For the Chaldeans of metropolitan Detroit, history may be understood as a trail of blood and tears and broken hearts that leads from the old country of Iraq to Detroit neighborhoods and even to the suburbs.
Fred (“Faraj”) Dally, 63, was robbed and murdered last week in front of his store, the Medicine Chest, at 9840 Dexter in Detroit. His life began in Iraq, as one of the persecuted Christian minority that came to the U.S., like many immigrant groups, seeking a safer, more prosperous life.
“He was like so many other Chaldean merchants, he was willing to take his chances so that his family could survive,” said Joe Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America, which is located in Southfield. “The Chaldeans left a vicious environment and some, like Fred, found one that is even more vicious.”
Kassab showed me a booklet compiled in April 1994 entitled “Commemoration of Chaldeans Slain in their Place of Business.” It contains a gruesome accounting of 66 slayings, with pictures of the victims, the dates of their murders and description of what happened. Two of Kassab’s relatives by marriage were slain in Detroit in the course of business.
The booklet was distributed then at a memorial mass at the Mother of God Cathedral in Southfield, attended by dignitaries including then-Wayne County Prosecutor John O’Hair and U.S. Representative Sander Levin, who continues to serve. According to Kassab, the number of Chaldean murder victims killed in connection with their business has risen to at least 110, with Fred Dally being the latest victim. His funeral was Saturday at Mother of God.
With bone-chilling matter-of-factness the booklet documents slaying after slaying:
Karim Jona, born: 1/15/1943; murdered 1/16/1988; found dead in store with multiple gunshot wounds; family: wife & six children. Patrick Kakos, born 1/29/1959; murdered 10/30/1984, murdered during a robbery, single.
According to Jim Hiller, owner of Shopping Center Markets and a second generation grocer, owning a store in Detroit always meant exposing oneself to the possibility of robbery and violence. The atmosphere got much worse, he said, after the 1967 riot.
As whites fled to the suburbs and Detroit became more and more an African-American city, tensions arose as some residents resented the merchants as intruders or exploiters rather than courageous entrepreneurs who were risking their lives to support their families.
Dally was loved by many, especially those who patronized his store. I met him a couple of times on Sunday mornings as he sat with other Chaldean businessmen at Panera Bread in West Bloomfield. He was a friendly, sweet-natured, reserved fellow.
“Such a tragedy,” said Nabby Yono, a mutual friend. “They didn’t have to kill him, he would have given them the money.” Yono said at least a third of the attendees at Dally’s funeral were African-Americans, patrons and friends from the vicinity of the Medicine Chest who were devastated by the crime.
The Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers are jointly offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Dally’s killers. Dally had served as chairman of the Associated Food and Petroleum dealers and knew the dangers he faced every day.
Kassab told me a bit about Dally the man, why he chose such a dangerous vocation.
“You have to understand,” he said, “our people came from a country where they were persecuted for generations.” Almost two thousand years ago, centuries before the Muslim religion, missionaries brought Christianity to Mesopotamia, the land now known as Iraq.
When Muslim warlords invaded, the ancestors of the Chaldeans retreated to the mountains of northern Iraq. Eventually they returned to the cities, relying on tight-knit families, business skills and education to survive and maintain their faith in a Muslim society. The first Chaldeans immigrated to Detroit in the early part of the twentieth century, settling in the area of E. Jefferson Avenue and East Grand Boulevard. They operated groceries.
Migration from Iraq to the U.S. and Detroit grew dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, as more and more Chaldeans sought to escape the repression of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party. Most lacked formal education or degrees. Small grocery stores in the city, especially in poorer neighborhoods, were a simple – if dangerous – way to get started, requiring little capital. It was the way Jewish immigrants and Italian immigrants had started, too.
“People want to know why we are so prominent in the party story business,” said Kassab. “Don’t forget: We were allowed to buy and sell alcohol in the old country. Muslims couldn’t touch liquor.”
Entire Chaldean-American families worked in groceries, party stores and other businesses, partly to provide employment, partly to maintain security and safety as much as possible. The amount of blood shed and the number of lives lost suggest that the struggle for security and safety has been a losing one.
“Today the children are educated, most of the time they don’t want to go into their parents’ stores,” said Kassab.
This was the case for the family of Karim Khamarko, who operated the Dollar Club Plus in Ferndale. On November 26, 2010 he was gunned down at his store. Candace Khamarko, 24, his daughter, works as an account executive for the Chaldean News in Southfield. She and her four siblings have attended college, none wished to continue to operate the store.
“It was too difficult for anyone in my family to work there after what happened to my father,” said Candace Khamarko.