Iraqi Catholics adapt to AmericaChaldean community strong in San Diego area

100809bazzi_t593.jpgBy Steve Schmidt, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Earnie Grafton / Union-Tribune
The Rev. Michael Bazzi, head of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral, talks with new immigrants during a class in the church’s rectory.
East County’s Chaldean community has seen good times and trying times and, well, these days it’s both.

As these Iraqi Catholics and their businesses grow in number, the community in and around El Cajon is feeling compelled to counter persistent misconceptions about the culture.

“There is so much to do,” says the Rev. Michael Bazzi, 71, pastor of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in Rancho San Diego. An estimated 35,000-plus Chaldeans and other Middle Eastern refugees live in that neighborhood and adjacent El Cajon.

Bazzi will speak Thursday to more than 200 schoolteachers and education staffers who want to get a better fix on the immigrants and what brought them here.

The Cajon Valley Union and Grossmont Union high school districts are organizing the talk, part of a three-day institute that will focus on the flood of new students from the Middle East and other parts of the globe.

Sarab Lopes, herself a Chaldean, is among the educators planning to attend. She and her family immigrated to the United States in 1963, and she now teaches newcomers at Emerald Middle School in El Cajon.

Lopes said they seem more protective than previous waves of Chaldeans resettling in East County. She sees more parents picking up their children at the classroom door, concerned for their safety.

“You’ve got a war going on in Iraq,” she said. “I don’t know that world.”

Bazzi is widely seen as an effective bridge-builder and advocate for a culture that continues to find its footing, like previous waves of newcomers to America.

“He is the mayor of his people,” said Mark Lewis, the mayor of El Cajon.

The transition for newer Iraqi refugees has been particularly tough because of the weak job market. Most fled sectarian violence and religious persecution and arrive feeling wary about their new surroundings, far more than those who immigrated before the war in Iraq.

Bazzi said the guardedness stems from their fearful times in Iraq. “When they come here, they are afraid to adapt,” he said.

At the same time, established Chaldeans are showing a new assertiveness.

The Chaldean-American Association of El Cajon will stage its first community festival Sept. 4-5 and hopes to draw many non-Chaldeans. The event will be held next to the Ronald Reagan Community Center, 195 E. Douglas Ave.

And on that city’s Main Street, signs are popping up in Arabic, touting grocery stores and Middle Eastern eateries along the thoroughfare.

Lewis welcomes the growing number of Chaldean shopkeepers and other Middle Eastern entrepreneurs, but says some locals find the signs unsettling.

“Some of our old-timers are starting to wonder where their American culture is going,” he said. “They ask, ‘Why are we starting to look like Little Baghdad?’ ”

He said he will talk to Bazzi about the signs, saying they should also be in English. That would ease concerns and help the mom-and-pop outfits draw more customers, the mayor said. The pastor agrees.

“If ever we have any problems, we just need to talk to Father Bazzi and he takes care of it,” Lewis said. “Nothing moves until he says make it move.”

Since Bazzi was assigned to St. Peter in 1985, the pastor has been the go-to figure for teachers, police officers, social service workers and others eager to get a handle on Chaldean culture.

Bazzi downplays his influence. He’s a priest, and a priest only, he said. He lives alone in a small house near the church. While most people his age are retired, his workdays start early and run long into the night.

When he’s not on the phone with the mayor or another community leader, he’s with his flock — baptizing babies, conducting Mass, counseling the grieving, leading couples through their marriage vows. He can hear confession in three languages.

“I am a servant. I am nothing,” he said. “I feel the suffering and hurt of every person, of every family.”

More than 11,400 Chaldeans (pronounced “kal-DEE-uns”) are registered members of St. Peter in Rancho San Diego and its sister church, St. Michael in El Cajon.

When outsiders stop by Bazzi’s cluttered office, he hands out copies of a booklet he wrote last year — “Who are the Chaldeans?” The culture once flourished in the area known in history books as the “Fertile Crescent,” the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Bazzi said there are two common misconceptions about Chaldeans:

• That they are Muslims. (Every Chaldean is, in fact, affiliated with the Roman Catholic church.)

• That they are loyal to the old regime of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. (Chaldeans have long been a minority in Iraq and have been persecuted by Hussein’s Sunni brethren.)

According to a recent San Diego State University study, one out of four Iraqi refugees coming to the U.S. ends up in San Diego County.

The first stop for many is St. Peter’s doorstep. On many Friday nights, church members meet in the St. Peter parking lot to hand out mattresses, blankets and other basic goods to the latest batch of Middle Eastern refugees.

Bazzi stays in his office during the giveaways to field calls and counsel parishioners. These days, he’s also writing a book on Aramaic. The Chaldeans speak a dialect of the language.

Bazzi has written several books on the subject and teaches it at nearby Cuyamaca College. He’s made it one of his missions to keep it alive, calling it the word of a proud people.

When he looks forward, he sees a growing Chaldean population that will increasingly engage with the broader community. He said building more ties between his Catholic brood and non-Chaldeans is critical — in the schools, on the sidewalks, in the coffeehouses.

Lewis agrees. He predicts the Iraqi community will take on an even higher profile, especially when it comes to opening businesses.

Bazzi wants his people to keep their heritage close, but also embrace what’s here.

“I want them to be the very best American citizens.”