Photographer Dania Maxwell and I were recently in El Cajon, Calif., a predominantly working-class San Diego suburb with a large and growing Middle Eastern immigrant community, to explore the ever-contentious topic of what it means to be American, in the wake of President Trump’s recent efforts to redefine who belongs in this country and who doesn’t.

One thing that El Cajon illustrates is that being American means different — sometimes wildly different — things to different people.

These are some of the people we met:


Nour Abtini, back center, 14, dances hip-hop with friends during the lunch hour at his school in El Cajon. Abtini says he dances there every Friday. (Dania Maxwell/For The Washington Post)

Nour Abtini

Nour Abtini, a 14-year-old Syrian refugee and student at Emerald STEAM Magnet Middle School, caught our attention when we saw him dance.

Abtini, who arrived in El Cajon with his parents and six siblings in September, had found his passion in American hip-hop dance — discovered via YouTube — after his family fled Syria for Jordan, where they eked out a living for four years. According to Emerald’s principal, Steve Bailey, Abtini started demonstrating his moves in the schoolyard shortly after his arrival.

Abtini was new to the English language and new to America. But there he was, gliding across the concrete in front of all the other adolescents during the Friday lunch hour, when Bailey lets the kids play DJ. “It’s not common for one of our refugee students to be that comfortable” — let alone for an adolescent to be that comfortable, he said.

As the principal to some 590 children, many of them foreign-born, and more than 70 of whom arrived since the start of the school year, it was a welcome sign of an adaptation underway. “For him to come up there and do that, he had no qualms about it. It was really awesome,” Bailey said.

Dania and I were so enthralled with Abtini that we wanted to get to know his parents too. We ended up spending a few days hanging out with the whole family.


Hussein Abtini walks with his wife, Naema Hendawi, while their daughter Tasnim Abtini skips ahead outside their apartment in El Cajon. (Dania Maxwell/ For The Washington Post)

While Abtini was charging ahead in his new environment — his young brain absorbing not just dance moves, but a rapidly expanding English vocabulary and a growing awareness of American diversity — his parents were struggling.

Abtini’s mother, Naema Hendawi, was grateful to be in the United States — out of the catastrophic war that has engulfed her country and into a new life that seemed to hold real opportunities for her seven children. But America was bewildering, all the same.

Where are the jobs, she and her husband wondered. Maybe in New York City? They were puzzled by the sheer quantity of mail — letters, catalogs, coupons — that seemed to arrive every day. They asked for my help interpreting some of it one day, including a letter from the city informing them of a $204 ticket for a toll violation. Hendawi’s husband, Hussein Abtini, is blind, and she is illiterate, even in her native Arabic. They had determined, with their son Nour’s help, that the letter meant they owed money. But where? And how?

To Hendawi and her family at the moment when we met them, America mostly meant foreign. It was a place they had landed in not because they had dreamed of living here but because they had been forced from their home by violence. Resettlement in America — an exceedingly rare option for Syrian refugees — seemed to be their best shot at life.

Now they’re trying to figure out how to make things work, and how to belong. “Everything is strange here,” their son Bashar, 20, told me. “This isn’t our world.”


Mohamed al-Sajour poses for a portrait with his father, Mahmud al-Sajour, at Emerald STEAM Magnet Middle School in El Cajon. (Dania Maxwell/For The Washington Post)

Mahmud al-Sajour

Mahmoud al-Sajour, 47, also fled Syria with his family of five, and also wound up, by the luck of the draw, in El Cajon.

Like several other Iraqi and Syrian immigrants and refugees we interviewed, he once had the impression that America was a place of crime and loose morals. That, at least, was the impression offered to him by the other Syrian parents at Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, when he finally got the call from the United Nations telling him that resettlement might be possible.

“It will be hard to control your kids there. They’re too free,” he said they warned him. They would be taught things in school that would be simply “unacceptable.”

Since arriving four months ago, Sajour has reconsidered his image of America. There doesn’t seem to be rampant crime. His children seem to enjoy school, and no one has come home with loose morals yet.

“I respect people here because you see people [living in El Cajon who are] from all over the world, but they live together like they’re the same,” he said.


While out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, Paul Williams gives his wife, Michele Williams, a kiss at Blarney Stone Pub in El Cajon. (Dania Maxwell/For The Washington Post)

Paul and Michele Williams

Dania and I happened to be in El Cajon on St. Patrick’s Day, and we watched as dozens of Iraqi and Syrian refugee children trooped into Anza Elementary School that morning wearing green, as they had been told to do. We observed as they learned about leprechauns and about how an Irish holiday became a mainstay in American culture.

Later, we ventured into an Irish pub, where we met Paul and Michele Williams, both third-generation Americans — the descendants, collectively, of Irish, German, Dutch, English, Scottish, Welsh and Mexican immigrants. They had prepared corned beef that morning in honor of the holiday.

To the Williamses, being American was about hard work and self-sufficiency, expressing yourself freely, being strong and helping the weak.

“We have two and a half dogs,” Paul, a 56-year-old mechanic and military veteran, said of the three animals they rescued from the local animal shelter. “That’s our fix on being American — we’ve always taken in things that other people don’t like.”

America is a country of immigrants, he continued. “By my American standards, we don’t close doors and lock people out.” But being American, in his view, also means conforming to a certain way of living.

Some Muslims, he believes, “have no interest in being American.” Some come to the United States to “live their life their way and not honor and respect American tradition,” something he said he defines primarily as paying taxes and contributing to the economy.

But others, like the family of Iraqi refugees who recently moved in across the hall, do want to work hard, he said. “We all have to understand that this is a country made up of so many cultures,” he said, after recounting the “nice conversation” he and Michele had with the Iraqi couple. “Some are accepted sooner than others.”


Raymond Barno kisses his grandson Thomas Fattohi in San Diego. Barno immigrated to the United States in 1968 from Iraq. (Dania Maxwell/ For The Washington Post)

Raymond Barno

We met Raymond Barno through his daughter, Rhonda Fattohi, the teacher in our main story about El Cajon.

Barno is, by his and his family’s accounts, an immigrant success story. He immigrated to Detroit from Iraq in 1968, immediately found a job on the assembly line at Chrysler — “Back then, the car companies had signs on the buildings that said, ‘Be prepared to start working on the day you apply,'” he said — worked his way out of debt, graduated from college, raised a family and became a successful entrepreneur, now living in El Cajon, where he runs a legal aide service.

Barno, a Chaldean Catholic, votes Republican. He also barred his children from speaking English at home when they were growing up, and for years remained committed to his side activism as a political dissident to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

To Barno, the essence of America is access to equal rights and free speech — “freedom, stability, feeling comfortable,” he said. The first time he truly felt like an American was in 1974 — the year he became a citizen — when he saw a police officer reprimanded for discrimination after he had complained about mistreatment.

“I thought, ‘Wow,’ I never had rights in my country,'” he said. “‘Here I have rights.’”


El Cajon, a city of about 104,000 people in San Diego County, has for decades been a hub for refugees. Recently many Syrians have taken refuge here. (Dania Maxwell/For The Washington Post)