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East Goes West

Middle Eastern Christians keep their heritage alive in Southern California

Leaving behind economic hardship, religious persecution and war – and in many cases family, friends and culture – Middle Eastern Christians have flocked to the United States in increasing numbers over the past three decades.

They have been immigrating to the United States and other Western countries since the late 19th century, but migration has increased as political and economic conditions have deteriorated in their home countries. About a quarter of a million Christians have left Palestine since 1948. Roughly the same number has left Lebanon since the end of its civil war more than a decade ago.

In coming to the United States, Christians from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria bring with them rich traditions they hope to preserve amid the dominant American culture, which their children often absorb.

“I would like to think we will preserve our culture and identity and keep that distinctiveness, but that may be wishful thinking,” says Michael Nahabet, an Armenian who emigrated from Syria more than 20 years ago. “The melting pot is a reality and we do not fight it. I believe we should be integrated and not live in a ghetto. It’s not a resistance, but we want to keep our identity.”

Mr. Nahabet and his wife, Nora, an Armenian from Lebanon, send their two children, Eddie and Natalie, to an Armenian school. They speak mostly Armenian in the home, but Natalie says she mainly speaks English with her brother and her friends.

The Nahabets live in the Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth, not far from another suburb, Glendale, where one in four residents is Armenian. An estimated quarter of a million Armenians – many from the eastern Mediterranean where Armenians have lived since the Middle Ages – live in Southern California. Mr. Nahabet immigrated to the Los Angeles area at age 24 to start a business. He bought a service station, which he operated for 10 years before going into publishing.

Large numbers of Christians – often wealthier, better educated and with more connections to the West than their Muslim neighbors in the Middle East – take advantage of the opportunities available to them in the United States and Europe.

Nader Qumsieh was without work in his native Palestine for more than a year before deciding to bring his family from Beit Sahour, a Christian village adjacent to Bethlehem, to San Diego, where his brother lives.

“There’s no future in Bethlehem,” he says. “No future.”

His children, ages 6, 11 and 14, say they want to go back to Palestine, but he and his wife, Nibeen, know they have a brighter future in their adopted country.

“We’re not sorry we came here,” Mrs. Qumsieh says. “We can see the children have a future here. There are schools and universities for them. We always tell our kids, ‘when you finish college and university, you can work back home if you want to and if the situation is good.’ ”

The Qumsiehs are in touch with their homeland, which has been racked by violence for more than half a century. They talk daily to family via computer and receive shipments of olivewood crafts, which they sell at parishes after Sunday Masses. With the olivewood crafts often comes food they cannot find here: good grape leaves and dried lamb’s milk.

Mrs. Qumsieh cooks traditional Palestinian food every day and does not like the idea of eating in restaurants or fast-food chains. But already her youngest son, Loai, has a taste for pizza and hamburgers. Mrs. Qumsieh insists, however, that her son’s favorite food is the rice she makes with toasted almonds.

The children are adjusting to the culture and making friends. When they first moved to San Diego, the children were home all day. Now, they are out all day, playing football and participating in after-school activities.

For most Middle Eastern Christians, faith, family and food are the centerpieces of the culture they try to preserve.

Mary Ghosn adopted that culture 19 years ago when she married Georges Ghosn, who emigrated from Lebanon in 1976 to escape the civil war that began the year before.

“When I got married, I knew it was an either/or situation,” she says. “We’d either live like a typical American family or live like a typical Middle Eastern family. The thing that struck me most about the Lebanese was their sense of family: the love, the openheartedness, the hospitality. I made up my mind that the best way of life was my husband’s way.”

The Ghosns’ house, just outside San Diego, is always open to extended family, with people coming in and out seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And Mrs. Ghosn loves that. Her mother-in-law, who lives a few blocks away, often helps with dinner, and her father-in-law recently helped his grandsons build a fountain and shrine to the Blessed Mother in their backyard.

Raised Roman Catholic, Mrs. Ghosn is now a member of the Maronite Catholic Church. Her family life, she says, revolves around their parish.

“My first taste of a Maronite Mass, I cannot tell you,” she says, searching for words. “The memory is still in my mind: the beauty, the reverence, the hymns, the incense and the vestments. It was the most beautiful Mass I could ever remember. I was hooked.”

Mrs. Ghosn teaches at St. Ephrem Maronite Academy, a 49-student, K-12 school that four of her five sons attend. For three years, they made the 45-minute commute seven days a week to the school and adjacent church in El Cajon, east of San Diego. Now, they have bought a house in the area, just a few minutes from the school and church.

They say others are doing the same thing. “We’re trying to create a village, because that’s how it is in Lebanon,” Mr. Ghosn says. “The church is the center of the village. People here are buying houses around the church.”

The eldest Ghosn son, Nicolas, attends a community college and after just two months there, he says he has found a circle of Lebanese friends – some Christian, some Muslim – with whom he hangs out.

“Sometimes it is the nose, sometimes it is the name, but you can generally spot a fellow Lebanese from a mile away,” Mrs. Ghosn says with a laugh.

St. Ephrem Academy attracts not only Maronite families, but also Chaldeans and Roman Catholics. Keith Esshaki, an Iraqi emigrant, sends his three children, Mary, Miriam and Simon, to the school. To him it contains the best of both worlds: a traditional Catholic education with an Eastern perspective.

Mr. Esshaki and his wife, Amy, immigrated with their families in the late 1970’s. Mr. Esshaki’s father worked for the Iraqi government and told Keith back then that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein “was up to no good.”

“We feel more comfortable in the West than in predominantly Muslim countries, where there is a lot of subtle discrimination,” he says.

In the United States, the Chaldeans stay together, with the largest concentrations near Detroit and San Diego. Chaldeans began arriving in San Diego in the 1950’s, according to Father Michael J. Bazzi, rector of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral. Most of his parishioners, he says, have immigrated during the last 20 years, since the beginning of the brutal Iran-Iraq war.

Founded as a parish in 1974, St. Peter’s was designated a cathedral in 2002 when the Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle, covering the western United States, was carved out of the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle, which is based in Southfield, Michigan, and now covers the eastern and central parts of the country.

Many of the Chaldeans in San Diego trace their roots to a farming village 10 miles north of Mosul, Iraq, according to Father Bazzi, who has shepherded the El Cajon parish for almost 20 years. They are drawn to San Diego by the temperate climate, which is similar to northern Iraq.

The rest of San Diego’s Chaldeans come from all over Iraq. Mr. Esshaki, who serves as a subdeacon at St. Peter’s, is from Baghdad; most of his family now lives in the El Cajon area.

The Esshakis spend many evenings with their extended family – aunts, uncles and cousins – and they expect their children to stay in the community when they start their own families.

“When my daughters get married and buy a house, they’ll buy it in El Cajon,” Mr. Esshaki says. “We’re very close.”

Mary, the elder daughter, agrees. She says she would consider living in Detroit, another magnet for Arab immigrants, because she likes snow, but she cannot imagine living outside a Chaldean community. The estimated 1.2-3.5 million Arabs living in the United States – the majority of whom identify themselves as Christians – often live in clusters, with one-third of the total population in just three states: California, Michigan and New York.

Mr. and Mrs. Esshaki work hard to instill their values – primarily their faith – in their children. They pray the rosary nightly as a family and are active in their parish. Passing the faith to a new generation is a full-time job, one that other parents do not take as seriously, Mr. Esshaki says.

“They want their children to share their values, but they don’t put time into it,” he says. “When the kids become teenagers, the parents are shocked.”

Maggie Calis, 31 and newly married, is part of a younger generation of Iraqi immigrants. Born in Baghdad, she left Iraq with her family before her first birthday. Her mother was a medical doctor; the pressures of her practicing medicine in a male-dominated society brought the family first to Australia, then San Francisco and finally San Diego in 1988.

Mrs. Calis’s father is an active member of St. Michael Chaldean Catholic Church in El Cajon.

“Religion is huge in our family,” Mrs. Calis says. “There’s no way I could have married my husband if he wasn’t Catholic.”

Mrs. Calis and her husband, Suhail, a Palestinian who has lived in Jordan, Qatar, Great Britain and now Pasadena, preserve their Arab traditions, though more subtly than their parents. They cook Arab food, watch Al-Jazeera news daily and will bring up their children similarly to how they were reared.

“It’s important they speak Arabic,” Mr. Calis says. “You inherit a lot of the culture by speaking the language. And dating? There will be no dating in high school.”

“We’re very much on the same page,” Mrs. Calis says. They also agree they will be much more open talking about sex and dating than their parents were.

“Growing up, you didn’t talk about boys,” Mrs. Calis says, recalling how she never brought boyfriends home. “We were 27 when we met and he wanted to meet my parents. I said, ‘You can’t!’ ”

Also unlike their parents, the Calises agree they want to expose their children to a variety of cultures.

Will they ever go back to the lands of their birth? The Calises and most other families agree: While they long to visit their homelands, they most likely will not go back to live.

Mr. Ghosn says his heart is in Lebanon, where he would like to be buried.

“If I didn’t have my family here, I wouldn’t still be here,” he says. “But everyone is here now, and that’s what’s important.

“I can’t just leave everyone,” he adds with a laugh. “That wouldn’t be charitable.”

Issam Bishara, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, says Arabs in America are unlikely to return to the Middle East any time soon.

After the attacks of September 11, and the struggle against terrorism, which is focused mainly on the Middle East, the political and economic conditions there are not expected to improve, he said.

In Lebanon, he adds, fewer job opportunities are available every year, and many businesses are closing, leaving hundreds of breadwinners without any income. All these factors are encouraging young people and fresh graduates to seek job opportunities outside the country.

Diminished opportunities in Egypt, as well as religious discrimination, have also spurred large numbers of Coptic Christians to immigrate to the United States since the mid-1950’s.

A change in U.S. immigration laws in the 1960’s, which created a preference for those applicants escaping persecution at home, only increased the rate of immigration for Copts, whose community of 6-10 million members has long been marginalized by Egypt’s Muslim majority.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 Copts live in Southern California, according to Dr. Elhamy Khalil, an Egyptian emigrant active in the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii. With its first parishes established in the 1960’s, the Coptic Orthodox Church now counts more than two dozen parishes in Southern California.

Mr. Bishara says that as long as relations between Muslims and Christians remain tense in Egypt, Copts will continue to emigrate in large numbers.

Mill Hill Father Guido Gockel, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Palestine, Israel and Cyprus, says that while peace prospects in 1993 with the Oslo Accords brought some Palestinians back to the Middle East, few now return.

“There will always be emigration as long as the Christians aren’t able to maintain their advantageous social and economic position,” he says.

Christians leaving the area in large numbers is not helping the political situation in the Middle East, especially in Palestine, says Msgr. Robert L. Stern, CNEWA’s Secretary General.

“Even though they’re a tiny minority, they’re a bridge,” he says. “Christians bring different perspectives on political and religious freedom.”

Unless the situation in the Middle East changes drastically, it appears that Christians from the Middle East will continue immigrating to Southern California, seeking political stability, religious freedom and greater economic opportunities.

And most will be joining family and friends already there, because, as Mr. Nahabet says, “If you’re away from sight, you’re away from heart.”

Vincent Gragnani is a staff writer for The Southern Cross, the newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of San Diego.

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