El Cajon Sees Rise In Iraqi Refugee Population

Report Says Chaldeans Are Fastest-Growing Refugee Community In San Diego

The U.S. State Department reports San Diego County has become the nation's largest resettlement site for refugees from around the world.

One particular group that has chosen to settle in the East County and continues to face challenges as their population grows.

For those traveling down Main Street in El Cajon, it is easy to notice how much the population in the area has changed. Storefronts with signs in Arabic reflect a growing Iraqi influence. In the last couple of years, 7,000 Iraqi refugees have moved to San Diego -- all of them Chaldeans -- and another 4,000 are expected in the coming year.

Manal Naoom and her husband own an auto shop. They gave jobs to two refugees whose families fled Iraq after facing persecution for religious beliefs or for cooperating with the U.S. military.

"Imad was one of the refugees that was kidnapped in Iraq and they asked for a ransom. They just left Iraq and ran away from there," said Naoom.

Many flee to other countries until they are accepted by the U.S. as refugees. The 4,000 refugees coming to San Diego already have family in the East County, where many Chaldeans have settled.

However, over the years, the growing population has placed a burden on the community. El Cajon Valley High School had 200 extra students last school year. The school hired six additional teachers, with three for English as a second language.

Additionally, emergency services were also taxed, as many people calling 911 for non-emergencies.

"It's been difficult, but they have always been able to meet the challenge," said El Cajon Mayor Mark Lewis. "The good part is we've always managed. Obviously, there will be people who fall through the cracks."

Iraqi Americans who have lived in San Diego for many years have stepped in to help. Many have donated essentials the refugees need to get a jumpstart in their new home.

"Since I have been here, 1985 until today, I challenge anyone to show me one Chaldean homeless," said Father Michael Bazzi of St. Peter's Chaldean Church.

"It's very hard for them to get a job. They don't have money. So we need to provide for them," said Naoom.

The refugees are designated as such for one year, and then are considered permanent residents for four years. At that point, they can apply for U.S. citizenship.

U.S. State Department reports showed Chaldeans have become the fastest-growing refugee community in San Diego, with Burmese refugees making up the second-largest group, followed by Somalis.