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Iraqi-Americans in the Detroit area struggle with the extinction of their religious roots
I had not seen her in over 20 years but when I came across her sitting at a table in the ballroom I immediately knew it was Mrs. N. The mother of a grade school friend, Mrs. N used to prepare food for us that was simultaneously exotic to my child’s palate, yet also quite comforting. Back then I knew that Pierre, my young friend, and his family were Chaldean; I could say the word but I did not fathom the civilization, history and culture contained therein. The family had come to the U.S. from Iraq in the early seventies and, like many other Arabs of both Muslim and Christian faiths, settled in the vicinity of Detroit, Michigan.
She looked the same, save that her black hair had turned almost completely white. After introducing myself, I reminded her that I had attended grade school with her son Pierre, who I had not seen for four years. She smiled graciously and apologized that her son, who still lived and worked in the Detroit area, could not attend the dinner that evening. She spoke with a thick accent, and as soon as I heard her voice I was 7 years old again, sitting on the carpet in the living room of her house, playing a board game with her son. She seemed sad, and as we talked it became apparent that being at this fundraiser for suffering people in her homeland brought several memories flooding back to her as well—memories of the Iraq of her youth. “It was such a beautiful country,” she exclaimed, “and now, look what has happened.” She knew the brutal truth that the Iraq in her memories held no similarities to present day Iraq in its war-torn state.
The Detroit metro area boasts the largest population of Arabic people outside of the Middle East. Much of the media focus in recent years has been on the Muslim Arabic population, especially those from Iraq. Shiites, Sunnis and even Kurds are well known to many Americans. Very little, however, is spoken about the Chaldeans, the Iraqi Christians, who are a rapidly decreasing and oppressed minority in Iraq.
The Chaldean Federation of America (CFA) is working to change the harsh fate of Iraqi Christians. Based in suburban Detroit, the CFA recently celebrated its 25th anniversary at a formal dinner event with a guest list that included two U.S. Senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, a Chaldean bishop, the mayor of Tekeif, Iraq, and several local dignitaries. My girlfriend was invited to the event because of her involvement in social justice ministries and I was glad to accompany her, knowing that the food and hospitality would be exquisite. What I did not realize at the time, though, was that two surprises would greet me at this event—one very welcome and one very unpleasant.
The speakers we heard that evening echoed Mrs. N’s sadness and disgust at the condition of their country, but especially expressed their great concern for the rapidly diminishing Chaldean community. One speaker, a member of the CFA Committee for Immigration and Refugees, announced the numbing statistic that half of Iraq’s 1.2 million Christians had fled the country as refugees since the war in Iraq started in 2003. At this rate, he continued, there will be no Christians in Iraq by 2010. Many of these Iraqi Christian refugees are denied admission to the United States as its borders tighten in response to the fear of terrorism.
As if these statistics were not disturbing enough, we also heard from Fr. Basel Yaldo, a young Chaldean priest who was kidnapped by terrorists in Iraq and released 3 days later. Fr. Yaldo’s experience was harrowing, but he is one of the luckier ones. Thousands of Iraqi Christians are being driven out of their country, forced to leave their homes, forced to split up their families and flee with fear in their hearts. Still thousands of others—Chaldean Americans, strain to seek ways to help their relatives, friends, and loved ones who remained living in the homeland, once a “cradle of civilization” and now a desolate war zone. Mrs. N’s eldest son Dave, who was present at the dinner and is a very active member of the CFA, made a very poignant observation about the situation in Iraq: “I think that it is an absolute disaster and a tragic irony that, as a result of the United States attempting to combat Islamic terrorism in Iraq, the world may very well be witnessing the demise and extinction…in Iraq of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, that traces its origins to the days of St. Thomas the Apostle from the 1st century AD.”
I was pleased to see Mrs. N again after so many years, but it was impossible not to be disturbed by the need for the event that brought us together. I wanted to give her some comfort, to show her hospitality and care as she had done for me many years prior. But how do you console someone who must daily witness her adopted homeland slowly decimate the land of her birth?