A Decade After War's Start, Iraqi Refugees Are Transforming A California Town

By Adrian Florido
March 22, 2013

Iraqi Refugees Work To Make Home In El Cajon

Photo by Adrian Florido
Ahlam Aelesha, a beautician, moved to California as a refugee of the first Gulf War. She says that after the recent Iraq War, much of the rest of her family still in Iraq has also come.

SAN DIEGO -- The Iraq War has been officially over for nearly a year and a half. But refugees from the conflict are still being admitted to the United States by the thousands, and many of those continue to settle in the city of El Cajon, east of San Diego.

The first refugees started arriving in 2007, joining family members who had arrived more than a decade earlier after the Gulf War. In the six years since the U.S. started admitting refugees from the most recent conflict, more than 11,000 Iraqis have arrived in the San Diego area, with a vast majority settling in El Cajon.

Every day, newly arrived refugees file into a resource center on the city's Main Street to take English classes that might help them land a first job. But a walk down the same street also makes evident that the Iraqi community is beginning to mature here, as Iraqis now in the U.S. for several years open and expand businesses.

At the same resource center, run by the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Charities, Iraqis who have been in the country for five years are now taking citizenship classes.

Nawar Gorgees was 14 when the war began. His family eventually fled Iraq for Jordan. They lived there until just three months ago, when they arrived as refugees to El Cajon.

Gorgees is now 24. A full decade after the first U.S. rockets fell on his country, he's said he finally hopes to start a new life in El Cajon. But like most refugees, he has one immediate task—to learn English.

“We have newly arrived Iraqis, and so we continue to work with them," said Erica Bouris, who runs the resettlement program for the San Diego International Rescue Committee. "We also have folks who have now been here a couple of years and are now in a different phase of their integration into the community."

At the Venus Hair Salon, it’s an exciting time for owner Ahlam Aelesha. This weekend she’s expanding into the empty space next door.

"This one is going to be for women, and we have makeup, we have nails, and we'll have five more stations, five stylists over there,” she said.

Aelesha came here in 1994, during the first Gulf War. During the recent war, much of her family left Iraq for the same reasons, all arriving in El Cajon.

"My God, like more than 500 people," she said, "In my family. Because I have 14 uncles and aunts, and each one of them has like nine, eight, ten, eleven kids.”

Photo by Adrian Florido
The selection of teas at a new grocery store serving the large Iraqi community in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon.

Bill Wells, a city councilman and vice-mayor, said he believes Iraqis have infused the city with a new cultural and economic vibrancy. But he’s also heard comments from some long-time residents who are wary about the Arabic signs popping up on commercial strips.

“There’s a lot of people that feel this is not really fostering assimilation, but it’s fostering a set-asideness, that there’s an us and a them, a this community and that community," he said. "And I don’t think anyone really wants that."

Wells said business owners he's spoken to have been receptive to suggestions that their signs include English.

At his new restaurant right across the street from City Hall, Sadik Al Bazaz said he doesn’t have much choice about his signs, or his employees.

“Because you know, a lot of people don’t speak English, so we can’t put many Americans working here, because he doesn’t speak Arabic, you know?” he said.

Al Bazaz studied accounting in Iraq. But he struggled to apply those skills here. Thus, the Sammoon Bakery and Restaurant, which he opened with his brother, a civil engineer who's also been as of yet unable to put his skills to work in the U.S.

Success stories like Al Bazaz's and Aelesha's, the hair salon owner, are emerging in El Cajon. But stories of professional careers lost in the move to the U.S. are also common among Iraqi refugees. So are stories of tough job searches and poverty, post traumatic stress disorder, and of kids falling behind in school.

Photo by Adrian Florido
Members of the YALLA Soccer Club at a recent scrimmage match in El Cajon. The club provides soccer training to refugee children and teens on the condition they participate in weekly tutoring.

On a recent evening, Iraqi teens played soccer on a high school field here. They’re in a program called Youth and Leaders Living Actively, or YALLA, which means "let’s go" in Arabic. It offers soccer training to students who commit to after-school tutoring, so they don’t fall behind.

Mark Kabban, a young Lebanese man who started the program several years ago, realized that refugee students needed school help, exercise, and most importantly, to feel like part of a tight community.

Nineteen-year-old Ahmed Abdul Kharim says the program has helped him cope with all the moves his family had to make because of the war.

“I moved here, and I played with all the people who are from the same country as I’m from and went through basically what I’ve been through. So it was kind of like, I felt like I was back home," he said.

And it turns out that Kharim’s team is pretty good. Next month, they’ll compete in one of California’s most prestigious soccer tournaments. Kharim is set to graduate from high school this spring. He said he plans to enroll in a community college and then transfer to the University of California system, possibly to study nursing.