Chaldeans travel underground railroad to El Cajon

Iraqi Christians hope for a better life in San Diego
Fadi Hirmiz near the San Ysidro border crossing. At home in Iraq, "I was afraid for my family, for our kids." (credit: Alejandro Tamayo, from August 22 U-T article)

Fadi Hirmiz near the San Ysidro border crossing. At home in Iraq, “I was afraid for my family, for our kids.” (credit: Alejandro Tamayo, from August 22 U-T article)

The following comes from an August 22 San Diego Union-Tribune article by Peter Rowe and Tatiana Sanchez:

Last summer, as ISIS fighters swept toward his home in northern Iraq, slaughtering “infidels” and demolishing their communities, Fadi Hirmiz grew frantic.

“ISIS was getting closer and closer to our village,” Hirmiz said through an interpreter. “I was afraid for my family, for our kids.”

A 38-year-old Chaldean Catholic, Hirmiz was trapped in the sectarian crossfire ravaging Iraq. The Shia Muslims leading Baghdad’s central government and army seemed deaf to his pleas. And this Christian knew the Sunni-led ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, would be worse, demanding that he, his wife and two children convert to Islam or die under the sword.

Poor and illiterate, Hirmiz could think of only one place to turn: El Cajon.

“My wife’s cousin is a friend of Mark Arabo,” Hirmiz said, citing a prominent East County Chaldean. “That’s how we got help.”

Today in El Cajon’s 60,000-plus Chaldean population — after Detroit, the second largest concentration in the United States — there’s a palpable sense of panic. While these refugees have found a safe haven here, the friends or relatives they left behind in Iraq now face what one man calls “a Christian genocide.”

That man is Mark Arabo, president and CEO of the Neighborhood Market Association, which represents dozens of independent retail stores, most of them owned by ethnic Chaldeans.

Barrack Obama and Mark Arabo. Arabo said that “Obama is failing on this issue completely”.

Barrack Obama and Mark Arabo. Arabo said that “Obama is failing on this issue completely.” (photo: twitter)

Born and raised in East County, Arabo is a first generation Iraqi-American. Yet this 32-year-old retains an immigrant’s stereotypical drive. Impeccably groomed and tailored, he has a Beltway politician’s polish and a true believer’s passion. He’s like a preacher whose fire and brimstone sermons can make his own congregation nervous.

He blasts Washington politicians — including those who have received his campaign donations — for their “apathetic and pathetic” response to this crisis.

“Obama is failing on this issue completely,” he said. “Our Congress is turning a blind eye to a full-blown genocide.”

Growing impatient, last year Arabo founded the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, a nonprofit that supports Chaldeans and other persecuted religious minorities — and, he said, runs an “underground railroad” that transports Iraqi refugees into San Diego.

While Arabo would not reveal details of his operation, Hirmiz said his family’s escape was engineered by the El Cajon resident. Their journey began on Aug. 15, 2014, when they boarded a truck in their northern Iraqi village, Batnaya, and rode to the Turkish frontier. There, a contact supplied them with a packet of plane tickets — from Turkey to a European hub, Europe to Mexico City, Mexico City to Tijuana.

Hirmiz and his fellow travelers fly into Mexico, Arabo said, because the U.S. demands visas of foreign travelers. His refugees lack those documents.

“This has to do with the flexibility of Mexican officials,” he said, “and the inflexibility of the American officials.”

Religious minorities, including Iraq's Yazidis and Chaldean Catholics, have been targeted by Islamic State. (photo: Reuters)

Religious minorities, including Iraq’s Yazidis and Chaldean Catholics, have been targeted by Islamic State. (photo: Reuters)

After a night on the border, Hirmiz and his family entered the United States at San Ysidro on Sept. 1. Their request for asylum is still under review.

“We believe this country has freedom,” Hirmiz said. “We want to practice this freedom.”

Arabo insists his makeshift, freelance operation is necessary: “The underground railroad wasn’t our first choice. It was our last choice.”

Others are skeptical. Critics within the local Chaldean community note that these expensive journeys — the estimated cost for a family of four: $25,000 — rely on a shadowy network of anonymous guides.

Others cite the 27 Chaldeans now in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Otay Mesa. To date, 15 have been ordered deported and five face criminal charges for entering the U.S. under false pretenses. Several had been granted asylum in other countries. Others were using aliases, a red flag when terrorists have vowed to attack America.

“It’s just a very huge national security concern for the agency,” said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for ICE. “We are doing our due diligence to ensure that anyone who gets admitted to the country on any kind of visa, that we have their true identity.

In 2004, the year after American forces had ousted Hussein, only 66 would-be Iraqi refugees arrived in the U.S. By 2013, with the Islamic State group on the rise, the number had grown to 19,487.

Martin Shamasha, who took his wife and three children out of Iraq in 2012, said life in their homeland had become unbearable. Running his village’s liquor store, he received death threats from militant Islamists.

“I used to think about what they were going to do to my wife and children,” he said through a translator. “My only option was to leave.”

In interviews with local Chaldeans, a persistent theme is the lawlessness of Iraqi society. Even before the Islamic State’s 2014 campaign in northern Iraq and Syria, al-Qaeda sympathizers and others attacked residents for perceived infractions of Sharia law.

Sanaa Jibrael’s adult son, who worked as a barber near Baghdad, feared for his life in 2010. His crime?

“He was making American hairstyles,” she recalled, “and they didn’t like that. They threatened him.”

Walking in Baghdad, Salam Qassyounan heard an imam’s sermon broadcast in the streets.

“He was announcing, ‘Don’t buy anything from Christian. We will take all these things without money. Don’t live with them. Don’t respect them,’” the Chaldean recalled.

A U.S. Border Patrol officer sits in his Jeep March 1 to monitor the border fence between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Ysidro, Calif. While politicians and advocacy organizations work at coming up with legislation to reform the U.S. immigration system, the J esuits are tackling some of its problems head on at the Mexican border, in higher education institutions and in parishes. (CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters)

A U.S. Border Patrol officer sits in his Jeep March 1 to monitor the border fence between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Ysidro, California. (CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters)

Soon after, he took refuge in Sweden. Unable to take his wife and children there, he eventually obtained a U.S. visa and followed his family to El Cajon.

“I feel I am now human,” he said. “We Christians are not humans in our country. Not just Christians — even the Yazidi.”

With the rise of the Islamic State, non-Muslims feel even more threatened. In Christian towns captured by the terrorist group, girls have been kidnapped and men executed. Last week, The New York Times reported on the systematic rape of non-Muslim women by Islamic State fighters, who tell their victims that these crimes are sanctioned by Allah.

Still, she deplores the “underground railroad.” While praising Arabo — “I know his work and it is very much appreciated in the community” — Coda worries about immigrants who trek halfway around the world without official sanction or support.

“That’s not the right way,” she said. “The right way is to advocate for people.”

Similar arguments are heard in Washington. Arabo flew to the capital in June 2014 and again last month, meeting with White House and State Department officials and members of Congress. He carried a thick binder stuffed with 70,000 applications. Each, he said, had proper identification and sponsors in the United States.

Each, he said, could be saved with a U.S. visa — a document now impossible to obtain in Iraq.
“Our embassies are closed, they are not processing,” Arabo said. “And the U.N. is dysfunctional on this issue.”

While Arabo received a sympathetic hearing from both Democrats and Republicans, he faces hurdles.

“There is definitely consensus that we should strive to save any person from the atrocities of ISIS and that involves attacking ISIS as much as it does supporting a range of diplomatic options,” said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, the Republican whose district includes El Cajon. “But also it’s important that the Chaldean cause isn’t hurt as a result of a systemic pattern of falsification or certain methods of attempted entry.”

Arabo said the 27 Chaldeans now in custody were not passengers on his “underground railroad.” There may be some fraudulent cases, he noted, but huge numbers of worthy Chaldeans, Assyrian Catholics, Yazidis and others are in need. Last week, the International Organization for Migration calculated the number of displaced Iraqis at 3.1 million.


  1. Because America has a Moslem president, he has made sure that no help will be given to the Christians of the Middle East. The media hardly covers this persecution, BUT when the Moslems were threatened in Kosovo, we as well as much of Europe fought against the Orthodox Christians. It is about time Christians stick together and unite against radical Islam. But then, we won’t until it is too late.

    • Pilar, President Obama is an avowed Christian, not a Muslim.

      • President Obama is a liar, and mocks Sacred Scripture including the words of Christ – the beatitudes. (I don’t know what he is, but he is not a Christian.)
        Here is the proof in his own words.
        “Barack Obama Mocks And Makes Fun Of The Bible—No Christian Would Do This”

      • When OBAMA mocks Sacred Scripture – remember this –

        CCC: ” 133 The Church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures.
        Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

      • Nonsense Bob One, he is not an avowed Christian and he certainly favors Islam and he has no problem watching the a genocide of Christians unfold before his eyes. I cannot wait for this evil man to leave office…

    • Your Fellow Catholic says:

      President Obama is hated in much of the Muslim world because of the incessant drone strikes that to this day kill not only terrorists, but the civilians around them.

  2. The Chaldeans and other refugees should stay and fight for their homeland and their way of life. The USA should have a very limited role in the war against ISIS. Stop running away and start fighting. The USA and the West cannot accommodate all of the refugees.

  3. And Patrick, what would they fight with? How could they take on ISIS? The U.S army and air force can’t beat them. A few of these people won’t cause much of a dent in our economy. How about all the people fleeing to Europe to get away from ISIS. Over 80,000 people have entered Europe in the last month as political refugees; women and children who will not be stopped in their quest for freedom. Why can’t we accommodate all the refugees? Because it will reduce our riches? The Church teaches that we are to welcome the immigrant!.

    • CCC: ” 2241 The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.
      Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to
      various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. ……… “

    • Bob One, you asked “Why can’t we accommodate ALL the refugees”? –
      1) Because there are not enough jobs in the USA for American citizens – the false figures put out by the Obama Administration do not count those millions who quit looking for work due to frustration, or can only find part time work;
      2) Because the USA is in grave debt at the Federal Level, State levels, and City/County levels – and we are required to pay our debts. CCC 2411.
      Yes, we can accommodate LEGAL Immigrants. We can NOT accommodate ILLEGAL Immigrants. And the ILLEGALS are spoiling it for those who are trying to do the right thing – by cutting to the head of the line.

    • Bob One you have no problem spending other peoples money.. Europe should allow ONLY Christian refugees Muslims should be forced to return to their homelands. Islam and the West are incompatible

      • ” The Church teaches that we are to welcome the immigrant!.” Tell that to residents of Minnesota or Maine where they are being forced to accept Somali refugees those wonderful people who are forming terrorist cells right here in US.

      • Canisius, I agree that the extremist Muslims are incompatible with the values and culture of the west. When they come to the west they should learn the language, become citizens and learn to live in our culture. We would have to do that if we moved to their countries. Except, of course ISIS where they kill Christians for no reason.

  4. Continued – – – –
    CCC 2241 “……. Immigrants are OBLIGED to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them,
    to OBEY its LAWS
    and to ASSIST in carrying civic burdens. “

  5. Obama was a disciple of Rev. Wright, and the pseudo Christianity of that church has God on the back burner. The Obamas do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, but always make sure to honor the Moslem holidays. If Obama is a Christian, he joined the church just so he could get ahead politically. It is the Alinski technique.

  6. Michael McDermott says:

    POTUS Barry ‘on the down low’ Soetoro / Marshall Davis / ObamAcorn… Whoever the guy really is, showed his ‘respect’ for Religion in the choice of ‘spiritual advisor’ of the ‘Reverend’ G.D.A. Wright.

    Although the ObamAcorns dumped Wright when he became a media problem with the ‘Vanilla’ (clueless “Stupid American Voters” as the ObamAcorns refer to them) his own Hatred towards any Religion that does not first and foremost pander to his Down Low Gaystapo Agenda – says all you need to know about his ‘concern’ for persecution – of the Rong Believers…

    – versus his solidarity with his properly skin toned comrades in the struggle to Fundamentally Trash Amerika.

  7. Guerrilla forces are very effective. ISIS operates as such. The Chaldeans can learn from the Vietnameese who defeated the US war effort with simple tactics and perserverance. It is a matter of logic that the U.S. and the West cannot accommodate all of these refugees. Perhaps the very wealthy Saudis can take them on.

  8. I live in El Cajon. The influx of these refugees has not been without problems.

  9. Hitler was more of a practicing Catholic than Obama is a practicing Christian.

  10. The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains both Infallible and Non-Infallible teachings. One of the co-authors, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger stated this in his book INTRODUCTION TO THE CATECHISM “Thus the Catechism presents the teaching of the Church without elevating the doctrinal status of those teachings beyond what they otherwise have. Consequently, one must look to other documents and to the tradition of the Church to establish the doctrinal weight of any particular point in the Catechism. Since the Catechism treats many things that not only have not been taught infallibly but which also have been proposed in the most tentative of fashions (esp. in the area of social teaching), there remains due liberty for theologians (and others)…

  11. Obama is a monster. He is silent on the killing of these Christians, but stands up for thugs who riot in American streets. He is quiet on the murder of innocent policemen, but very vocal on climate change. Diabolical Disorientation at its finest. Ave Maria Purrissima !

  12. Obama the presidiot is no Christian, not when he votes in the Illinois legistlature to murder aborted babies that haven’t died yet. Sound like an insane Planned Parenthood Nazi experimenter to you? Actions speak louder than words. National Prayer Day has been honored by Obama only for Muslim’s not Christians. Like Wild Bill Clinton who led our USAF in bombing the Christians to protect the Muslims in Serbia, Obama does nothing to protect Christians in the middle-east. Obama criticizes and has abused the government of Israel and Russia. There is no doubt in my mind, Obama wants to destroy our nation, deceiving the naïve whenever he can. He and Eric Holder have been behind the racial bigotry and the unlawfulness and killings of…

  13. Meanwhile, I welcome the Catholic refugees from the middle-east here in our country, but we must carefully screen to ensure they are not infiltrated with Islamic terrorists trying to deceivingly appear as Christians. Believing that our country can’t support all of these Catholic refugees, other countries in our western hemisphere need to help to taking in these refugees. Let the evil muslims kill the evil muslims. Like our Lord said, let the dead bury the dead.

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COMMENTS POLICY: Comments are limited to 750 characters and will be truncated at 750. Comments should not contain offensive or libelous language. Please strive to be civil. All comments are subject to approval by our moderator and to editing as the moderator deems appropriate. Inclusion of your email address is optional.