What People Get Wrong About Iraqi Christians in East County

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Ghassan Hanna Photo by Dustin Michelson
Though he’s since clarified them, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells’ comments represent a larger, persistent misunderstanding about East County’s Chaldean community.
As a Chaldean American, I was upset to hear El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells’ remarks about Chaldeans in his city. Unfortunately, they represent a greater, persistent misunderstanding about our community.

San Diego County is home to a growing population of Iraqi Christians, known as Chaldeans or Assyrians depending on their church affiliation or one’s name preference but ethnically the same people.

Letters logoChaldeans have been showing up on the news more often in the last few years. As a new generation of Chaldeans gets involved in local and national politics, they’re learning that being accepted by the political establishment is no easy feat. When a few ran for City Council seats in El Cajon, some members of the establishment waved the ethnic card to rally their faithful to get the extra votes they needed to beat their Chaldean rivals.

Voice of San Diego’s recent interview with Wells narrowly missed creating a controversy similar to previous Mayor Mark Lewis’. Lewis was forced to resign after making inflammatory remarks about the Chaldean community. Wells was quick to clarify his own comments about the readiness of El Cajon to accept a Chaldean American as its next mayor.

I emailed Wells to express concern about his remarks. Wells responded and invited me to meet in person over coffee to further clarify his remarks. He also accepted my invitation for a town hall meeting with members of the community. (The meeting is set for June 21 at 3 p.m. at Community Center downtown, and is open to all residents of El Cajon.)

It was clear from my discussions with Wells that certain members of the Neighborhood Market Association (a special interest group of liquor and grocery store owners) have been advancing a controversial agenda under the false pretense of representing the entire Chaldean community. As our discussions ensued, Wells came to realize that Chaldeans are not represented by any member of liquor store owners, Neighborhood Market Association president Mark Arabo included.

Opportunists like Arabo jumped on the bandwagon of the suffering of Iraqi Christians at the hands of the Islamic State when prior to that, they were only known to care about getting a new liquor license to themselves or their friends. As a longtime Chaldean political activist and one who attended the first Iraqi opposition meeting in liberated Iraq on April 27, 2003 (three weeks after liberation of Baghdad by the U.S. Army), I don’t know any of those Chaldeans who are suddenly claiming representation, or more outrageously “national spokesman” of the Chaldeans. Unfortunately, the suffering of innocent people tends to attract corrupt individuals interested in building a name for themselves.

Wells and I came to agree on the need for better communication between El Cajon city officials and other groups within the Chaldean community that represent a wider spectrum of Chaldeans. The majority of Chaldeans are professionals and small business owners who pay their taxes. I also made it clear to Wells that if there are few bad Chaldean apples who abuse the welfare system and collect food stamps, those are no different than what could be seen in other communities living in San Diego. The law should be applied to all equally.

Wells agreed that Chaldeans have as many capable individuals to become next mayors of El Cajon as are among other groups. He made it clear that he supports Chaldeans to become more active in city politics.

Hopefully his clarified view will be shared by others in our community.

Ghassan Hanna is a project manager for the U.S. Navy and an adjunct faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University. He lives in Alpine. Hanna’s letter has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.