CNN Photos

Iraqi refugees rebuild in California’s ‘Little Baghdad’

Dutch photojournalist Kadir van Lohuizen discovered an unlikely place during his yearlong journey through the Americas, from Chile to Alaska.

It’s called “Little Baghdad,” and its inhabitants are war refugees from Iraq. They created a home away from home near the U.S.-Mexico border, in El Cajon, California, more than 7,700 miles from their motherland but only 20 miles from Mexico.

“There are large Latino communities there,” van Lohuizen said from his home in Amsterdam. But “I wasn’t expecting an Iraqi community of that size right next to the Mexican border basically. That was definitely most surprising.”

The 49-year-old photographer spent time in the community while working on “Via PanAm,” his long-term project on migration in North and South America.

In this suburb of San Diego, Iraqi residents have renamed Main Street as “Baghdad Street.” The cafes, restaurants and groceries there beckon visitors with signs in Arabic.

“There are teahouses in El Cajon, and if you walk into them, you think you are in Baghdad,” van Lohuizen said.

Men play dominoes over tea.

Stores sell pickled turnips and cucumbers. Restaurants sell kebobs and Halal meat.

And Skype is a household word.

Parents and children often eat breakfast with family back in Iraq and elsewhere by using the video calling software on their laptops.

Iraq’s diversity is replicated in El Cajon. There are Kurds from the country’s northern region, Sunnis from central areas, and Shiite from the south. There are Chaldean Christians as well.

The Kurds arrived first in the early 1990s, after the Gulf War. Other Iraqis came following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Some recent arrivals worked for U.S. firms in Iraq and more easily obtained U.S. visas to resettle in El Cajon, van Lohuizen said.

They all live side-by-side, an extraordinary sight to the photographer, who covered the Iraq war and saw the bloodshed between the groups.

“Being in Iraq before and seeing how this society was divided, it was remarkable,” he said. “It’s complicated now (in Iraq). Kirkuk is divided. If you are Shia, you don’t go into a Sunni neighborhood.

“But in El Cajon, it wasn’t. The church was next to the mosque, and nobody was making an issue out of it.

“At first sight, it looked pretty cool.”

Iraqis are among the largest groups of people seeking sanctuary in the United States. More than 20% of the 58,238 refugees admitted to the United States in 2012 were from Iraq, according to the International Rescue Committee.

The Arab American Institute says California and Michigan are the preferred destinations for Iraqi and other Arab immigrants.

El Cajon is reputed to be the United States’ second-biggest community of Iraqis, who constitute a fourth of the city’s population of 96,000, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Beneath the surface, however, are significant issues.

Many Iraqis long for home, if only for their old residences.

In El Cajon, parents, kids and sometimes grandparents typically live in apartments, usually two-bedroom flats.

That’s a drop from their big houses in Iraq, especially for fathers who were physicians or attorneys in Baghdad or Basra. Most of the Iraqis in El Cajon once enjoyed a middle- or upper-class life in Iraq.

Now those men work in car washes and other dead-end service jobs.

The collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008 hasn’t helped. With little money, those former professionals find it difficult to return to a university to earn another professional degree.

Between 2006 and 2011, the United States admitted 62,000 Iraqi refugees, according to the State Department.

“A lot of them are trapped. It was nice to spend some time with them, but I can’t say it’s a happy community,” van Lohuizen said. “It’s a community that struggles with identity, with who they are.”

The teenagers and young adults, however, are thriving in local colleges.

“It’s great in the U.S.,” van Lohuizen said of their optimism.

But young women sometimes find discrimination and outright racism from residents of San Diego County, a conservative area on the border that’s known for its triple fencing and tough political posture against illegal immigration.

Iraqi women are told they must be terrorists, van Lohuizen said, and their headscarves are forcibly pulled off their heads.

Parents express ambivalence about their uprooted lives.

They wonder if the U.S. war in Iraq has been worth it.

“They still feel kind of lucky, but at the same time, they say, ‘Our life is not what it used to be’ because they live in these apartments that are kind of crummy,” van Lohuizen said. “It’s a community of Iraqis, but it’s not like back home.

“They know they wish they could go back, and they know they will not because it’s probably not safe for them.”

- Michael Martinez, CNN