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          Nov 24,  2008

Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services
Q&A: Zina Asmar-salem, Besma Coda
 November 22, 2008
San Diego Union-Tribune

El Cajon is bracing for a wave of 12,000 Chaldean and Iraqi immigrants from Mideastern refugee camps this year. Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services was formed in February to provide mental health and other services locally. Zina Asmar-Salem, chief executive officer, and Besma Coda, chief operating officer, were interviewed recently by Union-Tribune editorial writer Don Sevrens, photographed by Laura Empry.

Zina Asmar-Salem




Besma Coda


Please describe what Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services does.

Zina: We're a nonprofit social service agency. We receive money from the state and federal governments, and organizations such as Alliance Healthcare Foundation. We have contracts with organizations to provide certain services. We provide cultural training to the Iraqi population, newcomers who are impacting San Diego. We service all the Arab-American speaking population of San Diego, all the Middle Easterners and the Chaldeans.

What does 'Chaldean' imply in terms of geographic origin, native languages, religion?

Zina: Their language is Aramaic, used by the Hebrews in the time of Jesus Christ. Chaldeans are from Babylon. They are the original settlers of Iraq, Mesopotamia. And they were there before the Arabs invaded Iraq. So they really are the ancient settlers of Iraq. They are Catholics.

You expect as many as 17,000 Iraqi refugees to arrive in the United States in the coming year?

Besma: Yes. In 2007, the quota was 7,000 but only 2,600 arrived because of a backlog in processing visas. In 2008, the United States approved 12,000 and it did reach the quota. In 2009, the quota is for another 17,000 who have relatives here. They are coming from refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Jordan.

Zina: The number is a small percentage of who is out there. It's basically because of the war situation. People who are threatened. Some who have family members who were killed or they themselves were kidnapped or threatened. Christians and Muslims. They have been in camps for years.

How does the processing work?

Besma: First, they must be classified as a refugee by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, then the paperwork checked and a decision made as to where they are going. If they have relatives in the United States, they are allowed to interview with an asylum officer overseas. It's up to the officer to accept them as refugees to the United States or not. Some refugees go to Australia. Europe has just opened its doors. There are 2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria itself. So to bring 12,000 [last year] to the United States is only a drop in the bucket. There are special visas for Iraqi people who worked with our troops in Iraq, who were persecuted because of their jobs. If the U.S. would leave, there is no way they could be protected.

You expect that 12,000 refugees might be coming to El Cajon in 2009?

Zina: A large portion will come here. Washington will not be assigning many refugees to Detroit because of the economic hardship Michigan is experiencing. Only in extreme cases where families have the means to sponsor and pay for their needs. So, I would say 70-80 percent will be coming here. Even if placed in Los Angeles, Texas or Arizona, the refugees want to transfer to El Cajon.

Why is that?

Zina: Relatives, churches, stores. It's a community. Also the weather, which is similar to Iraq.

So these people have relatives in the United States, have undergone background checks, but are impoverished and may not have English-language skills?

Zina: They are impoverished. Some who left Iraq were very well off but had to leave on a moment's notice because someone knocked on their door and said, 'We want your house and if you don't leave by two days we're going to come and kill you.' So they take whatever little they can gather. Sometimes they lose their IDs during the trip, their diplomas, their degrees. You're talking about doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers. The majority of them are educated. In the neighboring countries, their children often have been denied schools for years. So the children are illiterate in English and illiterate in their own Arabic language.

What services do you provide besides mental health?

Zina: We go beyond our job descriptions. To these people, this is like home. They'll bring their mail that needs to be read. Ask for help on phone calls to doctors or nurseries. They come by because they need to make photocopies. So besides all the social services that we do, we cater to a lot more than. The Kurdish Human Rights Watch has an ESL (English as a second language) class that's open to anyone. The churches, the St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral and St. Michael's, have charities. Charities include the Legion of Mary, Ladies of Hope and the Sacred Heart. They try to provide old home furnishings, blankets and things like that. The need is so great that most of it goes out the same day that it comes in.

Are these people arriving a few at a time or in big clusters?

Besma: An entire airplane full sometimes arrives at JFK Airport. Then they go to whatever state they're assigned. A number of governmental and non-governmental organizations assist in the relocation process. There are four resettlement offices in San Diego – Catholic Charities, International Rescue Services, Jewish Family Service and Alliance for Africans. These four agencies take care of these people's living expenses for the first eight months. A family of five may receive $900 even though the rent is $1,100. And maybe $200 to $300 in food stamps. And that's it. Many refugees must borrow from relatives just to meet the rent until they can find jobs.

Walk us through a typical arrival.

Besma: The first eight months the resettlement offices will take care of them. They have their own case managers who take care of their immunizations, medical checkups, and then they try to process their paperwork. Relatives help them with the paperwork at the DMV, the Social Security office, and bring them here to us. 'Here' is the Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services, located in the middle of El Cajon. The majority of them don't drive, so they walk everywhere.

Some estimate 30,000 Chaldeans are in El Cajon and East County.

Besma: It could be 40,000 Arab-American Chaldeans or higher.

Would 12,000 refugees arriving in El Cajon in the next year overwhelm the network of services?

Besma: It's already overwhelmed, especially school districts and housing. Some apartment complexes are taking advantage by raising their rents. The county is aware of the situation. The mayor of El Cajon is very much in tune to what the organization needs.

What is likely to happen?

Zina: Once they become oriented to the community, to the culture, to the way of life, maybe get their driver's license, I think you'll start seeing some of them accepting jobs outside of El Cajon and moving to Santee, Spring Valley, Los Angeles. Branching out.

What kind of employment opportunities are there?

Zina: These refugees arrive with a lot of different specialties. Look for them to open specialty stores or bakeries eventually. They are very much into education. Their dream is to have their kids go to college.

Besma: The early refugees in the '70s and '80s bought liquor stores and convenience markets. They were merchants. But their children have become engineers, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers and especially computer specialists. They are real estaters. The new generation is not interested in operating their parents' stores.

The small children arriving lack English skills. Are the schools hiring any of these refugees or prior arrivals as tutors or aides?

Zina: We have been talking to the schools. We suggest they need interpreters because many of the parents need help filling out the applications. By now, we have graduates who are fluent in the Chaldean Arabic language and in English and who are looking for jobs. Cajon Valley High School registered over 200 of these students in the first two months of summer.

Be aware that these newcomers are coming with a lot of trauma. They must struggle to find a job, to learn English, to get transportation. Many arrive with severe depression that stems from what they've endured, the hardships or the murders or the kidnappings. Children have lost their fathers and have seen bodies in the streets. They wake up in the middle of the night screaming.

What obstacles do those who are quite skilled such as doctors and nurses face in getting certified to work in this country?

Besma: It takes them six years to be certified in the United States as a doctor, even if they are a doctor who worked 30 years in Iraq. They go through every step and the internship.

Zina: A doctor who came in the other day went to a local pharmacy and said, 'I'll even work as a delivery guy for you.' The United States could really use their medical expertise.

Do Grossmont or Cuyamaca colleges have any training programs?

Zina: Not really. By law, potential students must be permanent residents in California for one year before they can even register at Grossmont or Cuyamaca.

Q: How did the idea come about to form your organization to provide mental health services?

Besma: I had been working with the refugees since 1982. I discussed with Zina the issue of who would help these people. There was no such organization that could provide them the service for free.

Zina: Michigan is the role model. It was the first state that Arab-Americans adopted as their state. So Michigan has organizations providing what we're doing now and Bishop Sarhad Yaswip Jammo was familiar with them. I had directed similar programs in Michigan. So he and Besma and I came together. We went to the county, we talked to congressmen and senators, made them aware of the issues and enlisted support for this kind of organization. And we approached the state and county for funding. We qualified under one act that provided money for new (mental health) programs. So we were there at the right time and the right place.

How many are you helping?

Zina: We are contracted to serve 300 clients a year for the county. We could easily open 60 to 70 cases a month but we limit it to 20 or 25. We're only budgeted for a certain number of therapists. But the need is far greater. We try to take the neediest of cases, the ones who are really suffering or have a lot of traumatic experiences. We link others to different services and we monitor them. We link them to jobs. We link them to housing. And we often do pretty much case management without opening a case. Between February and now we probably serviced 800 or 900 people.

We also do training under a contract with the county. We provide cultural training for organizations that need it. We also have a cardiovascular disease program through Catholic Charities. We're also working with the San Diego Food Bank. We are open to any organization that would like to partner with us to help the refugees. Our Web site is c-mss.org.

How did El Cajon become a Chaldean center?

Zina: In the 1960s, Waddie Deddeh (who later became an assemblyman and state senator) was one of the first people who settled here. And then slowly people came in from Michigan.

You must feel you are making quite a difference.

Zina: Yes. Sometimes we look at each other and say if we weren't here, what would these people have done? Where would they go? The majority arrive with a lot of shock because it's a new culture. America is a dream they come to. Yet they find hardships – economic, housing, education. It takes about a year to acculturate. They're lucky they live in a community that's so well based in many aspects of their culture. That eases them in. Many have progressed a long way. They are finding jobs. They are getting their driver's licenses or learning how to use the bus system. Again, they're still new.

How long does it take them to become reasonably proficient in English?

Zina: The younger they are, the faster they learn. But we are dealing with ESL schools that are not having a very high success rate. These people need help with their ABCs, their phonics, things like that. Many classes assume they already have some education skills. So we have suggested that even if the schools cannot find bilingual Arabic teachers, at least have an assistant in the classroom who speaks the language and can assist these students. Or have beginner classes.

Are there anecdotes that stick in your mind?

Zina: Let me tell you about one family that just arrived. The wife's father was one of the biggest specialists in Iraq. He was kidnapped, held for ransom, murdered, cut to pieces. They took all the family's money and told them if you don't leave we're going to kill you one by one. We have another person with 40 relatives murdered in the extended family. All of them doctors, lawyers, engineers.

Is this persecution because of their wealth or their religion?

Zina: Both. It's educational cleansing. or profession cleansing, as we call it. They are trying to get rid of the professionals. The doctors are Christians. The person whose 40 members in the family were killed was a Muslim. Or it may be that you lived in a nice house and they wanted your house or car.

What can the community at large do?

Zina: We're going out and raising awareness of what's happening to the San Diego area, to El Cajon with the refugees and the issues. We can use community support in trying to gain funding so we can increase services for housing, for schools ,for after-school programs.