By Roxana Popescu12:
Iraqi immigrants — many of whom are Chaldeans — come together in El Cajon the Iraq War ten years later
They come for the fish, they come for the Arabic music, but mostly they come for the memories. Nahrain Fish and Chicken Grill, in a sun-parched strip mall in El Cajon, is one of the only places in San Diego where you can get masgouf, the Iraqi style of fish wood-fired in a clay oven.

The restaurant on El Cajon’s Main Street, next to a Middle Eastern bakery, is thriving these days.

East County is home to the country’s second-largest Iraqi immigrant community, after Detroit. At least 40,000, and perhaps more than 50,000, Iraqis live in El Cajon. More than 13,000 of them have moved here since the Iraq War began in 2003, according to the State Department.

San Diego’s Iraqis have different feelings about the 10th anniversary of the start of the war, which falls this week. Some say it caused their diaspora. Some are grateful because it led to Saddam Hussein’s death. Some are angry because of the aftermath: the Shia government takeover, Christian persecution, the rampant corruption and lawlessness.

The U.S.-led invasion was “the worst day of Iraq’s life. A million people left their country, where everybody was comfortable, and now they are on Main Street looking for a dime,” said a man eating at Nahrain, who called himself Naz.

Another man in the restaurant said the war had one good result: “There was no other way of being able to remove Saddam Hussein from power, except this intervention.”

A few things Iraqi immigrants and refugees agree on: The war may be over from an American perspective, but it continues in Iraq. For anyone with relatives there or a dream of going home, the pain and struggle are far from over. And in the new country, it helps to stick together.

Most of the Iraqi immigrants are Chaldeans, an ancient branch of Catholicism persecuted under Iraq’s Shia government. St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon is a robust center of resettlement activity.

A few days ago, women were reciting prayers in Aramaic in a side room of the cathedral. Their soft, rhythmic murmurs filled the air as a lone worshipper sat near the altar.

From an office next to the church, Noori Barka runs a dual-language newspaper with neighborhood, national and Iraqi news, and a Chaldean Internet TV station — the only one in the U.S., he says.

Barka is president of the Chaldean American Institute, a research and advocacy nonprofit. He lists the church’s activities: Aramaic classes for 600 children, a separate collection at services that has rendered almost half a million dollars since 2008.

When he’s not there, Barka, an immunologist, runs a biotech firm. He left Iraq in 1980. Why, after more than 30 years, is he helping Chaldeans in America? “It’s in my blood.”

Three waves

Why did so many Iraqis end up living in East County? Tight family bonds and the weather.

Besma Coda, co-founder of Chaldean Middle Eastern Social Services, said the very first Iraqi is believed to have come to the United States in 1890. A community sprouted in Michigan, where jobs were easy to find and winters were hard.