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Max Ortiz / The Detroit
A young boy in
Tel Kaif, Iraq, watches and listens to a street vendor as he holds
a tomato over his head and sings a song. So many gifts flowed into
Tel Kaif from southeast Michigan that many jokingly called it
"Little Detroit" in the 1980s.
desert Iraq for promise of Metro Detroit
Of those in area,
most had relatives in Tel Kaif
Cameron McWhirter / The Detroit
KAIF, IRAQ--About 100 people, mostly old women with black lace head
scarves and a few old men wearing black-and-white head wraps, gather for
Saturday morning Mass at the Sacred Heart Chaldean Rite Catholic Church.
The church's red domes are
such a dominant feature of this dusty northern Iraqi town that most
residents don't even know its formal name. They just call it Eata, the
word for church in their ancient language of Aramaic.
The 7 a.m. service is held entirely in Aramaic, a
dialect of the language that Jesus spoke. The priest and his assistant
call to parishioners in song, and they respond in lyrical chants asking
God's forgiveness and guidance. The sound of the ancient prayers gives a
sense of something that will last forever here.
But in reality the Chaldean community in Tel Kaif
is dying. This church could easily hold a thousand people -- and not so
long ago, it did. Some in this service aren't Chaldeans, just nearby
Christians who come to the church because it's close.
Of the remaining Chaldean congregants, almost
every man and woman is trying to leave Tel Kaif for a very specific
haven: Metro Detroit.
Chat with any Chaldean and
you will hear something similar to the words of Khalid Ali Backal, 42, a
short, well-dressed man with a trim mustache. "I'm waiting for my
papers," he said. "I want to move to Detroit to be with my family."
Tel Kaif is a dot on the map even by Iraqi
standards. But through the twists and turns of history, it has spawned a
flourishing community of grocers, liquor store owners, business people
and professionals 6,000 miles away in southeast Michigan. Most of Metro
Detroit's Chaldeans -- estimated to be at least 20,000 strong -- were
either born in Tel Kaif or are the children or grandchildren of someone
who was. After the first handful of Chaldeans came here for
auto-industry jobs in the early 1900s, the Chaldean community in Metro
Detroit has grown into the largest in the world.
Today, Detroit has four Chaldean churches.
Chaldean communities also have developed in California and Arizona.
Detroit's gain has been Tel Kaif's loss. In the
1950s, the village of about 10,000 was entirely Chaldean. By 1970, the
Chaldeans here had dropped to about 7,500.
church's head priest, Lucien Jamil, estimates today that he has about
2,000 parishioners. Most of the town now are other Christians or
With the threat of another war between
Iraq and the United States and economic hardship pressing those
remaining in the small town, he expects his parish to dwindle even
"Many people don't want to go from here;
they cry that they have to go," he said. "But you almost have to leave
these days because your family probably already is in Detroit."
Guns and borders
Tel Kaif, called Tel Keppe by Chaldeans, which
means "Hill of Stones" in Aramaic, looks much the same as 40 years ago,
said Tom Simaan, a Detroit grocery owner who comes to Iraq periodically
as head of the American-Iraqi Friendship Federation. Simaan was born in
Tel Kaif and left with his family in 1963.
more of the roads are paved, a little more trash is noticeable in the
streets, but most of the old buildings haven't changed, except for his
own home, which was knocked down years ago because of structural
problems. Cows and sheep still rummage in the market refuse for food,
and the air still is scented with the mingled aroma of turned earth,
fresh fruit, rotting vegetables and burning wood.
Everyone, as they have for decades, still talks
about a mythical place called Detroit.
previous times, when those who talked of leaving were young, today
middle-aged and older Chaldeans talk of getting out.
With strained relations between the United States
and Iraq making immigration much more complicated, the talk is more
War also is on everyone's mind. For
generations, only occasional Bedouin families inhabited the neighboring
hills. Since the Persian Gulf War gave the Kurds semi-autonomy, the
Christian areas of northern Iraq have become a militarized zone. The
town of Tel Kaif has Iraqi soldiers dug into the south, north and east
Tel Kaif is in the northern no-fly zone,
imposed on Saddam by the United States and its allies after the Gulf
War, that bans Iraqi aircraft. Every day, British and American warplanes
patrol the skies and have dropped bombs on targets around Tel Kaif and
other northern towns.
Nabil Bashbagwd, 51, the
childhood neighbor of Simaan who never used to think of leaving, now has
his papers to go to Detroit. He doesn't know what Detroit will be like,
and he doesn't ask his family there many questions.
"We just hear they are safe and working hard.
That's enough," he said.
His sister, Firyal,
worries that the U.S.-Iraq tensions are holding up her immigration
papers. "We just want to go to be with our families," she said.
Jamil, who visited relatives in Detroit in 1997,
is no fan of Metro Detroit or the United States. He said Chaldeans in
Tel Kaif have heard stories of how it snows six months a year, a far cry
from the scorching temperatures of Iraq. They repeat the rumor that 150
Chaldeans have been killed in store robberies in Detroit in recent
decades. They hear stories of Chaldean teen-agers bringing boyfriends or
girlfriends into their parents' homes.
"This to us
is something of a crime," he said, laughing and shaking his head.
But the scary stories aren't stopping the last
Chaldeans here from trying to immigrate.
Bashi, 57, has just been notified that his immigration papers await him
at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan. Because of the hostilities, the
United States has no embassy in Iraq.
He is making
preparations to go soon.
Bashi doesn't know what
to expect in Detroit. And he doesn't care.
be happy there I know because all my relatives and friends are there,"
he said. "You can be safe in Detroit if you just mind your own
This rural hamlet about 240 miles north of Baghdad
has been home to the Chaldean Rite of the Catholic Church for so long
that the priests don't even know exactly how this small but resilient
branch of Roman Catholicism started.
A monk, St.
Matthew, brought Christianity to northern Iraq in the 400s. Numerous
sects of Orthodox, Catholic and eastern Christianity have survived for
centuries in the mountains and valleys despite being ruled by various
Muslim governments for 1,300 years.
Christians make up about 3 percent of Iraq's total population. Tel Kaif
arose as a center for a special Aramaic branch of Roman Catholicism at
least by the 1800s, probably after French Catholic missionaries visited
the area from Lebanon.
Despite difficulty farming
the low arid hills surrounding the town and harassment by the ruling
Ottoman Turks, the Chaldean population grew and the town thrived as a
small market center for Christians, Kurds and nearby Bedouins. But by
1910, economic troubles and government harassment made some leave for
the United States.
"The Turks always treated them
like second-class citizens," Jamil said. "That's why they left."
A small group of Chaldeans came to Detroit after
hearing about auto-industry work and following Lebanese Christians who
had already arrived. From that beginning, a trickle of Tel Kaif
residents began immigrating to Detroit. Whenever the Iraqi political
situation became unstable or drought set in, a few more would leave for
But despite the migration, Tel Kaif
flourished. In 1931, the current church was built. By the 1950s, the
community had reached its peak of 10,000.
Kaif is the one that older Chaldeans in Detroit recall fondly as some of
the best times in their lives. Weddings at the church became village
festivals, with the newlyweds being led by horse to every house for
drinks and gifts. The church was packed for two Masses every day.
Hundreds of children attended Sunday school, and
children who came even a few minutes late to any of the masses or the
classes could expect a crack from the priest's switch. Thousands in the
town made annual pilgrimages to nearby Christian holy sites such as the
monastery of St. George in Mosul or the monastery of St. Matthew, Iraq's
holiest Christian site, up in the mountains.
Max Ortiz / The Detroit
travels slowly down a road in the heart of Tel Kaif. Many tractors
and pull-carts are used in the narrow passages to deliver produce
in the city.
From farms to liquor stores
Though children at the time remember life in Tel
Kaif fondly, their parents sometimes found making a living a struggle.
During poor harvests, the land could not easily support all Tel Kaif's
residents. Sometimes the town was harassed by Kurdish toughs riding into
town and extorting money from the wealthier Chaldeans.
So beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as
immigration restrictions eased in the United States, large numbers of
Chaldeans began moving to Detroit. Others moved south to Iraqi cities
such as Baghdad and Mosul.
In Detroit and Iraq,
they started running small liquor stores and restaurants. In Iraq,
Muslims cannot sell and are not supposed to consume alcohol.
Chaldeans quickly developed the drive and business
skill to become major players in both urban business environments. They
took on businesses few others wanted. Through a combination of tenacity
and long hours, many succeeded.
Chaldean markets filled the void left by major grocery chains that left
the city during the 1967 riots. In Baghdad, Chaldean and Christian shops
filled a void left by Iraqi Jews who had fled to Israel.
Those who got ahead in Metro Detroit looked back
to Tel Kaif and brought family and friends. They sent money to the
remaining villagers. They also sent immigration papers.
More people left, throughout the 1970s and 1980s,
but for those who remained life was not bad. Saddam Hussein, since
seizing full control in 1979, was lenient with many Christians,
including Chaldeans. This leniency served his political ends.
The Christians in the north proved a
counterbalance to Kurdish guerrillas in the mountains. Also, Christians
brought into his circle, such as Deputy Minister Tariq Aziz, proved
extremely loyal because any attempt to seize power by the tiny minority
in Muslim-dominated Iraq would be suicide.
1991, Saddam's Iraq was a stable place for Christians and Chaldeans.
Chaldean businessmen in Detroit traveled frequently back to their home
country, providing cash to relatives still here and investing in various
ventures. Business people brought so many gifts of clothing and other
items from southeast Michigan to Tel Kaif that townspeople jokingly
called it Little Detroit.
Some Chaldeans had no
problem with Saddam's regime, while others, both in Metro Detroit and in
Iraq, grew to hate it.
Then came 1991 and Iraq's
invasion of Kuwait. Today, few Chaldean-Americans are able to visit Tel
Kaif -- the U.S. State Department prohibits most travel to Iraq except
for journalists and those on humanitarian projects.
Travel the other way is difficult, too. But Iraq's
Chaldeans are still leaving for Michigan when they can.
Many fear instability and Kurdish aggression
should Saddam's regime collapse. If the Iraqi army in the north
retreated, Kurdish forces could take Tel Kaif within half an hour.
Father Asa'd Hannona, 32, the second priest at the
Tel Kaif church, knows many Chaldeans want to leave, but he believes the
small community here will survive. He teaches about 13 children here
every day to read and write in Aramaic.
church will be here. It's not going anywhere," he said. "There always
will be some Chaldeans in Tel Kaif."
keeps in close contact with Chaldeans here and visits the village every
few years, doesn't think so.
"In 15 or 20 years,"
he shrugged, "they will all be gone."
You can reach Cameron McWhirter at mailto:email@example.com
Max Ortiz / The Detroit
is still read and written in Tel Kaif by the Christian community.
In Metro Detroit, the language is still