Mark Arabo, 31, is one of the most active and outspoken advocates for Chaldeans, a persecuted religious minority in Iraq that has suffered at the hands of the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
About 20 years ago, he was an “All-American boy” — or trying to become one. He played track, basketball and football at Valhalla High School and embraced two of America’s juiciest culinary traditions: “You know, eat a hot dog, eat a hamburger.”
Always tugging at him were his two cultures. Arabo is Chaldean-American, born in La Mesa to Iraqi Christians.
East County is home now to tens of thousands of Chaldeans. Most came as refugees during and after the Iraq War, drawn by the weather, and to follow early settlers — like Arabo’s family, who immigrated in the late 1970s.
Growing up, Arabo was one a handful of Chaldeans at his schools. “The people never knew me as Chaldean, they knew me as Mark,” he said. But he felt differences from the other children: They got ham and cheese sandwiches in their lunchboxes. His parents packed something “like an egg roll.” They sang hymns in English at church. His services were in Arabic, which he didn’t speak then.
“I wanna go to a different church. I wanna understand it,” Arabo said in an interview, mimicking the whiny voice he would use on his dad, who used to answer, in a no-nonsense tone, “No, you’ll appreciate it.”
That day has come.
Arabo has emerged as a leader among U.S. Chaldeans who want relief for their families left in Iraq. He makes somber predictions in the weighty cadences of a Cassandra, imploring those who have the power to shape history to lend their ears, to prevent further deaths. To believe him.
“My worst fear is we will look back three years from now and say we could have stopped this genocide,” he said in an earlier interview.
This week Arabo is in Washington D.C., meeting with members of Congress, the State Department and other organizations to persuade them to provide sweeping asylum to Iraqis displaced by ISIS. He worked with Rep. Juan Vargas, who quickly tuned in to Arabo’s warnings, on a resolution that urged protection for Iraqis persecuted by ISIS and on a bill that could provide such protection through asylum.
Arabo may be younger than many of the people he’s dealing with at the federal and international levels, but he said he’s used to making waves and speaking up.
“Noisy,” is how his great uncle, retired State Sen. Wadie Deddeh, described Arabo as a kid. In a group of 10, “you could spot one and know this is the one who’s going to be someone.”
Arabo’s explanation: He was tall as a boy. So tall, he added, that he was an above-average football player. That height put him in a position to protect the puny, which says he did at school and around his neighborhood.
Kusay Arabo, one of his three older brothers (they have a younger sister, who is a nun), described Mark as “the persistent one,” the nagger of the bunch, and boy who welcomed outsiders and loners to their games in the park.
In college, Mark took care of their father as he was dying of heart failure. He learned a lot from the businessman and devout Christian about how to treat people, Arabo said. A repeated lesson: speak up for the voiceless.
Since 2006, Arabo, who is married and has three young children, has focused on protecting a different kind of underdog: crime victims.
That year he became the president of the Neighborhood Market Association, a business group that has some political heft through its campaign donations. He said his main priority is public safety at the markets and around their neighborhoods. The catalyst was the death of his childhood friend, Heather Mattia, who was shot while working at a liquor store.
“The sweetest girl you ever knew. An angel,” he said, rubbing his frowning forehead. The business group raised a $100,000 bounty to find the suspect, and now it pledges a $10,000 reward toward the solving of crimes that happen in member stores.
Arabo started working intently on Chaldean issues in 2011, when the U.S. troop pullout was in the works and he learned no status of forces agreement was signed with then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He worried that Christians, who were already facing an uncertain fate after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, could be further endangered without protection from coalition troops.
His efforts have earned him the respect of elders in his community, including San Diego’s Chaldean Bishop Sarhad Jammo. “He is very conscientious, very dedicated,” Jammo said. “He is faithful to his people and to his conscience and to human dignity.”
They’ve also earned skepticism, not necessarily of Arabo’s sincerity, but of the possible collateral benefits to his efforts.
“I think he is genuinely concerned about the plight of Christians in Iraq,” said Gary Kendrick, an El Cajon city councilman who has tussled with Arabo on the prevalence and practices of liquor stores in that city. Arabo was supporting the interests of the Neighborhood Market Assocation.
Fighting against genocide is not an unpopular cause, and it’s one that could result in increased political capital, Kendrick added. “I would not be surprised if he runs for Congress, probably as a Democrat, for Susan Davis’ seat when she leaves.”
Though Arabo is intent on helping vulnerable Iraqis, he’s never set foot in Iraq. Not that he doesn’t want to. When he was 10, the family had a trip planned, and the Persian Gulf War happened. When he was 20, “Shock and Awe” interrupted plans again. Now “there’s a genocide.” He said he hopes safety will be restored to Iraq by the time he’s 40.