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Little Baghdad: the Hidden Chaldean Community of San Diego

posted on: May 31, 2021

Chaldeans protesting the Iraqi Government in El Cajon, Nov. 10, 2019. (Claire Trageser)
By: Mohamed Erekat/Arab America Contributing Writer

When one thinks about San Diego, one may imagine vibrant beaches, a hot summer sun, and Sea World. But hidden in the suburbs in the city of El Cajon, there is a large community of “Chaldeans” who have claimed the city for themselves. El Cajon which is located 17 miles east of downtown San Diego has a population of 100,000 people with over half of them being ethnically Chaldean or tracing their familial lineage to the Chaldeans.

Chaldeans are an ethnic group who originate from Mesopotamia. Also referred to as ethnic Assyrians, they are a primarily Catholic group who follow the Chaldean Catholic Church. They come from modern day Iraq, which is why El Cajon is nicknamed ‘Little Baghdad’. When Chaldeans came to El Cajon, they brought not only themselves but their beautiful culture. This can now be seen throughout the city which can make you feel as if you were in ‘Baghdad’.

History

Chaldeans are an Aramaic-speaking, Assyrian ethnic group with a history dating back more than 5,000 years. Their roots begin in the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, located in present-day Iraq. The ancient Chaldean tribe began migrating into southern Mesopotamia in the ninth century B.C.E. Chaldeans are also mentioned in the Bible, as they are associated with the city of Ur.

Chaldeans captives depicted in an ancient carving

Escaping Persecution

Following the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, minority groups such as the Kurds and Chaldeans were displaced. The Iraqi Regime at the time had targeted these groups and massacred hundreds of villages. After the war, many people turned to the American Dream which prompted the Chaldeans to emigrate into cities all over the United States such as El Cajon. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 would continue this trend of the Chaldeans seeking asylum as well. Following the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2008, the U.S. also began accepting an increased amount of Iraqi refugees which led to a larger Chaldean population in El Cajon.

Catholic church destroyed in Iraq

Before the Second Gulf War, Iraq’s population was made up roughly 5% by Christians, almost one million people. Of that one million, 70% were Chaldean, with the rest made up of various groups such as Syrian Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, and other Assyrians. This cluster of Christian culture was of course, ruined by war as Christians became targeted, with many villages getting destroyed. This led to over half of that population leaving the country.

Demographics

Due to mass immigration and seek of refuge, El Cajon has now become an extremely vibrant city in terms of culture and identity. According to World Population Review, the population of El Cajon rapidly increased between 1970 and 2000, basically doubling the population and this was largely thanks to Chaldeans who immigrated to the US. From the population of 100,000, there are roughly 50,000 Chaldeans living in El Cajon, making it the second largest community of Chaldeans in the US behind Detroit.

A light appears

What was once a small town holding desperate refugees, has become a symbol of hope and a gem of Arab culture in the United States. El Cajon is nicknamed ‘Little Baghdad’ for a reason. A stroll down the bustling Main Street will stimulate an experience just as of visiting the Middle East. Restaurants, bakeries, gas stations, and other local businesses are all largely owned by Chaldeans. The food does not disappoint either, as one visiting may get the whole Middle Eastern experience. From traditionally made sweets from Shakira Pastry, to Arab dishes in the restaurant of Ali Baba,

Main St, El Cajon

Conclusion

Despite seeming like a small and boring town. El Cajon is truly an under-appreciated gem in which one can enjoy many activities and have great middle-eastern food from sweet, to savory to whatever one desires. What was once a quite town in San Diego was transformed into the beauty it is today of culture and vibrancy thanks to the Chaldean population. They quite literally built the city into its current day success which is truly marvelous. If one were to now visit Main Street, they would not even feel they are in San Diego but rather back in the Middle East. Restaurants, grocery stores, clinics, gas stations, delis, all locally owned by Chaldeans with signs in both English and Arabic which gives a person the warmest welcome possible. El Cajon has become a beautiful sight of Arab culture and is surely a must-visit for anyone in the area.

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