Chaldeans launch community newspaper

chaldeanpaper_t620.jpgEL CAJON — East County’s growing Chaldean community is turning to old-school media to create a new voice.

It has started a newspaper. It’s called “Betha Kaldaya,” or Chaldean House, and the nonprofit group behind it came out with a debut issue last month and plans to publish again next week.

“With over 30,000 Chaldeans living in El Cajon, many of whom are newcomers, it is essential to have a media outlet that understands their background, culture and the challenges they are facing,” read the inaugural edition.

Those running the publication hope it will help ease the often rocky transition for the Iraqi Catholics. Many Chaldeans arrive in the El Cajon area with little money, limited English skills and raw memories of persecution and violence in war-torn Iraq.

“Our goal is to build a bridge between these communities — the newcomers and American society,” said Noori Barka, the paper’s general director and chairman of the Chaldean American Institute, a nonprofit organization. “This is a very important tool for our community now.”

The free newspaper is emerging at a time of maturation and new challenges for the local immigrant group, the second-largest Chaldean population in the nation, behind Detroit.

Chaldean leaders in East County have stepped up their political activism over the past year, trying to bring worldwide attention to the violent persecution of their people in Muslim-dominated Iraq. Clerics at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in Rancho San Diego have launched an online TV station that reaches parishioners in Baghdad and across the globe.

At the same time, there are simmering tensions. Some non-Chaldeans have been perturbed by the growing number of Arabic-language signs hanging outside shops in El Cajon, city officials say.

And last summer, law enforcement agencies raided a Chaldean social club in town and broke up a gun- and drug-trafficking ring. Only a few of those prosecuted were Chaldean, but St. Peter still received a handful of hateful emails and calls.

Editor Sabah Damman said the new publication would not shy away from covering sensitive subjects, saying it’s important to enlighten and inform those who are trying to find their footing.

“There are huge differences between U.S. and Iraqi societies,” said Damman, who moved here in 2008. “When newcomers come here, they know nothing, so we have to help them be part of a new society.”

The debut issue ran 16 pages and included stories about the U.S. presidential candidates and on American political history. There was an interview with a Valhalla High School teacher who works with Chaldean newcomers. She offered advice on what immigrants can do to succeed in class.

On the lighter side, the newspaper also published stories about Chaldean music.

While two of the pages were printed in English, most were in Arabic. Barka plans to expand the number of English-language pages in the next issue, due out Jan. 20.

“Betha Kaldaya” includes ads for barber shops, kebab restaurants and other mom-and-pop businesses in East County. It is distributed mostly through local Chaldean churches and shops.

Barka is bankrolling the newspaper for now, at a cost of $4,000 a month. It only has a few staffers and relies largely on submissions from the community.

Suzanne Manneh of New America Media, a national organization that works to foster ethnic media outlets, said the establishment of a newspaper is often a sign of cultural maturation.

It shows, she said, “they are serious about gaining recognition as a community and amplifying their voice …, especially if they may feel that they do not have one in the mainstream.”