They are often confused, in the metro Detroit area, as being part of the over 400,000 Arab or Palestinian American community members located here. Yet Chaldeans, part of a tight-knit community who are neither Arab, nor Muslim, actually have little in common with those who come from a similar part of the world as themselves.
Chaldeans are Iraqi Christians, descendants of a people who once lived in the northern Tigris-Euphrates Valley, which is today in northern Iraq. For centuries, they have lived in peaceful coexistence with their Arab neighbors. That is, until recently. Until the violent Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) erupted and overran the north of Iraq, forcing Chaldeans to label themselves by wearing an Arabic letter “N”, for Christian, and placing it on their property as well. Then, ISIS seized their property as belonging to the Islamic State.
“Christians have been given 24 hours and three choices,” said Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce in Bingham Farms. “They could convert (to Islam), leave Mosul, or be killed. All of our community fled, and as they fled, all of their belongings, including cars, wedding rings and other valuables, were taken. We currently have about one million Chaldean people outside of Iraq, and about 250,000 are displaced within Iraq.”
If it’s reminiscent of what happened to the Jews in Europe during the 1930s and ‘40s during the Holocaust, the harrowing similarities resonate with Manna, as well. And while the faiths are different, he recognizes other similarities between the Jewish community in metro Detroit and the family-focused Chaldean community. Often, new immigrants from Iraq have settled in similar areas to Jewish immigrants, and as members of the community have become established, their migration pattern throughout Oakland County have paralleled that of the Jews.
“When immigrants come here, we teach them English and get them a job through our Refugee Acculturation program,” Manna said. “We modeled it after how the Jewish community has done it. With all of our programs, the goal is to get them independent and off government subsidies.”
Christians, as we know, have been in the Middle East for 2,014 years. Here in the Detroit area, Chaldeans first arrived in numbers in the early years of the 20th century, following the slaughter of the Armenian, Chaldean and Assyrian people (all Christians) by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in 1915-1920. Like other immigrant groups, they fled to the shores of North and South America, seeking new opportunities following political and social unrest.
“Similar to today, 100 years ago, (Iraqi) Christians were given three choices: they were forced to convert to Islam; to pay a tax for protection; or be killed,” Manna explained. “Historically, our community has been under a great deal of pressure.”
Today, the largest concentration of Chaldean Americans live in the Detroit metropolitan area, and estimates put their population at between 150,000 and 200,000 and growing, as they continue to absorb displaced immigrants from continued wars and conflicts.
“Some of the people who left Iraq in the early days ended up in New York, Canada, Mexico, and in South America,” said Nabby Yono, vice president of community relations for the Arab American and Chaldean Council. “People were drawn to Detroit by Henry Ford and the $5 a day job opportunity.”
Early Middle Eastern settlers in the Detroit area, in the 1870s, were primarily Christian Lebanese, who worked as peddlers and shopkeepers. It is known that there were a few Chaldeans scattered in the there as well. During the first major wave of immigration, in the 1910s, Chaldeans, along with Assyrian, Syriac and some from the Syrian Arabic community, came for lucrative jobs in the automotive industry. There were approximately 3,000 Chaldeans in metro Detroit working in the auto industry, primarily living in what is now the downtown and midtown areas of Detroit, along with about 6,000 Syrians, who chose Dearborn to reside in, along with a sizable Lebanese population.
In 1943, community sources listed 908 Chaldeans living in the Detroit area. By 1963, the number had tripled to about 3,000 persons. In the mid-1960s, there was a great influx of Iraqi citizens to the United States due to changes in immigration laws, and the growth in Detroit’s Chaldean American community skyrocketed, to about 45,000 in 1986, and approximately 75,000 by 1992. Other areas of the country also saw an increase of Chaldeans, particularly Chicago, San Diego, El Cajon, San Jose, and Turlock, California, and Oaxaca, Mexico. There are also strong communities in Windsor and Quebec.
Waves of Chaldean immigration have always been caused by economic and religious strife in Iraq. Chaldean historians note that over 95 percent of Chaldeans in the Detroit community can trace themselves back to one single town, Telkaif, which is one of several Christian towns in the northern Iraqi province of Mosul. In the early 1900s, Telkaif was a poor, non-industrialized village that could have been mistaken for Biblical times. Those who originally left Telkaif went first to nearby Middle Eastern cities like Mosul, Baghdad, Beirut or Basra. Later, primarily as economic need forced their hand, some chose to migrate to the United States, Mexico or Canada. Immigration in those days was primarily something only the men in the family undertook, with the women and children of the family staying behind in the “old country” until the men became established.
When those early immigrants first settled in the U.S., there weren’t restrictions on immigration, which made entry into the country easy. With the $5 a day incentive from Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company, “word spread quickly, and it coincided with a new opportunity during a time of political and social unrest” in Iraq, Yono noted.
Like other ethnic communities which settled in metro Detroit, once Chaldeans settled here and began to prosper, they encouraged and brought over other members of their families and community. According to everyculture.com, “this began the ‘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 can take many forms, including the provision of jobs, a place to stay, 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.”
In the 1920s, as immigration quotas were passed in the U.S., this type of assistance was critical.The National Origins Formula was a system of immigration quotas inaugurated in 1921, which restricted immigration based on existing proportions of the population. The goal of the formula was to maintain the existing ethnic composition of the country, and had the effect of giving low quotas to Eastern and Southern Europe. Under quota restrictions, only 100 immigrants from Iraq were permitted into the country each year. Because of the chain migration, Chaldeans gained preference under the assumption by the U.S. that family members would be less likely to become indigent and need public assistance.
As with other immigrants groups, all migration was halted during World War II. The introduction of the student visa became the means for renewed immigration after the war, as it allowed immigrants to enter the country for educational purposes. The assumption with a student visa is that after finishing their studies, students would return to their home country. Many Chaldeans entered the United States as students; they later married members of the Chaldean American community, which permitted them to remain in the country.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, which took effect in 1968, abolished the national origins quota system in place since the 1920s and replaced it with a preference system which focuses on an immigrant’s skills and family relationships already in the U.S. Numerical restrictions were changed to 170,000 per year, with a specific allotment per country, not counting immediate relatives of U.S. Citizens.
The Chaldean community in metro Detroit began to grow, and then rapidly burgeon as the tight-knit, family-oriented community brought over member after member of their extended families.
According to a 2008 Household Survey of the Chaldeans in Metropolitan Detroit done by the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, in 2008, they estimated the community in the tri-county area as about 113,000 individuals living in about 27,500 households. Manna and Yono estimate that following the American surge in Iraq in 2007 and now ISIS, there are between 150,000 and 200,000 Chaldeans in the metropolitan area, with the majority living in Oakland County.
“The average Chaldean household was comprised of four persons, with four to five-persons comprising the most frequent responses. While southeast Michigan has been suffering a loss of young, educated professionals (the so-called brain drain), it is apparent that the Chaldean community has not followed this trend. Educational attainment has been rising, as Chaldean families emphasize the importance of education for their children. However it is apparent that once they have completed college, the vast majority of young Chaldean professionals are remaining in the area, often continuing to reside in the home of their parents.”
According to the survey, the Detroit metro area contains the largest single concentration of Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs (which are similar in religion and culture to Chaldeans) in the western hemisphere, and most are immigrants or direct descendants of immigrants from Iraq. Chaldeans are a form of Catholics who uphold Eastern Rite rituals and hold mass in Aramaic, and the church is an essential part of family life. The primary language Chaldeans speak is Aramaic, an ancient language which is believed to be the language that Jesus Christ spoke, and Chaldean Americans take great pride in that fact. According to the household survey, most Detroit-area Chaldeans currently live in the areas nearest to Chaldean churches. At the time of the survey, there were six in the metro area. Today, six years later, with the population growth, there are now 12.
“The church is absolutely a big part of our life, and the biggest growth is in our churches. They’re a huge factor in our lives. There is not a church on a Sunday mass where you can find a seat,” Yono said. The St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Diocese is in Southfield.
Chaldean churches are located in Detroit, Southfield, Oak Park, West Bloomfield, Warren, Troy, Shelby Township and Farmington Hills. The first Chaldean church in the country was founded in Detroit in 1947 at Euclid Street and Second Avenue in midtown Detroit. In 1954, the Mother of God Parish moved a mile north to Hamilton Avenue in the Boston-Edison neighborhood; later it moved to Berg Road in Southfield as the population moved to Southfield. Chaldeans lived near their churches, as they do now, and followed a northern migration as families prospered, following the path of Jewish migration, and often living alongside Jews, as they often still do. St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Church on Maple Road, in West Bloomfield, which offers several masses, bible study, youth groups and a 24/7 grotto for Adoration and prayer, sits just up the road from the large Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield.
From Detroit, Chaldeans moved to Oak Park and Southfield, and then north to West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills. Traffic stops along Middlebelt Road in Farmington Hills on Saturdays and Sundays when mass lets out and hundreds of cars spill out from Holy Cross Chaldean Church. University of Michigan Dearborn historian Sidney Bolkosky noted, “The move by each community reflected a desire for more status, some economic success and an attraction to more space.”
Today, Chaldeans also live in Birmingham and Bloomfield Township, as well as in Macomb County, Sterling Heights, Warren, and Shelby Township. A new Chaldean church, St. George Chaldean Catholic Parish in Shelby Township, opened in 2005 to meet the needs of the growing east side community, and is now considered the largest Chaldean church in the world.
Focused on family and church, the stereotype of many Chaldeans is one of shopkeepers and owners of gas stations. Many of their younger descendants are now branching out into the fields of medicine, law, engineering, real estate and politics. “Like any other ethnic group, we just want a better life for our children,” Manna said.
He said that historically, Chaldeans have been businessmen, merchants and entrepreneurs, because they lived in Islamic countries. “Because Islam forbids the sale and consumption of alcohol, Christians owned the liquor stores,” he explained. “So it evolved here, too. In Detroit, Chaldeans owned 80-85 percent of the grocery stores. Previously they bought it from the Jewish community, who bought it from the Italians. Then, as they become more established and assimilated, the next generation becomes educated. Today, the educated generation now owns more than 50 percent of the hotels in southeast Michigan. They also dominate in franchised pizza ownerships, the wireless industry and dominate in local real estate development.”
Gas stations and party stores remain in the ownership of many Chaldean families, and often new immigrants are given jobs in those establishments. As Manna notes, “We take care of our own.”
State Rep. Klint Kesto (R-Commerce Township, West Bloomfield), is proud to note that although he only 33, he was just re-elected to his second term as the first Chaldean state legislator in Michigan.
In California, Anna Eshoo, a Chaldean Democrat representing the San Jose/Palo Alto region, has served in the U.S. Congress since 1993.
“As we’re now involved as doctors, lawyers, in the judicial system, we were lacking in the political sphere,” he said. “Now, as I’ve been elected, we’ve accomplished that as a community.”
Note, he did not say that he did it. For Chaldeans, every achievement is a communal achievement rather than a singular one. It is their mindset, stemming from their strong belief in family and church.
“We’re a large, growing community. We’re family-oriented, church-oriented, we’re about community and business,” Kesto said. “We’re constantly in touch with each other, and we are constantly looking at other communities like the Jewish community – from the point of view as merchants, working in the community and with certain individuals, as immigrants, and then to become large property real estate owners. That’s the next step. Their children become doctors, lawyers, engineers, business owners and to become involved with the government.”
As for his election as representative for the 39th District in the state House, and his success in a tough battle for re-election, both in the August primary and in the general election, “As a community, they all felt we were elected and the doors are now open to power,” Kesto said. “It was encouraging to the community. The sense that ‘we can do it.’ It’s a sense of pride. Just as before, for the Jewish community, the African American community, and the Hispanic communities in the past. It resonated with the community as a whole. It’s one of our own.”
The Arab American and Chaldean Council’s Yono said, “Kesto is a promising guy. But we need more Klints to represent all of the communities where our taxpayers are and are good corporate citizens. We need them in Lansing and in Washington.”
Kesto said his initial motivation was in seeing so many of his peers leaving the state “not for the glitz and glamour of the big cities like New York or Chicago, but for places like North Carolina or Indiana – for jobs. And they were taking their families with them. And when they’re established there, they’re going to stay.”
The economic impact Chaldeans have upon the communities they live in is significant. They own businesses, homes, shop, go to restaurants, support their churches, educate their children and are very involved in the overall community.
“Being here, owning businesses and professionals ties, we’re taxpayers,” Yono emphasized. “The economic impact is huge. They pay taxes on their homes and have very strong spending power. That’s a very strong economic impact on the communities they live in. Because we surround ourselves with our families and our church and our social clubs, we stay within our communities.”
“Chaldeans are now one out of every 20 people in metro Detroit,” Kesto pointed out. “Seventy percent are business owners. It’s a small business community. And that means it’s an engine for the metro Detroit area. To work with other legislators from around the state, and with the governor’s office, and to help make the Detroit area revitalize helps the Chaldean community as well as the entire state, because they know someone is looking out for their interest. I’m there for the everyday person, the hardworking family person who works 50 to 60 hours a week, who is grinding it out, and knows someone is looking out for his interests.”
Kesto understands and respects that his district is a diverse community, with not only Chaldeans and Jews, Gentiles and African Americans, “higher incomes in the lakes and lower incomes, seniors, and with newer developments, lots of younger people. There are people far to the right and far to the left.” It invigorates him, knowing he represents the melting pot of the American Dream.
But his community is always foremost in his mind, as well as those in his homeland. He recently introduced a bill, called the Genocide Bill, to have Michigan schools teach students about all of the different genocides inflicted upon societies over time, from the Chaldeans, the Holocaust, the Rwandans, and so many others.
“When we say ‘never forget,’ we need to mean it,” he said.