by Mary C. Sengstock
Chaldean Americans are descendants of people from the northern Tigris-Euphrates Valley, presently located in the Middle Eastern nation of Iraq. The majority of Chaldean Americans live in Detroit, Michigan, although there are also Chaldean Americans in Chicago, Illinois; El Cajon, San Jose, and Turlock, California; and Oaxaca, Mexico. It is difficult to determine the exact number of Chaldeans in the United States because they are not represented as such in the U.S. Census. According to statistical projections from previous data on the Chaldean American community, however, it is estimated that Chaldeans in the Detroit metropolitan area may number as many as 70,000 to 80,000; in California they are projected at 2,000 to 3,000 persons.
Although Chaldean Americans constitute the bulk of Iraqi immigrants living in the United States, they represent less than 10 percent of the population of Iraq. While the vast majority of Iraqis, like residents of other Arabic nations, are Muslim, Chaldeans are Roman Catholic, and practice one of the 18 to 20 separate rites of the Catholic Church. They also differ from other Iraqis in that their ancestral language is not Arabic but a dialect of Aramaic, also referred to as Chaldean, Assyrian, or Syriac. As a result of their religious and linguistic differences from other Iraqi immigrants, Chaldeans tend not to identify themselves either with Iraq or the Arab world, but prefer being called Chaldean Americans.
Chaldean Americans are a highly religious people proud of their Christian heritage. According to legend, they were converted to Christianity by the Apostle Thomas on one of his missionary journeys to the East. (St. Addai, an associate of Thomas, is revered as a Chaldean patron.) In the third century, they were followers of Nestorius, a patriarch of Constantinople who was declared a heretic by the Roman Church for teaching that Jesus Christ was not concurrently God and man. This division between the followers of Nestorius in the East and the Roman Church lasted until 1445, when some Chaldeans were received into the Roman Church by Pope Eugenius IV. They were permitted to retain their historic rituals and the Chaldean/Aramaic language for mass and other ceremonies. Searching for an appropriate name to call this new Catholic rite, the Pope focused on their historic homeland, which in ancient times had been the land of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Chaldeans. It was also the historic homeland of the prophet Abraham, who came from Ur, a city of the Chaldeans. Hence, the Pope chose "Chaldean" as the name for the new Catholic rite.
Over 95 percent of Chaldeans in the Detroit community can trace their origin to a single town, Telkaif, which is one of several Christian towns in the northern Iraqi province of Mosul, near the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh. Some of the earliest members of Detroit's Chaldean American community recall hearing stories from their grandparents about the conversion of their town from Nestorianism. This occurred in about 1830, when the town recognized the Roman Pontiff as the head of the Church.
While Chaldeans are believed to have immigrated to the United States as early as 1889, the first significant migration wave did not occur until around 1910, when Chaldeans began settling in metropolitan Detroit. At the time, Detroit was popular among a number of immigrant groups because of the growing automobile industry. It also had an established Middle Eastern community during this period, consisting primarily of Christian immigrants from Lebanon.
In 1943 community sources listed 908 Chaldeans in the Detroit area; by 1963, this number had tripled, to about 3,000 persons. An even greater number of Iraqi citizens immigrated to the United States due to changes in U.S. immigration laws during the mid-1960s, and growth in Detroit's Chaldean American community became even more dramatic, increasing to about 45,000 in 1986, and approximately 75,000 by 1992. (These figures are based on the statistical projections and estimates of Chaldean American community leaders.) This period also saw an increase in immigration to other parts of the country, particularly California.
The majority of Chaldean Americans left their homeland for economic and religious reasons. Telkaif in the early 1900s was a poor, non-industrialized village. Many left the town for nearby cities such as Mosul, Baghdad, Basra, or Beirut. Only later did some of them decide to migrate to the United States, or simply to North America. At the time the earliest settlers came, the United States had not yet introduced restriction on immigration, making entry relatively easy. Migration at that time was largely a male phenomenon; women and children generally stayed behind until their husbands, fathers, and brothers became established.
Chaldeans also fled their homeland to escape religious persecution from the Muslim majority in the Middle East. The combination of religious freedom, an established Lebanese Moronite community, and economic opportunity made the United States, particularly metropolitan Detroit, inviting. Once members of the Telkaif community had settled in the area, they encouraged others from their homeland to join them. Thus began an immigration process, known as "chain migration," between Telkaif and Detroit, that continues to the present.
In this process, members of a community who have already established themselves in a new location assist relatives and friends left behind to migrate as well. The assistance they provide can take many forms, including the provision of jobs, a place to stay, or, at the very least, information and advisement. Close relatives may even provide money for passage. In a typical chain, a man migrates first; later he sends home for his wife and children, or if he is not married, he may return to find a bride. As he and his wife become citizens, they arrange for the migration of their parents and siblings as well. And these, in turn, arrange to assist their spouses, in-laws, and other relatives.
This type of assistance became especially important in the 1920s, after the passage of U.S. quota limitations on migration. Under quota restrictions, only 100 immigrants from Iraq were allowed to enter the United States each year. These quotas reinforced the chain migration process by giving preference to the families of persons already in America, under the assumption that such persons would have assistance in the United States and were less likely to become indigent and require public assistance.
Migration of all types largely ceased during World War II when travel became difficult. It commenced again following the war, particularly with the introduction of the student visa, which allowed migrants to enter the United States for educational purposes, on the assumption that they would return home following their training. Many Chaldean Americans entered as students and later married members of the community, thus allowing them to remain in the country.
The 1968 change in U.S. migration law allowed for a significantly larger number of immigrants from Iraq, and the migration of Chaldeans increased substantially. A steady stream of Chaldean immigrants came to the United States, until the onset of the Gulf War when the United States placed restrictions on immigration from Iraq.
The steady rate of Chaldean migration has had a profound effect on the assimilation of Chaldeans in American society because it has provided a constant influx of Chaldean culture. However, many changes have taken place in Iraq since the first Chaldean settlers came to the United States, which, in turn, has greatly altered Chaldean American communities.
Like most ethnic groups, Chaldean Americans have also been affected by cultural differences between the immigrant generation and their children and grandchildren born in the United States. Chaldean Americans reared in the United States are more comfortable speaking English than the language of their parents. They attend school with non-Chaldeans, watch television, and adopt an American lifestyle.
Recent Chaldean immigrants were more likely to have been born and reared in one of modern Iraq's major cities, such as Baghdad, Mosul, or Basra. They are better educated and many have attended college or professional schools. The two groups differ socioeconomically as well; many of the earlier immigrants, and their children born in the United States, have prospered and moved into more affluent suburbs, while more recent immigrants, despite their educational background and general understanding of the English language, struggle among the nation's poor. Yet perhaps the most dramatic difference between older and newer Chaldean immigrant groups is language. Since World War II, Iraq has taught Arabic, the national language, in schools throughout the country. As a result, the Chaldean/Aramaic language of early immigrants has largely been replaced by the Arabic tongue of the newcomers. In fact, few immigrants know Chaldean at all.
Chaldean Americans are often mistaken for other ethnic groups in the United States, specifically Arab Americans. Like Arab Americans, Chaldeans tend to have large families, own independent businesses such as grocery or party stores and gas stations, and they even share some foods. On a deeper level, however, there are important distinctions between the two immigrant groups. The large patriarchal families of Muslim Arabs have traditionally allowed a man to take multiple wives, a pattern forbidden for centuries in the Christian tradition. Chaldeans also contend that women are accorded a higher place in their social structure than in the Arabic tradition. In the Chaldean community, many young women are encouraged to attain higher education. Even in the area of food there are important distinctions; Arabs do not consume alcohol and pork, which are forbidden in the Muslim faith. Chaldeans have no such restrictions. Many of these distinctions clearly flow from religious differences, but they are important distinctions in their own right.
Most modern-day immigrants speak Arabic, the dominant language of the Iraqi nation, but the earliest Chaldean immigrants spoke only Chaldean, which they also call "Jesus language," since it is believed to be the language that Jesus Christ spoke during his life. Some Chaldeans resent the fact that they were forced to learn Arabic in Iraqi schools. Inquiring which language Chaldean American children should learn usually provokes a debate. Practical thinkers consider the Arabic language more useful in today's world. More nostalgic individuals assert the importance of learning their original tongue. Hence, while most Chaldean Americans speak Arabic, they do not necessarily take pride in it.
The Chaldean American family is not limited to the nuclear family of husband, wife, and children. Rather, it includes grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Indeed, Chaldeans are quick to point out that their shared ancestry means that everyone is at least distantly related to everyone else. Family names are recognized by everyone and enable members of the community to place everybody in relation to everyone else. Therefore, a Chaldean's family ties constitute a major source of identity within the community.
Chaldeans tend to have large families, in keeping with Catholic tradition. In the past, the number of children per couple averaged from five to six, with some couples having as many as 12 or 15 children. This number has decreased with second and third generations, but Chaldean families continue to be somewhat larger than the national average.
Ties to one's extended family are close and involved. Visiting between a married couple and the parents and siblings of both husband and wife are frequent, occurring at least several times each week, even daily. Extended Chaldean American families also perform numerous functions together, such as cooking, child care, or cleaning. Cooking and eating together several times each week is common. Child care is often shared by sisters, sisters-in-law, or grandmothers. Yard work for older relatives may be managed by younger members of the extended family.
Because of the importance given to family and community, Chaldeans prefer to have their children be endogamous, or marry within the community, as occurred in Telkaif. In the United States, many Chaldeans marry someone from outside the community, but the rate of endogamy continues to be high. Even those who marry non-Chaldeans (exogamy) usually remain close to their parents and siblings. Among Chaldeans, most exogamous marriages bring an outsider into the community, rather than resulting in the loss of a member.
Chaldean families exercise great influence over the individual. One example of this is the expectation that family preferences will be considered in the choice of a spouse. Chaldeans are also expected to open their homes to other members of the family, should that be necessary. This means that young people are expected to welcome their elderly parents or a visiting relative from Iraq into their homes, for periods which may last from a few weeks to several months or even years.
In its initial years, the Chaldean American community was a small and highly unified group. All but one or two families could trace their origin to the town of Telkaif; all were interrelated; and marriages were frequently arranged within the community or with persons in the original town. Moreover, they spoke a common language, Chaldean/ Aramaic, which they shared with few other Americans. Common interests in the Church and a community economic system also served to draw the members into a closely knit unit.
Over the past eight decades, however, significant changes have occurred in the Chaldean American community. What was, in 1960, a community of about 3,000 members has multiplied to nearly 25 times that size. Differences and divisions are inevitable. Many such divisions arise from the varying places of birth among Chaldeans. While early Chaldean immigrants were born in small, rural communities, more recent groups are from Iraq's large, industrialized cities. Moreover, many Chaldeans were born in the United States and are therefore heavily influenced by American culture. Other problems arise from economic wealth. Many established Chaldean families have obtained significant wealth in the United States. Several more recent immigrants, however, struggle well below the poverty level. Language too, tends to divide Chaldean American communities. Early immigrants maintain their ancestral Chaldean/Aramaic language, but more recent immigrants speak Arabic. At the same time, numerous American-born Chaldeans favor English. Such differences have torn communities, and even families apart. Nonetheless, Chaldean Americans remain somewhat unified by their common heritage and Catholic faith. Jobs, income, and other needs of recent immigrants are paramount in community priorities. Also, problems of the homeland, such as Iraq's recent wars, first with Iran and then with the United States, assume a prominent role in community concerns.
Many Americans have difficulty distinguishing Chaldean Americans from other American ethnic groups, particularly Arab Americans and Iraqi Americans, much to the dismay of the members of these groups, who are quite aware of the differences among them. While they share similar physical traits, they differ linguistically, culturally, and most importantly, in terms of religion. During the early years of the twentieth century, a period about which many Chaldeans have heard from their parents and grandparents, Arabic-speaking Muslims were abusive oppressors of Christians in the area in which Telkaif was located. Many Chaldeans have negative memories of treatment by Iraqis as well. In fact, from a political standpoint, many Chaldeans are more supportive of Israel than Arab countries in the Middle East.
Many Chaldean Americans remain resentful of their constant identification with the Arab American community. Most simply reassert their identity as Chaldeans. Others, however, have attempted to develop links with groups that share their religious, linguistic, and cultural heritage, though not necessarily their Roman Catholic faith. Chaldeans who follow this tactic have attempted to link with other groups sharing the Aramaic language and the historic tie to the Assyrian or Babylonian heritage. Examples are Nestorian Christians in the Chicago Area, and a community of Assyrian Christians of several denominations, including Chaldean Catholics, living in Turlock, California.
For a variety of reasons, however, most Chaldean Americans have not embraced this identity. Perhaps the most important reason is the salience of the Roman Catholic faith for so many Chaldeans. For them it is preferable to relinquish the Chaldean identity for the dominant Roman Catholic designation, rather than exchange their religious tie for a linguistic one.
A more consequential factor, however, may lie in the size of the Chaldean American community in the Detroit area. Chaldean Americans do not need to find another group with which to link themselves. With over 70,000 of their background in a relatively limited geographic area, they are able to find many others who share not only a general but a very specific historic, linguistic, religious, and ancestral heritage. As the major concentration of Chaldeans in the United States, they need look no further than each other for a meaningful ethnic identity.
The media has recorded many cultural clashes between blacks and Chaldeans in the United States, which have resulted from Chaldean Americans operating stores in fundamentally urban, African American communities. The large grocery chains have found these areas unprofitable and have largely abandoned them, but they can be quite profitable when run as an extended family business. Many blacks feel that these stores overcharge, only hire Chaldeans, and neglect to reinvest into the community. The high prices usually result from having to make purchases in smaller quantities. Chaldeans also hire members of their own ethnic group because they are usually family members who demand less income. Some improvements have been made, however, as many Chaldean stores are increasingly hiring more African Americans, thus contributing to the community.
Religion is of such importance in the Chaldean community that their name and identity derives from it. As full members of the Roman Catholic Church, Chaldeans follow the same rules and hold the same beliefs as other Catholics. However, they have their own leader, or patriarch, and the rituals used in their mass and other ceremonies are quite different from those practiced in the Western Church. Originally, they conducted services in the historic Chaldean/Aramaic language, but many services are now conducted in Arabic. Occasionally, masses are given in English for American-born persons of Chaldean ancestry.
The first Chaldean Church in the United States was founded in 1947 in Detroit. It was named "Mother of God," thus reaffirming the Chaldean split with their Nestorian heritage and their unity with Catholicism. More recently, the Church moved to Southfield, Michigan and was elevated to the status of a cathedral (Our Lady of Chaldeans Cathedral) when the Chaldean diocese of the United States was formed under the leadership of Chaldean Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim. Prior to 1947, Chaldean immigrants usually attended services at Western rite Catholic Churches. For special events, such as weddings and holidays, many Chaldeans attended services at Lebanese Catholic Churches (of the Moronite Eastern rite), which share more in common with the Chaldean Church than Western rite Churches.
Chaldean children often attend Western rite Catholic Schools because the Chaldean rite does not offer such schools. This often requires parents to support two parishes, their own Chaldean church and the parish in which their children attend school. However, many children also attend special instruction in their own rite at the Chaldean Church.
According to Roman Catholic rules, members of the Catholic Church are expected to attend services and receive sacraments in their appropriate rite whenever possible. In practice, however, Catholics attend services at whichever Catholic Church is most convenient. Moreover, many priests of the Western rite can usually be persuaded to perform special ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals. Consequently, many Chaldeans have found it more convenient to attend Western rite Catholic Churches, especially in areas where there is a small Chaldean population. As a result, many second and third generation Chaldean Americans are likely to prefer the more "American" services of Western Catholic Churches. Nonetheless, Chaldean Churches remains important for recent immigrants, for whom the Arabic language and the familiar rituals are still meaningful.
The Chaldean Church has also served as the center of community social life for the bulk of its existence. In addition to weddings, funerals, and baptisms, the Church offers special ceremonies for Chaldean children who received First Communion during the year and, in recent years, a graduation ceremony each spring honoring all Chaldean young people who graduated from high school or college during the year. Sunday services provide an opportunity for members of the community to meet one another and exchange greetings and gossip. The church is also responsible for the formation of numerous organizations serving the community, including parish councils, family clubs, a men's club, a women's group, a business association, and youth groups.
Chaldean Americans have traditionally owned and operated their own businesses, primarily grocery stores. As early as 1923, when only seven Chaldean men lived in the Detroit area, there were four Chaldean-owned stores. In the 1980s, it was estimated that over 1,000 Chaldean-owned grocery stores were located in Detroit and its environs. Because the grocery industry has become saturated, however, many Chaldean Americans have moved into related areas. Newer immigrants often own party stores and gas stations. Immigrants who have been here many years, or their children and grandchildren, have moved into fields which serve the retail grocery trade, including wholesale food supply, marketing and maintenance of store fixtures (such as refrigeration equipment, freezers, burglar alarms), commercial real estate, business financing, and so on.
These are largely family-owned businesses. In some instances two stores owned by close relatives may work together in joint buying or advertising projects, but, for the most part, the stores are operated independently. These independent businesses are of extreme importance in the community as most family members assist in the family enterprise—even small children or immigrants who lack knowledge of English can make deliveries or stock shelves. This makes it unnecessary to hire other employees and helps to control business expenses. It also allows the family to assist other immigrants, who can be employed in the family business as soon as they arrive from the country of origin.
The role of these independent businesses in the welfare of the family and the growth of the ethnic community illustrates the influence of family over the individual. If the family store is to serve the purpose of assisting immigrants from the country of origin, then the family must be able to depend upon its members to play their role in its development. It cannot afford to have its most competent young people move into other lines of work. Consequently, many young Chaldeans who might have preferred other occupations were drawn into the grocery business. Most accepted this responsibility with little sense of loss, so great is the influence of the Chaldean family over its members.
This pattern has changed somewhat as the second and third generations born in America have moved into different occupations. Many Chaldean Americans have joined such professions as medicine, dentistry, law, accounting, and teaching, to name a few. Some immigrants also come to this country with skills in other occupational areas. However, grocery stores continue to serve as a major meeting place for members of the community and concerns about the grocery business remain a major topic of conversation among Chaldean Americans. The time schedules of these stores also exert influence over community activities. For example, weddings, family gatherings, and Church activities tend to occur late in the evening in order to accommodate the late closing hour of most grocery and party stores.
An established community, Chaldean Americans actively participate in local, state, and federal government by keeping abreast of government activity and voting regularly. They are also quite interested in events taking place in their homeland.
The most dramatic event to affect Chaldean Americans in some time occurred in 1991 and 1992, when hostilities broke out between Iraq and the United States. As the only major concentration of Iraqi immigrants in the United States, Chaldean Americans received a great deal of attention from the press, the military, and the general public. Reporters from throughout the world sought to interview community leaders concerning their views. Military representatives worried about the degree to which local Chaldeans might be security threats. Moreover, rumors spread that Chaldean Americans would be incarcerated in a camp in Louisiana as was done with the Japanese during the Second World War. Since Chaldean Americans and Arab Americans are linked together in the public mind, both were subjected to harassment by the general public, who saw them as local representatives of a hostile foreign power—in spite of the fact that many Arab Americans immigrated from nations which were U.S. allies during the Gulf War.
For Chaldean Americans, who view themselves as committed Americans and do not identify strongly with either Iraq or the Arab World, the experience was distressing. The Gulf War was, in a real sense, a battle of brother against brother, since many families had sons in both the U.S. and Iraqi armies. Nearly all Chaldean Americans have relatives in Iraq; most had to wait weeks or months to learn whether they were safe. In particular, they were shocked by the carnival-type atmosphere of the war. The American public watched news reports of the hostilities like a sports event, and spoke of it in similar terms. Most distressing to Chaldean Americans, however, was the public's continued perception of their alliance with Arab Americans.
As a result of American resentment over the Gulf War, immigration from Iraq has slowed. The continuing difficulties between the two nations are a problem for Chaldean Americans who must worry about loved ones in their ancestral homeland and face discrimination in their adopted homeland.
Contact: Abdulk Halik Alfalah, Editor.
Address: 19204 Woodward, Detroit, Michigan 48203.
Telephone: (313) 893-3521.
Chaldean Detroit Times.
Contact: Amir Denha, Publisher and Editor.
Address: 17135 West 10 Mile Road, Southfield, Michigan 48075-2933.
Telephone: (810) 552-1989.
Fax: (810) 552-9688.
Chaldean Voice Weekly Bulletin.
Contact: Father Manuel Boji.
Address: 25585 Berg Road, Southfield, Michigan 48034.
Telephone: (810) 356-0565.
Weekly radio program providing music, entertainment, and coverage of religious, cultural, and social issues. Part of the Chaldean Communications Network.
Address: 25585 Berg Road, Southfield, Michigan.
Telephone: (248) 353-1083.
Fax: (248) 353-1290.
Online: http://www.chaldeanvoice.org .
Arab American & Chaldean Communities Social Council.
Contact: Haifa Fakhouri, Director.
Address: 28551 Southfield Road, Suite 204, Lathrup Village, Michigan 48076.
Telephone: (248) 559-1990.
Fax: (248) 559-9117.
Chaldean Federation of America.
Functions as an umbrella organization for most Chaldean American groups.
Contact: Sam Yano, Chairman; or Kam Kewson, Director.
Address: 18470 West 10 Mile Road, Southfield, Michigan 48075.
Telephone: (248) 557-2362.
Chaldean National Congress.
Address: 29732 Spring Hill Drive, Southfield Michigan 48076.
Telephone: (248) 552-8822.
Goodin, Michael. "More than party stores: Chaldeans move into mainstream," in Crain's Detroit Business, December 17, 1990, vol. 6, no. 51.
Kamoo, Ray. Ancient & Modern Chaldean History: A Comprehensive Bibliography of Sources. Boston: Scarecrow Press, 1999.
Sengstock, Mary C. The Chaldean-Americans: Changing Conceptions of Ethnic Identity, 2nd ed. New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1998.
Stertz, Bradley A., and Krystal Miller. "Chaldeans in Detroit are prime targets of threats, violence," in Wall Street Journal, January 21, 1991 pp. A1(W), A1(E).
Twin Rivers Bibliography: Assyrian, Chaldian & Syrians Past & Present, compiled & edited by Francis K. Khosho. Springfield, Illinois: Khosho, 1987.