Baghdad on the border

A San Diego suburb is the unlikely seat of the country’s Iraqi immigrant population—and a study in assimilation

On a warm night in August, a group of gray-haired men slapped dominoes onto a table as waiters sped back and forth inside a packed banquet hall on a Main Street situated about 20 miles east of San Diego. Along with hundreds of others seated under the glittering crystal light fixtures of the Palms Restaurant and Banquet Hall, they hushed their laughter and chitchat to murmurs as the clock struck 9:30 p.m. and the main event began: a game of bingo with a $900 jackpot.

The caller seated at a microphone in the middle of the room drew a ball.

“B-five,” the caller said before pausing to repeat the number in Arabic.


On any given Thursday night here in El Cajon, California, two or three generations sit side by side, eyeing each other’s bingo cards and joking. Waiters push carts loaded with a menu that often gets whitewashed as “Mediterranean,” but is in fact Arab: hummus, tabbouleh, warm olives, fattoush and Iraqi salads, and heaps of fava beans.

The carts weave past the well-dressed women in strappy high heels chasing children and the men greeting each other with back-slapping hugs and three quick kisses. Aside from arak, an anise-flavored liquor from the Middle East, the drink of choice tonight—and every night—is Johnny Walker. Bottles of the whiskey are carted to tables with buckets of ice.

Groans and giggles follow each number called, as they often do during bingo games all over America, but none are quite like bingo night in El Cajon, where the Iraqi community has recreated its Baghdad tradition—one that has become perilous in Iraq, a result of years of war and instability.

“G-50… G-khamsin,” the caller said. A man inching toward a win let out a gleeful shout of “yallah!”

29-year-old Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Mexican-Palestinian-American who was raised in the county, is running against incumbent Republican congressman Duncan Hunter in November’s midterm elections.
St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon.

In El Cajon, about 25 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s not just the bingo: Main Street has been made over by immigrants and refugees creating new community institutions while maintaining homeland traditions. Along a central stretch through downtown El Cajon, signs are scrawled with Arabic script, adorning businesses that sell everything from baklava to legal services to jewelry.

Much of El Cajon’s Main Street goes quiet after dark, save for homeless people who fill benches in a downtown park and, occasionally, small groups of Arab men strolling together, fiddling worry beads. But a vibrant scene unfolds inside the Palms, and many who attend are greeted warmly by co-owner Salam Sabbagh, 60, who embraced and kissed the many men who stopped to say salam aleykum to him. Sabbagh has worked at the Palms since 2015, but his relationship with some of the clientele stretches back much further than that.

Sabbagh points at a man seated nearby, “Him—my friend from probably since I was 10 years old.” He points to the back of the room where three generations of a family have gathered, saying, “I know these people from when I was 1 or 2 years old.”

Much like American country clubs, Baghdad’s social clubs were gathering places for the upper crust to lounge around swimming pools, play on the tennis courts, and host movie nights. But with the volatility surrounding subsequent regional conflicts—with Kurds in the 1960s, Iran in the ’80s, and the U.S. during the Gulf and Iraq wars—many of those who had the means to attend such clubs also had the means to leave Iraq. So they did.

A moment during mass at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic.
Tania, a student at the Iraqi Culture and Arts Association in El Cajon, practices writing her name in Arabic.

The present-day Palms is humbler than Baghdad’s grand social clubs like Hindiyah or the Alwiyah Club—a sprawling, lush campus a stone’s throw from the Tigris River established by British diplomat Gertrude Bell. Founded in 1924, the Alwiyah predates the establishment of modern-day Iraq . It served expats at first, only later catering to professionals and inspiring a host of social clubs based on various occupations (“a club for pharmacists,” “a club for engineers”). Facsimiles like the Palms are woven from the memories of countrymen who don’t believe they’ll ever actually return to Iraq.

Iraq became an independent country in 1932, after being created by the League of Nations post-World War I.

El Cajon is frequently depicted in the news as a hub for new refugees to the U.S.—most recently, Syrians—when in fact, Iraqis began arriving in the 1950s. Tens of thousands of Chaldean Catholics, many seeking religious freedom or fleeing persecution in Iraq, have built impressive churches and engaged with civic life for decades. Later arrivals included thousands of Kurds and a small population of Shi’a Muslims who escaped Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship following the Gulf War.

A similar migration pattern unfolded for refugees who settled in the Dearborn, Michigan, area.

But the flow of Iraqis coming to the U.S. has dramatically dropped since President Donald Trump took office. In April, the Board of Supervisors in San Diego County—where El Cajon resides—voted to join the federal lawsuit against California, breaking ranks with the dozens of California municipalities that have declared themselves sanctuary cities.

Wooden worry beads, a common accessory among El Cajon’s elder Arab population.
Booklets and other information on a rack outside of St. Peter.

San Diego County historically leans conservative, and its political legacy is one of corrupt public officials—most recently Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, who in August was accused of massive campaign finance violations. His challenger in November’s midterm elections is 29-year-old Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Mexican-Palestinian-American who was raised about 15 miles outside of El Cajon.

Even with its political reputation, San Diego County has received more refugees than any other in the state of California, and El Cajon has been a crucial landing pad—particularly for those from across the Middle East.

Locals estimate that about half of the city’s population of about 100,000 is of Arab descent. Official counts are much harder to come by, in part because the U.S. census hasn’t consistently sought the ethnic backgrounds of people from Middle Eastern countries, who are typically forced to mark “white” or “other .”

According to an NPR report from January 2018, “There’s been a decades-long push for the U.S. Census Bureau to collect more detailed data on people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa, also known as MENA. The Census Bureau announced it is not planning to add a MENA category to the 2020 census.” Advocates argue that more data would mean better representation for these groups.

The census estimates that do exist put the number of El Cajon’s 102,894 residents with Arab ancestry at 10,081, but local reports estimate there are 10,000 Syrian refugees in the area alone, as well as 50,000 Chaldeans .

Chaldeans don’t always identify as Arab, despite immigrating to the U.S. mostly from Iraq.

The exterior of Big Bear Produce is festooned with flyers written in Arabic and a painted mural.

Evidence of newer populations is particularly clear near the intersection of Main Street and Magnolia, where Chaldeans have built massive churches, and both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims serve halal food in their restaurants. Other longtime immigrants have spent the past few decades developing businesses that weave Arab traditions into the local culture.

At a grocery store called Valley Foods, just over a mile east of that intersection, most of the customers chat in Arabic as they pick up ingredients imported from around the world. The store sells the California Garden brand’s prolific line of fava bean varieties from most any Arab nation, with flags from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, or Lebanon on the labels. The deli serves traditional Iraqi kebabs and an invention called Valley Fries—a spin on Southern California’s beloved carne asada fries, but topped with shawarma instead.

“What we have in El Cajon is not a dual identity, it’s the one identity of this place now.”
Mary York, editor of the East County Californian

Sustained migration has meant that some Arab-owned businesses have gone through multiple iterations in El Cajon—the chatter at one table during bingo night is the hot new shisha bar down the road, which used to be a less cool shisha bar—and those that have stuck around along Main Street do so because they excel at helping America feel a little closer to Iraq.

“In some ways it’s changed a bunch,” says Mary York, editor of the local newspaper, the East County Californian. “In some ways it feels like remnants of old El Cajon are still very much there. ‘Gentrify’ seems like the wrong word, but there has been an effort to make it nice and dazzle up Main Street a bit, and I think a lot of that has been the Arab-American community.”

In the last decade, a modest $3 million revitalization has resulted in snazzy signage announcing downtown El Cajon. A redesign to beautify a few central blocks around Main and Magnolia mean the sidewalks are wide, strollable, and lit by ornamental lamp posts and string lights. Trees and parking spots have narrowed the main drag of shops to slow traffic, and outdoor seating is available at several hotspots.

First-generation Iraqis and immigrants have gone on to be business owners, civic leaders, and City Council members.

The assimilation is evident. “What we have in El Cajon is not a dual identity,” says York. “It’s the one identity of this place now.”

Mary York, who is 26 and has worked at the circa-1892 local newspaper for three years, has covered everything from high school sports to motorcycle clubs that roll through the streets here in packs. “In El Cajon, I’ve definitely learned you can’t judge a book by its cover,” York says. “Some of the people who look the wildest are actually the movers and shakers in the community.”

When the El Cajon Valley High School soccer team won the Southern California Championship in 2017, the high school seniors who were co-captains had once lived 14 miles apart in northern Iraq before being displaced by war.

To the west of El Cajon in San Diego lies the largest naval base on the West Coast, and to the northwest, Marines train at Miramar and Camp Pendleton.

“My brother-in-law is from Baghdad, and his family came here seeking political asylum,” says York. “His dad was shot down while working as a pilot, working for the Americans. I think that’s a similar story for Middle Eastern people here.”

Thair Behnan, the manager of Ali Baba Restaurant, which has been in business for 16 years.
An employee makes traditional Iraqi bread at Big Bear Produce.

Some residents aren’t so cognizant of the the town’s cultural blend. On a hot afternoon in August, 60-something Sandie Kamaha pushed a walker into the Starbucks at Magnolia and Main. Kamaha has lived near this corner for more than 20 years and openly admits her dislike of her immigrant neighbors.

It’s hard to understand them sometimes, she says, and they seem culturally different when it comes to women—men don’t often look her in the eye. “Maybe I’m prejudiced, but I don’t try to say hello anymore,” Kamaha says with a shake of her head.

El Cajon is also just close enough to the desert to still attract a kind of oddball Southern California desert personality that once thrived here. Just around the corner from Starbucks, on Magnolia, is the headquarters of the Unarius Academy of Science, a nonprofit where visitors are invited to learn more about aliens (dubbed “our Space Brothers”), their own past lives, or how to escape nihilism and depression. It’s not entirely clear how, but there are Greek columns and a large model UFO in the lobby.

A woman working inside says “looky-loos” frequently stop in to gawk, and, while they don’t track visitors by race, she can’t recall a Middle Eastern person ever signing up for a class.

Iraq-born Esam Zora works in his plot at the Fresh Farm Community Garden, a project started by the International Rescue Committee that grants plots to immigrants and refugees.

She declines to be identified but says, “I’ll tell you one thing: [locals in El Cajon are] okay with the Middle Eastern people here because they believe they’re mostly Christian or people who worked with the Army. It’d be a whole different thing if they were Muslims.”

Hostilities aside, young Iraqis say they are determined to make a life in America.

Some Middle Eastern residents of El Cajon say their reports of hate crimes aren’t taken seriously enough. As the San Diego Tribune reported, a “Stop the Hate” forum “aimed at educating community members about what constitutes a hate crime, and what law enforcement and community resources are available to hate-crime victims” was held in July 2018 by a group comprising local and federal prosecutors.

Back at the Palms, Muneer Alkes fussed over his card while the rest of the table dissolved in a fit of laughter, making fun of the guy calling the bingo numbers. “He is saying the wrong number in English,” Alkes said with a laugh. The 24-year-old has been in the U.S. since 2012, and revels in bingo nights when he isn’t working the late shift at a pharmacy. “It’s a small Baghdad for me, here,” he said, waving a fist of pistachios at the room.

Hussein—a refugee from Aleppo, Syria—plays with the youngest of his four sons, Moutaz, at a park near their home in El Cajon. Hussein is employed as a butcher at a local market, and his children are enrolled in local schools.
Outside of Artists Barber Shop along Main Street. Most of the workers at the shop are originally from Iraq.

His friend Mustafa Karamallah, 25, works at a pharmacy, too. He left Iraq for Jordan in 2006, at age 13, after his mother was killed. He was sent to the U.S. in 2014. He says he used to notice racism when he first got to El Cajon, or find himself involved in heated conversations about race when he drove for ride-share car services.

“I can’t let myself get angry,” he says, dipping fried pita chips into pomegranate molasses and crunching through them. The off-menu snack is delivered by an older waitress who dotes on Karamallah. He smiles and jokes with her throughout the evening, stopping between their exchanges to talk about the mundane aspects of coming to America: working as a cashier, studying for the TOEFL , using Viber and other apps to chat with family overseas.

The Test of English as a Foreign Language is a standardized test for non-native speakers to prove their English proficiency. It’s widely accepted at colleges, universities, and other institutions.

Karamallah is dashing, with a beard and an easy smile. But as he tells his story, he seems to shrink a bit in the cavernous room. It’s only a matter of moments, though, before the waitress comes over again with a distraction—this time, a bowl of olives. The caller keeps reading out numbers until, eventually, Alkes wins $100 and picks up the tab.

Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles who teaches journalism at the University of Southern California. Her work often focuses on media, gender, race, and diaspora communities.


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