You go into a liquor store in El Cajon to buy a six-pack of beer. The handsome, swarthy manager behind the counter bags your purchase. The most you expect is the correct change and maybe the whiff of a clerk’s smile. When you reach the door, his face has already fled your memory.
You are unaware that behind that counter is a story of faith and survival.
You do not know that a few years ago, the man who bagged your beer heard an explosion, looked down the street and saw a car bomb burning by the school where his children were in class.
Raied Dawood, 45, is a Chaldean from the small town of Telskuf near Mosul, Iraq. Along with his wife, Shatha, and four children, he is a refugee from Islamic terrorists.
The Chaldeans are an ancient Assyrian people, perhaps the oldest continuous branch of Christendom. They have paid a persecution price for their religion through the centuries that would drive those lesser in the faith out of the faith. Just down the road from Dawood’s village is Nineveh, a city so old it is mentioned in the Book of Genesis.
If Dawood and his family had remained in Telskuf and not left Iraq in July 2007, they would not be alive today. That’s just a fact.
Until the American invasion of 2003, life was manageable. Saddam Hussein was as unbenevolent as a dictator could be, but you could survive if you didn’t blink the wrong way. When you live as a tolerated minority in an intolerant society, you take your security where you find it.
At first, the war bypassed Telskuf because the Christian townspeople supported the invasion. Dawood says only a few Americans visited the town, and he hosted some in his home. One officer gave him an AK-47 rifle for his personal protection.
That all changed after the Americans smashed Iraqi society and the terrorists escaped their leash. American forces were the main targets, but while the terrorists were shooting things up, they figured out that Christians made easy victims.
“After Saddam Hussein is gone, it starts: attacking people and (kidnapping) people and asking money for giving back,” Dawood says.
Were they Sunni or Shia?
“Maybe Sunni, maybe Shia. They’re both the same brain,” he says.
Dawood and his father owned a welding factory at the outbreak of hostilities, but it soon became too dangerous to drive to Nineveh to buy metal for the shop.
“Couple of times, I went there when (terrorists) attacked. There was bombing, fighting, shooting everywhere. It was like a movie, like scary movie. I couldn’t go after that to get the metal. To survive with my family, I closed the factory and I start to find a job.
“In Baghdad, in Mosul, in Nineveh, to Christian people, it wasn’t safe to be there. Anytime, I might get out and never come back because they’re going to call my (family) and tell them, ‘We need (money) if you want him back again.’ That’s what they did.”
He traded his welding torch for a gun and became a bodyguard for the mayor, realizing that when the shooting starts, shielding the mayor is not an ideal place to be.
It was not a job to grow old in. Late-night threats did not foster sound sleep. “They always call us after midnight. We gonna kill you and your family. We gonna do this and that, because you work with the mayor.”
Dawood knew terrorists could kill his whole family on the way to lunch and not be late for their reservation.
He wouldn’t submit to the extortion threats because he knew if what money he had was lost, the family might face being penniless refugees, which could mean a slow death on some dusty road to nowhere.
One day in April 2007, he was standing 300 yards down the street when a car bomb exploded in the space between a kindergarten and an elementary school. He had a son in each school.
“When I arrived over there, I saw (my wife’s cousin). She had been walking on the street. She was on the ground like something ripped. I carry her and put her to my car and take her to the hospital, but she was gone, dead.”
Joined by his wife, they searched for their sons among the pandemonium of screaming children. They eventually found both boys, cut and bleeding, but not badly injured. The car bomb wounded 250 children, he says, but amazingly, none was killed.
From the reminiscences of those who have lived through the car-bomb “culture,” a fatalism emerges: The most frightening thing about a bomb is that it doesn’t care. It will take you out without knowing your name. It might be waiting for you, either behind, in front or around the corner. It’ll erase your existence and leave only your shoes.
In a war zone, you can learn to accept the reality if it’s only you. But if it’s a child, a bomb will leave you standing but tear your soul like a cat’s claw.
Enough. As Dawood looked at his children’s wounds, he knew it was time to leave. But it was emotionally wrenching, because his family members weren’t vagabonds. They were Assyrians, and their people had lived in the shadow of Nineveh for 6,000 years. The Tigris River was the “waters of Babylon” that had fed their crops and slaked their thirst since the time writing was done on clay tablets.
“I was thinking about my children, nothing else. I didn’t care about myself. What I care about, only my family. After the car bombed, I said, ‘That’s it. That’s enough. I can’t stay here anymore.’ ”
Dawood was able to secure a visa to enter Turkey. He took his remaining $2,000 dollars and furtively moved his family north across the border where they registered with the United Nations. He tried to eke out a living while awaiting … he didn’t know what.
Though the Turkish Muslims had no affection for these newcomers, Dawood’s family lived on the hope that immigration to the United States would be approved. There was no place else to go.
“I get depressed in Turkey. It was very hard for us, because it was too expensive. I didn’t have much money with me. We live with rats in a basement. I pay like $400 a month. After a while, I got a job as a welder with some Turkey man.”
In March 2008, the family was given deliverance when they were approved to come to the U.S.
Seven years later, the family is settled in El Cajon with the children well-adjusted and performing well in school. Shatha is a stay-at-home mom. They have connected with their ethnic church and can attend without glancing over their shoulders. All the children have Biblical or Western names.
Dawood works long days in the liquor store and as a handyman. He doesn’t forget that he is a skilled welder, but one thing at a time.
The family — with four children, ages 10 to 14 — is squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment for which he pays $1,150. Of course, he would like a larger one, but the rent would be beyond his reach.
He was able to bring his parents to this country, but he has a sister who remains a refugee in the mountains of northern Iraq with her four children. He seeks to rescue them as well.
His village of Telskuf is now empty of Christians and has turned into a battleground between Kurds and the militant group Islamic State, or ISIS.
Though now safe in this country, Dawood does not forget those times when every sunrise cast a shadow of death. He also does not forget those who wanted to kill him because he worshipped differently.
I ask, what is it in the culture of the Middle East that allows movements like ISIS to exist? This is Dawood’s controversial take:
“They’re monsters because the book they believe in is monster book. It’s not like our Bible. Our Bible, the main thing in it is love. ... (The Quran) says, you have the right to kill the Christian if they didn’t go to be Muslim. What kind of God book is that? That’s what they believe. They never change. Everywhere there is a Muslim people, there’s going to be trouble and problems. That’s what I think.”
The man is now in a place where he can say what he thinks.
A persecutor can’t expect kind words from a man who has lived every day in fear for his family while all he wants is to live in peace. And it’s not just in 2007 or today that we’re talking about. For 15 centuries, Chaldean Christians have been persecuted or faced the threat of it. At some point, suffering finds a voice.
We can sympathize with the persecutions that Chaldeans have endured through the centuries, but Jews, Cambodians and Armenians can compare notes with them.
Dawood says he doesn’t dwell on anger. He mainly treasures the deliverance of his family and recalls the moment America welcomed them. “It was like being born again. Wherever I go, I will never forget the day that we came here, because it’s like heaven for us.”
When Raied Dawood reads his Old Testament, he can remember the years when the psalmist’s lament was his own:
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion.
This family has found its Zion.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org