English Feature #7-37377 Broadcast April 21, 2003
Although the vast majority of the people of Iraq are Muslims, a percentage of the population of the country – about three and a half percent – is Christian. In the last ten years quite a number of these Christians, or Chaldeans, as they are known, fled the repression of Saddam Hussein’s regime and immigrated to the United States. Today on New American Voices the editor of a Chaldean newspaper based in California speaks about the life of the Chaldean community in Iraq, and here.
The Chaldeans are members of the Roman Catholic Church and, like other Catholics, yesterday they celebrated Easter. Ghassan Hanna, editor-in-chief of the newspaper The Chaldean Nation, says that for those Chaldeans who are refugees from Iraq, this Easter had a special dimension.
“We hope that this is a new Easter where in Iraq religious freedom becomes known, rather than as it has been now for centuries. We hope that our churches will prosper in Iraq and our religion be allowed to be practiced. We hope that the Mass will be allowed to be broadcast through the Iraqi radio. When that happens, then we believe that a new dawn has shined on Iraq.”
The first Chaldeans immigrated to the United States from small ancestral towns in Northern Iraq at the end of the 19th century. They settled mostly in the Detroit area in the mid-western state of Michigan. Others went to San Diego in California. The large numbers of Chaldeans who came to this country as refugees after the first war with Iraq in 1991 gravitated to the areas where their compatriots already lived. Today there are close to 150,000 Chaldeans in the United States, 100,000 in the Detroit area, 20 to 30 thousand in California, and others scattered throughout the United States.
“Moving to the United States gave the Chaldeans a new sense of identity. I mean our identity has been bombarded under the regime of Saddam Hussein, whether it has been bombarded through the razing of our villages there, or through the campaign of Arabization, where the Saddam government and the Iraqi constitution did not recognize the Chaldeans as a distinct ethnic group, despite the fact that our language our culture our history has nothing to do with Arabs, that we’re descendants of the native people of Mesopotamia, and our language is different, and our culture is different, plus our religion as Christians is different, it sets us apart.”
In Iraq, Mr. Hanna says, the Chaldeans were discriminated against not only politically but economically as well. As low men on the economic totem pole they were not offered the government contracts or state support that was reserved for Muslims and Arabs. So, Mr. Hanna says, they generally went into services, or opened small businesses in remote areas. In America, it was different.
“Here we are treated on equal terms, as far as we’re concerned, so from that perspective our people here enjoy and they have proven themselves to be the wealthiest and most dynamic Middle Eastern community. I think as far as wealth is concerned, there are estimates that there are up to two thousand Chaldeans who are millionaires.”
Ghassan Hanna says that while many Chaldeans here also go into business, from opening small grocery stores to investing in large enterprises worth many millions of dollars, they are well represented in all walks of life. Their dynamism and their wealth give them a high profile in those areas where they have settled.
“In the Detroit, Michigan area, the Chaldean community has an excellent relationship with everybody there. I mean, the Michigan governor always attends yearly parties or celebrations of the Chaldean community, with the senators, with the congressmen. So they are very, very well known, and there are lots of Chaldeans involved in the political process there, working with the state of Michigan. And the same thing happened in San Diego. There is a lot of activities, a lot of people, and we are well known.”
Mr. Hanna attributes the Chaldeans’s success in the United States to their habit of hard work – a result of the hardships they faced back in their native Iraq.
“We’re hard workers, I mean we’re very good, hard workers. People are willing to spend hours and hours in their businesses. Maybe throughout the history of the Iraqi discrimination, Chaldeans had to prove and double prove to escape the discrimination, to face all the hurdles that were put in front of them by Iraqi Muslims and Arab Muslim society. They had to double their efforts to make a living. They had to work really hard for their living. They wouldn’t get it any other way. Using that same amount of effort in the United States, and the feeling that here they can really have their dreams come true, the same amount of work and even doubling it really pushed them to where they are now.”
Ghassan Hanna himself escaped from Iraq in 1979. As a student activist he was beaten by Saddam Hussein’s thugs, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. After four years in England he came to the United States to continue graduate studies in electrical engineering. But his political activism and his interest in the history of his people led him to journalism.
“Now in the United States I can write about my people, I can talk about our history. Just to give you an idea. A lot of our Chaldean people, due to the repression there, due to the campaign of attempting to deny our existence, a lot of our people are themselves not aware of their own history. Fear has a magic hold over the Chaldean people of being involved in politics over the years of the regime of Saddam, so that was a vacuum that needed to be filled. That yes, maybe economically we are improving, but we have to set ourselves free of the fear that was instilled in us by centuries of discriminatory practices, and more recently by the cruel regime of Saddam Hussein.”
Accordingly, the newspaper Mr. Hanna edits concentrates on such issues as Chaldean ethnic rights, cultural heritage, and the Chaldeans’ political aspirations.
Photos Courtesy of Chaldeans On Line