Washington Post reporter Abigail Hauslohner visited “El Cajon, Calif., a predominantly working-class San Diego suburb with a large and growing Middle Eastern immigrant community, to explore the ever-contentious topic of what it means to be American, in the wake of President Trump’s recent efforts to redefine who belongs in this country and who doesn’t.”
A city of 104,000 just east of San Diego, El Cajon is home to one of the largest Arabic- and Chaldean-speaking populations in the country. Since the 1980s, the city has welcomed Chaldeans, members of Iraq’s Christian minority, who every Sunday pack the pews of three local churches, where services are conducted entirely in their native language.
Amir Bajelori, who arrived in El Cajon 20 years ago, takes a practical approach when he counsels his growing flock of Syrian and Iraqi refugees who pray at the Kurdish Community Islamic Center.
“You can practice your religion here, but some other things that you do at home [in Iraq or Syria] are not allowed here,” he said he told them during a recent sermon, “like raising your voice, putting too many kids in a car, driving without a license.”
Some of the new arrivals are offended to see U.S. women wearing revealing clothing or are upset by the presence of dogs in their apartment buildings, animals often considered unclean by practicing Muslims. But he tells them to deal with it.
“You have to respect them,” Bajelori says; in the United States, people have the right to be different.
One man who immigrated in 1968 “immediately found a job on the assembly line at Chrysler, worked his way out of debt, graduated from college, raised a family and became a successful entrepreneur, now living in El Cajon, where he runs a legal aide service. He votes Republican. For him the essence of America is access to equal rights and free speech — “freedom, stability, feeling comfortable,” he said. The first time he truly felt like an American was in 1974 — the year he became a citizen — when he saw a police officer reprimanded for discrimination after he had complained about mistreatment.