Although a devout Christian, Eva Aboona
missed the Palm Sunday church services that
launched Holy Week last Sunday.
But she tried.
At St. Michael’s, one of El Cajon’s two
Chaldean Catholic churches, Aboona
encountered bumper-to-bumper traffic, a
jam-packed parking lot and an overflow crowd
“I couldn’t get in,” she said.
Her husband tried to take the children to
Mass at the other Chaldean church, St.
Peter’s. No luck.
“There was no room to park,” said Raied
Aqrawi, 51, through an interpreter. “We had
to drive around and go home.”
Lesson learned. For Sunday’s Easter Mass
at St. Peter’s, these Iraqi immigrants plan
to arrive hours early.
Since landing in the United States on
Jan. 10, these Iraqi immigrants have made
numerous adjustments. Aqrawi, a chemist and
plumber, is seeking work inside and outside
those trades. The entire household,
including sons Yousif, 14, and Frank, 6, is
learning English as fast as possible.
Despite financial worries and language
barriers, they are grateful and relieved.
That’s especially true as they safely
celebrate Easter’s message of renewal and
Four years ago, they celebrated Palm
Sunday in their Iraqi village, Alqosh, under
threat from nearby ISIS forces. The family
fled to Turkey, where their faith was
targeted by local officials and neighbors.
Last year’s Easter Mass was halted by a
So while they face struggles in their new
home, they cherish the freedom of worship
they enjoy here, due to the efforts of local
Christians and Jews.
“Here we feel there is law, there is
security, there is protection,” Aqrawi said.
“Here we don’t have the fear that someone
will come to convert us to another
Raied Aqrawi prays before Good Friday
services at St. Peter's Chaldean
Catholic Church in El Cajon. He and his
family are Iraqi refugees who recently
arrived in the United States. (Hayne
Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)
Among practicing Christians, no week is
more significant than the one bookended by
Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. This is true
around the world, and certainly among the
Chaldeans of El Cajon.
This is a rapidly growing group. There
are now 60,000-plus local Chaldeans, double
what this population was in 2010. Yet there
are only two Chaldean churches, each with
room for 700 worshippers.
“The churches are always full, always
full,” said Besma Coda, chief operation
officer at Chaldean & Middle Eastern Social
Services in El Cajon. “We need a new church
in El Cajon. There are seven different
Masses a day and they are all full.”
That’s seven Masses during ordinary
Sundays. For Easter services, there are 12
Masses at St. Peter’s and 10 at St.
Michael’s over two days.
“This is the most important week of the
year,” said Bishop Bawai Soro, vicar general
for the local Chaldean Catholic Diocese.
“The whole Christian faith is validated
because of the resurrection of Christ.”
For believers, Holy Week commemorates
Jesus Christ’s journey from life to death
and back again. Gospels describe his
triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Palm
Sunday), last supper (Holy Thursday),
crucifixion (Good Friday) and final victory
over death (Easter). For immigrants escaping
persecution, this narrative has powerful
“It means that God is with us and is with
us especially through our dark experiences,
our difficult days,” Soro said. “This is
what Jesus himself went through when he
continued to obey the message of his Father
— despite the pain, the suffering. Our faith
tells us that whoever believes in the Bible,
believes in Jesus and God the Father, will
have the same resurrection experience.”
The Holy Week experience, though, is
different in San Diego County than in rural
Iraq. Aboona was disappointed last Sunday
when El Cajon’s streets were not filled with
chanting, palm-waving residents as they were
“Because we don’t live in villages, we
live in urban communities,” Soro said, “and
you cannot offend your neighbors. There are
noise limitations, movement limitations.”
The bishop chuckled. “The reality is that
the newcomers will take a few years to
adjust themselves to the American
Already, these adjustments have been
coming with staggering speed. Four Easters
ago, Aqrawi, Aboona and their children
marched past stone buildings to the pealing
bells of Alqosh’s ancient monastery. Palm
Sunday was a noisy, village-wide affair in
this settlement nestled by the mountains
near Iraq’s northern border.
On the Nineveh plains below Alqosh,
though, Christian settlements had been
leveled by ISIS fighters. Women had been
raped, men killed, children abducted.
Seeking safety, the family journeyed to
Ankara, Turkey’s capital, where they
registered with the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees. That office found
temporary shelter for the family in Amasya.
In that northern Turkish city, they were
safe from ISIS but not from religious
persecution. Amasya had no Christian
churches, and the mayor rejected Chaldean
pleas to open one. Yousif quit a part-time
job at a barber shop whose owner repeatedly
pressured the boy to attend services at the
On their first Easter in Turkey, the
family conducted their own service behind
the closed doors of their apartment.
On their second Easter, a Chaldean priest
visited from Detroit, celebrating Mass in a
rented hall. Black curtains covered the
hall’s windows and police stood outside,
ostensibly to protect the Christians within.
The following Easter, last year, was
supposed to be a repeat celebration — same
priest, same hall, same police cordon. This
time, though, the police halted the service
and ordered everyone to leave.
There was a bomb outside the hall. The
family was almost home when the device
“We heard it,” Aboona said. “That’s how
we knew it was a real bomb.”
Parishioners reached out to touch a casket
used to symbolize the body of Jesus as it
was carried in a procession during a Good
Friday service at St. Peter Chaldean
Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon. (Hayne
Palmour IV / Union-Tribune)
A personal message
Like all refugees, this family went
through interviews and background checks by
the U.N. and the authorities of their new
country — in this case, the U.S. State
They were then routed to El Cajon,
because of its existing Chaldean population,
and assigned to one of San Diego County’s
four resettlement agencies.
In this case, that was Jewish Family
It’s not unusual for Christian refugees
to be referred to this Jewish group,
explained Etleva Bejko, the agency’s
director of refugee and immigration
services. “We are federally funded for those
programs,” she said. “If you participate,
you have to serve all refugees regardless of
Helping needy people of other faiths,
Bejko said, is consistent with Jewish
values. She quoted Mark Hetfield, president
and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“He said, ‘We don’t serve refugees
because they are Jewish. We serve refugees
because we are Jewish.”
In the current fiscal year, the local
Jewish Family Service has helped resettle
“The majority are Iraqis,” Bejko said.
Like most of those Iraqis, Aqrawi and
Aboona and their children are initially
overwhelmed by this new culture.
“My personal message to them is, we are
their brothers and sisters,” said Bishop
Soro, himself an Iraqi refugee who came to
the U.S. in 1976. “Every challenge they see
here, we were once in their shoes.”
Their life, he predicted, will improve.
“They are the luckiest people in the world,”
Soro said. “Despite the fact they have seen
difficult days in Iraq, God has rewarded
them by bringing them to America, the most
blessed country in the world.”
Already, there are signs of assimilation.
While there will be no Easter egg hunt for
the kids, Yousif and Frank plan to enjoy a
customary American activity after Easter
“They’ve heard there is a Chuck E.
Cheese,” said Aqrawi. “So I am taking them
to Chuck E. Cheese.”