WHEN IRAQI CHRISTIANS VANISH, RELATIVES IN U.S. PAY THE PRICE
by: Kelly Thornton
Copley News Service
September 18, 2006 Monday 11:30 AM EST
B.E. was hoping for a call about a house-painting job. Instead, the
Iraqi immigrant living in El Cajon, Calif., heard his sister's voice,
with terrible news from Baghdad.
A family member had been abducted by masked gunmen demanding a
Kidnapping is nothing new in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein's
regime, but lately there's a new twist: Some of the targets are
Iraqi Christians likely to have family members in the United States
or Europe who can pay to save them.
B.E. - who insists on anonymity because of concern for his family
- began frantically seeking help from relatives and friends in El
Cajon. Family members in Chicago, Detroit and Europe did the same.
One cousin donated $5,000. Another cousin, $2,000. An uncle, $4,000,
and so on. B.E., who was mostly unemployed and has children, managed
to contribute $1,000 from what he had and from his circle in El Cajon.
Two days later, after the full ransom had been paid in U.S. dollars,
B.E.'s brother-in-law, Albert Anderious, was released.
On that day in March, the 45-year-old father of five was transported
in the trunk of a car to a road near the infamous Abu Ghraib prison,
west of the Iraqi capital, and released by a masked gunman who told him
to leave Baghdad or be killed. Anderious is a member of the Chaldean
Church, a branch of the Roman Catholic faith.
A substantial number of Iraqi families in California, Michigan,
Arizona and Europe have been extorted in this manner, according to
Iraqi-Americans and immigrant-rights activists.
"This started shortly after the American invasion, but now it's
increasing," said John Kalabat, an Iraqi-American who immigrated to
the United States in 1979 and became a language professor at Cuyamaca
and Grossmont colleges near San Diego. "For the mafias, it's a nice
business, kidnapping someone and getting $20,000 to $50,000."
Christians in Iraq make up perhaps 3 percent of the population and
include Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians and Syriacs.
The Chaldean community is mushrooming in El Cajon, where the group
has a larger presence than anywhere else in the country except
Detroit. The Chaldeans, who number about 25,000 in San Diego County,
have been vocal supporters of the U.S.-led invasion.
Probably less than 800,000 Christians still live in Iraq. They have
been leaving for places such as the United States for decades, to find
economic opportunity and to flee political persecution under Hussein.
Iraqi immigrants in El Cajon said they suspect Sunni and Shiite Muslim
insurgents are choosing Christian victims for two reasons: Because
they are more likely to have relatives with cash, and to accomplish
the bigger goal of driving them out their homes and the region.
B.E. and his family are just one story: Many Iraqi immigrants living
here know of a relative or friend from their home village who was
abducted for ransom. Family members scramble for funds; sometimes
the hostage is released, sometimes not.
Anderious' family was overwhelmed with relief when he came home,
but the experience has made B.E., and others, bitter and broke.
"This thousand (dollars), it was for me - it was a big money, because
I need it more," B.E. said. "But what (do) you do if there's someone
in trouble? You have to help him. You have to cut it from your wage,
from your bills, from your kids, from your food, and pay for them. I
feel anger here. These bastards, they get this money for nothing.
It's not right."
As security in Iraq disintegrates, B.E. said, there is no one to call
for help and the kidnappers exploit that. "These people, they know
there's no power of law there. Therefore, they do what they want.
They know the police (are) very weak. They do nothing."
The sectarian violence raging in Baghdad prompted U.S. commanders in
recent weeks to send more soldiers to the capital in a renewed bid
to curb the surge of killings and kidnappings.
There's even a market among criminal groups who buy and sell
hostages to each other to maximize profits, said Farouk Gewarges,
a Chaldo-Assyrian who owns an insurance business in El Cajon.
"Some people, they want to get money the easy way. All they know is
how to kidnap and use their guns," said Gewarges, who knows Anderious
and many sad stories about other kidnappings.
"They are thugs who don't know how to work, they have no brain. It's
an easy job - put a gun to (a) head, kidnap him, ask for money and
release him," Gewarges said.
Anderious called B.E. in El Cajon after his release, thanking his
brother-in-law and asking for financial help to come to the United
Anderious, who works as a taxi driver, told B.E. he was chauffeuring
two Iraqi engineers when he was boxed in by two cars. Masked gunmen
jumped out, pulled the three men from the taxi, blindfolded them and
shoved one man in the trunk of each of the vehicles.
After a couple of hours, they arrived at their destination. The
abductors proclaimed that the two engineers had been working with
the Americans. Then they were shot to death in front of Anderious.
Anderious got lucky. He had not been observed helping Americans. If
his family paid, he would live.
The kidnappers used Anderious' cell phone to call his family.
Anderious was forced to live in darkness and wear a blindfold -
even for eating or trips to the bathroom.
Once he was freed, Anderious wasted no time in heeding the kidnappers'
warnings to leave Baghdad. The day he was released, he took his family
to northern Iraq, where most Chaldeans have settled.
But there is no money left for his family to escape the country.
"He called me when he got out," B.E. said. "He wants to leave Iraq.
He called me for help. I said, 'I'm sorry I can't. Because I need
now help because I'm new in America. Jobs not too much good.'"
There are many similar stories of violence and suffering.
For Ramzi Marcus' 17-year-old nephew, Fadi Marcus, it was a different
The Chaldean boy was snatched from the street while walking to
school. He was a high school senior. A quiet, shy kid who liked
reading, swimming and soccer. The kidnappers used the boy's cell
phone to ask for ransom.
Marcus and his family scraped together the $20,000 and then followed
directions. The kidnappers sent them to 10 places before finally
allowing them to leave the money under a rock. The kidnappers said
the teen would be released within two hours, but he was not, said
Thaira Sako of El Cajon, the boy's aunt.
That was a year ago.
The boy's parents remain in Iraq. His mother is "crazy" with grief.
His father is "looking for bodies constantly," said another aunt,
Janet Namo of El Cajon. Every time there is news that corpses have been
found, Fadi's father rushes to view them, not knowing what to hope for.
It is just the latest of many tragedies for the family. When Ramzi
Marcus was 27, he became a political prisoner in Iraq. He was held
for eight years. While he was imprisoned, his 23-year-old brother
was hanged by Hussein's regime because he was a Chaldean activist.
To get to the United States, Marcus, who is now 50, walked from Iraq
to Turkey to Greece. He made his way to Frankfurt, Germany, then to
Mexico City and then to Tijuana, where he was among a group of about
130 Chaldeans who made news when they were temporarily detained at a
Tijuana hotel before being allowed to cross the border in September
He received political asylum June 20, 2001. But he and his wife worry
and grieve for the family members they left behind.
Sako, his wife, puts it this way: "We pray a lot."