For Lee Wazzi, co-owner of Santee's Lake's Market Liquor & Deli, the journey from Iraq to the United States opened doors of peace and opportunity for which he will always be grateful.
As he sits at a small desk in a back room at Lake’s Market Liquor & Deli, Lee Wazzi talks about his long life’s journey and counts himself a lucky man.
At age 42, he’s exactly where he wants to be.
A native of Iraq, Wazzi and his family and close friends dreamed of coming to America so they could live in peace, work hard and have a chance at success.
While many Americans don’t take time to count their blessings, Wazzi does every day. To him, the American dream isn’t just a theoretical concept. It’s his life.
“We grew up in Iraq,” says Wazzi, a Chaldean Christian who came to the United States in 1992. “Since we were kids we grew up in a war zone. We were all dreaming to find a place peaceful so we can live with our families and have freedom and just live as human beings.
“It was our dream to come to the U.S. When we came here we got so lucky that everything that we dreamed about was true. Beyond true, actually. We’re very fortunate.”
One member of his family arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1980s, and Wazzi and other family members soon followed.
Things were hard at first. He worked two to three jobs at a time, handling overnight shifts at gas stations and liquor stores while also taking English classes. In his early 20s, he found himself the head of a transplanted family in San Diego County.
But as time went on – and as he worked jobs all over the county – he and his wife were able to put some money aside.
In the late 1990s, they were able to buy a small market in Oceanside, with the help of partners. But the long hours and long distance from the east county – where his parents and most of his family live – wasn’t ideal, so they sold the place and joined another partnership to buy Lake’s Market in Santee in August of 2000.
Since that time, Wazzi and his partners – boyhood buddies from his hometown in Iraq, Ray and Johnny Damman – have owned and operated the market, which sits at the intersection of Carlton Hills Boulevard and Carlton Oaks Drive.
Though the store remains his focus, Wazzi and his partners have a formula that works, sharing responsibilities – from administration down to sweeping and stocking shelves – and overseeing about five employees who operate the in-store deli and the market’s counter duties.
He now has time to coach his daughter in soccer and to attend family gatherings in El Cajon, where he lives, every Sunday.
He puts long hours into the market, but relishes the opportunity he’s been given.
After growing up in Iraq and feeling the persecution of being a minority, and then living in Greece and getting a chance to travel through Europe and Mexico, Wazzi – who became an American citizen in 1995 -- says the United States is “the best place in the world.”
“There is nothing like San Diego, or America,” he says. “As a matter of fact in 2008, I went to vacation in Europe for two weeks. When we got home to the airport, I felt like I just wanted to kiss the ground.
“We feel more at home in this country than we ever did in Iraq.”
Running the business
For most of his life, Wazzi has worked in markets. His parents had a market in Iraq, and he learned about the business there.
When he and his wife operated the store in Oceanside, the going was tough. Because of a shortage of dependable staffers, they both opened and closed every day.
But in Santee, Wazzi feels blessed to have employees he trusts and feels comfortable delegating responsibilities to. No more does he have to open and close on the same day, giving him time to spend with his family.
“Everybody does everything here,” he says. “We all jump in the water. Everybody gets wet. We all work like a family.”
Lake’s Market is a small, neighborhood grocery with a deli that serves made-to-order sandwiches. Online reviews from longtime customers on local websites consistently rave about both the sandwiches and the friendly atmosphere – and Wazzi feels the same way about the community his store serves.
Though he lives in El Cajon, he’s grown deep roots in Santee, sponsoring Little League baseball and charity fund raisers while donating to school programs.
Wazzi knows some of his customers go out of their way to buy from his store rather than larger chain stores, and he appreciates it.
“This is the best neighborhood I’ve seen in San Diego,” says Wazzi. “The people support each other here. In El Cajon, I don’t even know who my neighbors are.”
As co-owner and operator, Wazzi works to keep supplies stocked, does the ordering, keeps track of inventories, works behind the counter and cleans as necessary and even goes shopping for items that customers have requested.
“Every little thing,” he says. “This business is my priority.”
A fresh start in the U.S.
In Iraq, Wazzi says Chaldeans often were abused and mistreated by what he calls “individual Muslim radicals” who treated them as if they were foreigners instead of a people that have roots extending as far as ancient Persia.
“They denied our history,” says Wazzi.
During the first Gulf War – when the U.S. pushed Iraq out of Kuwait -- Wazzi says he and family members were told by some Iraqis to “go to Bush to get your food” as they waited in line to get supplies.
It was those threats to their safety and the opportunity for a better life that convinced Wazzi and his family to come to America. Today, his parents and five sisters and a brother all live in San Diego County – an area with the second-largest Chaldean community in the U.S., following Detroit.
Though he counts his blessings – especially as he sees the opportunities for his daughter – Wazzi regrets those family members left behind.
An uncle whom he calls “my best friend” decided to remain in Iraq, intent to help build a new nation after Saddam Hussein. Wazzi says he had a master’s in computer programming and was working with the U.S. Army to help organize the new Iraqi defense force, when one day in 2004 he was killed by a car bomb.
“I was trying to get him here,” says Wazzi. But his uncle had told him, “Don’t worry about me. I’m safe.”
His uncle’s death reminded Wazzi once more why he worked so hard to come to the U.S. and build a new life.
The market, as he explains it, is much more than a business to him. It’s that American dream.
“Serving this business is my priority, because this is how we make our living for our family,” says Wazzi. “And we try not to do anything wrong, because from day one, when we walked into this store, we’re a very religious people. We took a cross and we prayed, and we say, ‘God please help us to do everything good.’
“This store for us, is like church for us. We serve it just like our house.”
By Doug Williams of the santee.patch.com