, but it is in no way meant to compete with them, Kalasho said. Instead, the goal is to increase the number of Chaldeans who are active in the business community.
In March the chamber hosted a networking mixer at BO-beau kitchen + garden in La Mesa that featured speakers on financial planning.
On April 3 the chamber will host the Miss Middle East Beauty Pageant, featuring 18 women of Kurdish, Lebanese, Persian, Palestinian, Egyptian descent, among others. The goal is raise money for scholarships and elevate the goals and aspirations of Middle Eastern women, Kalasho said.
On April 11 the chamber will host a golf tournament at the Sycuan Golf & Tennis Resort to raise money to buy toys and food for the needy during the holiday season later this year.
The chamber’s biggest challenge so far has been legal wrangling with another chamber of commerce founded shortly after the San Diego East County Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce was founded. A pending lawsuit against the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce of California claims that organization adopted a similar name and mission to deliberately sabotage the East County group.
The Chaldean immigrant population came to East County in two big waves, according to Kalasho. The first wave began arriving in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War and the subsequent U.S. intervention in the region during the Gulf War. Many in the first wave were families like Kalasho’s who had the financial means to leave Iraq and start a new life in the U.S.
The second wave of Chaldean immigrants began arriving during the Iraq War of the 2000s. Many in this second wave are refugees who fled from violence and persecution as the country was destroyed by war and terrorism. Unlike the first wave of immigrants who left by choice, many in the latter group left reluctantly and ended up in East County by chance.
Kalasho said his organization is working with the San Diego Health and Human Services Agency to reach out to refugees who need help navigating the healthcare system.