Nov 24, 2008
Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social
Asmar-salem, Besma Coda
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
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.
'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.
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.
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.
that 12,000 refugees might be coming to El Cajon in
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.
Zina: Relatives, churches,
stores. It's a community. Also the weather, which is
similar to Iraq.
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.
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.
these people arriving a few at a time or in big
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Grossmont or Cuyamaca colleges have any training
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.
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.
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
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.
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
does it take them to become reasonably proficient in
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
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,
persecution because of their wealth or their
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.
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.