Just down the road from El Cajon's Chaldean Christian cathedral, Iraqis gather at the outdoor tables of a cafe, sharing news and a game of backgammon in the shade of the palms.
It sounds like the Middle East, but the cafe is actually a Starbucks — this is Southern California, after all.
This San Diego suburb is home to more than 40,000 Iraqis, mostly Iraqi Christians, and more than half of them are refugees from the Iraq war and its aftermath. The town is known locally as “Little Baghdad” — but these days, everyone's thoughts are on Mosul.
In June, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known in English by the acronym ISIS, took over Mosul, Iraq's second city and home to a Christian minority that's been practicing there since ancient times.
Since then, ISIS has burned churches, destroyed religious shrines, and driven Christians, Shia Muslims and other religious minorities out. An ultimatum last week, broadcast from mosque loudspeakers and written in notes on doors, told Christians to convert, pay a “religious tax” — or flee.
At one table, I met Ashraf Abdulahad. He's a Chaldean Christian, born and raised in Mosul, but he came to San Diego as a refugee six years ago, after receiving threats related to his work as a food service contractor for the US. He told me that, last week, ISIS fighters in Mosul seized his family's home.
“They opened the houses, they broke the doors, they broke the windows,” he says.
ISIS marked Christian houses with an "N", for an Arabic slur for Christian. Abdulahad learned about it on email and Facebook. Friends were robbed of their money, wedding rings, even baby diapers, as they rushed to get out of town. His parents were visiting him in the US when ISIS took over, he says. They want to go home, but there's nowhere safe for them to go.
“I lost my house over there, my dad, he has he lost his house over there, and I lost everything over there,” he says. “So I don't want to lose my family too.”
Sitting here, sipping coffee outside a California mall, all of this is hard to grasp. So Abdulahad points at an SUV, trolling for parking. Imagine you're in that car, he says.
“And then I come. I have a gun. I tell you, you are Christian — get out of here. I take your car. I take your money. And then if you come back again, I'll kill you for sure,” he says. He pauses, and then adds, “they killed a lot of us.”
At another table, a group of older Iraqi Christian men play backgammon, but stop their game when asked about Mosul.
“Your game is more important than our game,” one man says.
Several of the men call on the UN, the world, and especially the US government to intervene to stop the ethnic cleansing.
“It is the power of government of USA to stop them. We are supporting them, by supporting and doing nothing to them,” said another player, who said he was an Iraqi Christian and a US resident for 35 years.
Another player says he's worried about his family, and the Christian exodus. In broken English, he says two of his cousins had lost their homes, cars and money, and had fled on foot. At other tables, even people who say they have no family in Mosul say they're upset.
John Kasawa, an Iraqi-American doctor at the Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services medical clinic, says a few Iraqi patients have already come to him with anxiety and depression.
“There's a widespread depression, a heaviness,” he says. “It's definitely taking a toll on the collective conscious.”
At El Cajon's Chaldean Cathedral, the Sunday mass now includes a prayer for Iraq. Bawai Soro, the Chaldean bishop here, was in Iraq, at a religious conference near Mosul, when ISIS began its attacks on nearby Christian villages. Now, safely back home, he says he has watched in shock as Mosul's Christians face an ISIS ultimatum.
“They gave them three options: either to flee or to convert, basically,” he explains. “And if they decide to be in between, they have to pay an outrageous ... religious tax, basically surrendering everything they have.”
Soro says Mosul has a special significance for Chaldean Christians, who still count themselves as the city's oldest, “original” residents. Christians had practiced there continuously for nearly 2000 years — until last month, when ISIS took over.
While Iraqi Christians have been a minority for generations, as recently as 2003, there were still 4,000 Chaldean families in Mosul. Now, as Christians and other religious minorities flee Mosul, their number is dwindling.
“Christianity in Mosul is dead,” says Mark Arabo, an El Cajon businessman and national spokesman for the Chaldean community in the US.
Arabo went to Washington last month to try to convince Congress to help Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities. He helped draft a Congressional resolution introduced this month by Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), that asks the US to negotiate safe passage out of Iraq for displaced minorities, and to ease visa rules to allow more of them to find refuge in the US.
But, Arabo says, Congress is slow, and ISIS is moving fast.