Chaldeans desert Iraq for promise of Metro Detroit - 10/28/02

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Monday, October 28, 2002

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Copyright 2002
The Detroit News.

Use of this site indicates your agreement to the Terms of Service (updated 08/09/2001).

Max Ortiz / The Detroit News

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.

Chaldeans desert Iraq for promise of Metro Detroit
Of those in area, most had relatives in Tel Kaif

By Cameron McWhirter / The Detroit News

Max Ortiz / The Detroit News

These women are among the few who still attend Mass at the Sacred Heart Chaldean church.
Previous reports
Go Iraq's precious relics decimated by thieves
Go Iraqi voters must support Saddam or risk death
Go Detroiter works for Iraq peace
Go Bloody purges, religious strife mark history of modern Iraq
Go How control of Iraq has changed over 200 years
Go Fear, anger grip Iraqis as talk of war escalates
Go Ethnic, religious and tribal tensions slice through society
Go 'Love Saddam,' media preaches
Go A long, bloody history

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   TEL 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.
   The church's head priest, Lucien Jamil, estimates today that he has about 2,000 parishioners. Most of the town now are other Christians or Muslims.
   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 further.
   "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.
   A few 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.
   But unlike 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 urgent.
   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 of it.
   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.
   Samir 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.
   "I'll 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 business."

Ancient beginnings
   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.
   Today, 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 Detroit.
Golden age
   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.
   This Tel 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 News

A tractor 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.
   In Detroit, 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.
   Before 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.
   "The church will be here. It's not going anywhere," he said. "There always will be some Chaldeans in Tel Kaif."
   Simaan, who 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

Max Ortiz / The Detroit News

Aramaic script is still read and written in Tel Kaif by the Christian community. In Metro Detroit, the language is still spoken.