Seeking refuge

August 1, 2016

Tariq (not his real name) first stepped foot on American soil on January 21, 2016, after three long years spent as a refugee in limbo in Turkey. Originally from Mosul, Iraq, he said, through an interpreter, he escaped his hometown and home country “due to the threat of terrorism and the violence of the groups in the area.” He was also working with American groups in Iraq, making him more of a target, he said. 

“And because I am a Christian, I felt more threatened,” he said. When his wife was threatened and intimidated when she was at the university, it became clear – they had to flee their homeland.

Tariq arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport with his wife and two young children, where he was met by a caseworker from Samaritas, formerly Lutheran Social Services, and volunteers who helped set them up in an apartment in Sterling Heights, where there is a large community of Iraqis, many who, like Tariq's family, are Chaldeans, or Iraqi Christians. They came with no family ties, knowing no one but each other.

Samaritas, along with Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and Jewish Family Service of Ann Arbor, are approved by the United States government to provide resettlement to refugees of all ages, from countries around the world that have been torn apart by war, persecution and strife. The difference between an immigrant and a refugee is that an immigrant is someone who chooses to move to another country, versus a refugee, who leaves their home country due to war or political unrest, and feels they cannot return due to fear of persecution because of their race, religion, ethnicity or political affiliations. 

Leaving a country as a refugee is not a simple, or quick, process. 

“The immigration process is lengthy and takes years,” said Kimberly Hassan, program coordinator for the Arab American and Chaldean Council (ACC). “It's done through the United Nations and Department of Homeland Security, and it's a series of interviews and background checks. If the interviews aren't done, because of security issues in the region, they're put on hold. If government issues or safety and security are not safe for the interviewer, it's put on hold. There's no rushing any of the process. Someone from the UN goes out, into the refugee camps, or wherever, and interviews the clients, and if the area isn't safe, because they're not always in stable governmental areas, the process is on hold. 

“When numbers (of refugees) are slower, the State Department responds by saying the area where the refugees are isn't safe for the interviewers to go out and interview them,” Hassan said. “For refugees, on average, it's a years-long process. For some, they wait 10 years.”

Hassan said her agency, based on their staff's qualifications, primarily deals with Iraqi, Egyptian and some Syrian refugees, along with some from Muslim African countries. “Iraqi refugees are still the majority.” Most of the refugees who arrive here are families, with 35 to 40 percent children. “A majority are families because people want to find a safe place for their families,” Hassan explained.

Between October 2014 and May 2016, ACC welcomed 511 refugees to Oakland County, 75 percent of which were Iraqis, and the remainder were mostly Syrian. “In the last few months, there has been a steady increase in Syrian refugees,” she said. “You see the Syrians on the news, but it takes time for it to translate.”

“After Paris, some politicians stated there should be an ethnic or religious litmus test for anyone coming into this country. We believe that is antithetical to American values. We are a country that has historically welcomed refugees and immigrants from around the world,” noted Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council of Muslim-American Relations (CAIR). “We see the anti-Syrian refugee sentiment as part of a greater framework of Islamophobia, and that is why our organization has been vocal in fighting that sentiment.”

From October 2014 to May 2016, for Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb counties, ACC welcomed 2,321 refugees, which Hassan said was down from fiscal year 2013, when they had 3,200 refugees. In fiscal year 2014, they received 2,788 refugees. “The numbers are starting to go back up,” Hassan said. “One of the issues (for the decline) we were informed of was security.”

Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit and a former Democratic state representative for southwest Detroit (2002-2008), said that despite the political rhetoric, “metro Detroit is one of the leading areas of the country to embrace immigration. We've really helped create an understanding that immigration is a positive economic opportunity for the region.”

He noted that since 2009, when he began working on this initiative, there are now close to 20 Rust Belt cities embracing the model of immigration as an economic growth incentive, and it continues to be in metro Detroit's best interest to encourage immigrants to settle here.

“The state of Michigan has 6.5 percent foreign born (population), well below the national average of 13 percent. In southeastern Michigan, it's nine percent,” Tobocman said. He said of adult immigrants over the age of 25, “40 percent are college educated, compared to 22 percent of native born Michiganders, and they're almost twice as likely to possess college degrees in coveted STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) areas.”

He pointed out that research from University of Berkley and Duke University have both indicated that 25 percent of high tech corporations founded between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant founder or cofounder, and 52 percent of Silicon Valley high tech firms have an immigrant founder. 

Michigan, surprisingly, is ranked third in the nation for an area that attracts highly educated, more entrepreneurial, successful immigrants, behind California and New Jersey. “And those are not communities threatened by declining populations,” Tobocman said. 

New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul – Tobocman points out that they are all cities that over the last several decades found their resurgence largely due to strong immigration growth.

“These cities have embraced immigrants as a way of repopulating their cities,” he said. “The only cities that have rebounded from population loss is to have strong immigration growth.”

He said that between 1960 and 1980, of the 50 largest American cities, 29 lost population, including Detroit. Fourteen of those cities grew their populations between 1980 and 2013, “and all 14 had strong immigration growth. Zero cities did it without immigration growth. You can't find a single city that grew without immigrants.

“We look at immigrants as a valuable part of resettling the area,” agreed Wojciech Zolnowsk, executive director of International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit, first founded in 1919, to assist refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers in the metropolitan area. “From a strictly economic perspective, the height of immigration balance was the '50s, '60s and '70s, when the ratio of working class to seniors was 150 workers to 20 retirees. So we need to entice immigrants to come to help sustain the economic balance. We mainstream them to accelerate their customer power. Most refugees and immigrants are of working age, and many are highly educated and highly skilled. What we also know about immigrants is that most are very driven.”

Currently, the institute serves individuals from 46 nations, although most are Iraqis, Chaldeans, Mexicans, Indians and some Syrians.

“Mayor (Mike) Duggan has talked about repopulating the city as his number one goal – he has talked that he should be judged on that,” Tobocman said. “For the last 25 years, if that is any kind of indication, he won't get there without immigration.”

Tobocman says he believes that is possible, as immigration is growing in the city, with refugees from Yemen and Bangladesh, and Latino immigrants settling in underserved areas because of low costs to rent and own a house, as well as to start and own a business, although immigration is currently only at five percent in Detroit.

“We have had to work to have the communities learn to communicate and work together,” said Christine Sauvé, senior project coordinator for Welcoming Michigan, an immigrant integrator initiator, noting that in a southwestern Detroit neighborhood, where there were once African Americans and those from Appalachia, it is now populated with African Americans, Hispanics and Yemeni Arabs. “The community group worked with the youth, who were Hispanic and Arab, and the elders, who were African American. We've seen a lot of learning,” she said, notably where younger members learn some of the others' language. “We have to remember they're taxpayers and consumers as well as business owners.”

“There are about 400,000 immigrants in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, and only about 35,000 in the city of Detroit. The other 90 percent live in the suburbs,” Tobocman said. “I think it's for the same reasons so many others have left the city of Detroit,” noting many Iraqi refugees have family ties in Dearborn, Troy and Sterling Heights. 

Over the 20 years Mihaela Mitrofan has been director of refugee resettlement for Samaritas in southeast Michigan, she has seen the refugee migration evolve from Vietnamese refugees to Bosnian, Albanian, Kosovan and Iraqis, and now Syrians. “Since the 1990s, Russians have been more constant. After 9/11, it was Iraqis and others from the Middle East. Between 2007-2008, when there was a large influx of Iraqi refugees, and our numbers peaked in 2013, and have kept growing, with Iraqis and Chaldeans (Iraqi Christians). Right now, we have a diverse resettlement of Iraqi and Syrian refugees, along with Somalis, Sudanese, and Afghani refugees.”

As of May 2016, for this fiscal year, Samaritas had resettled 1,446 refugees in Michigan, with 800 coming to Troy. In the last year, they resettled 21 Syrians to western Michigan and 62 in southeast Michigan. 

Mitrofan noted it's still early on in the resettlement of Syrian refugees, and whether they come to Michigan over other places is often determined by where they may choose to come, based on family or other community ties. Some have no family ties, but choose to come here because of the large community of other Middle Eastern people. As Hassan noted, southeast Michigan has the largest population of Middle Eastern people outside of the Middle East, with California second, so many choose to come here because there are established communities. Currently, according to U.S. Census figures, there are about 500,000 Middle Eastern individuals in metro Detroit. “There are staffs of community organizations prepared to deal with them, cultural restaurants, cultural stores, churches, mosques, a support system is already there,” Hassan stated. “It's a lot easier to find someone to translate here than someplace else.”

“The Middle Eastern population in Detroit is open and willing to help Arabic-speaking refugees; we have a long history of that in metro Detroit,” concurred Lynne Golodner, spokesperson for Samaritas. “The Syrian American Rescue Network (SARN) is a formal volunteer group that Samaritas collaborates with, and they've been advocating for as many Syrians as we can possibly resettle to come to metro Detroit.”

Landing at Metro airport does not mean all of their worries and troubles are over – they may have escaped their troubled country, and then left behind refugee camps with all of their incumbent horrors, but now they are forced into a new life, a new world, a new home where nothing is familiar.

“When they first get here, the mind set is just survival, especially if they're coming from a war-torn country,” Hassan said. “Later, they can consider job skills. Some don't even want to talk about their previous life because of the stigma.”

“In the beginning, it was difficult,” Tariq said. “Everything – the language, the country, everything, the community. We don't have any relatives here, so we are all alone. Now we're getting adjusted and meeting people.”

Help and assistance can come from many corners. Resettlement groups like Samaritas, Catholic Charities, and U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants provide refugees with furnished apartments, basic household items, food, welcome them at the airport and take them to their new home. Volunteer groups often provide the emotional and practical assistance once the agencies leave.

“We are sponsoring a family from Syria, a mother, father, an 18-year old son, and a 17-year old son, who is living in a member's home in Birmingham,” said Frank Driscoll, chairperson of the Church's Society at Birmingham's First United Methodist Church. The family, who arrived on June 3, first spent about a week in a hotel, he said, after which Samaritas referred them to the church group of volunteers. “We are providing the home rent-free for six months. The member built an in-law suite addition onto their home, and the member committed to allowing them to stay.”

Driscoll said their journey as volunteer hosts began last fall, when a church bishop wrote a letter stating how dismayed she was over the public conversation regarding not wanting immigrants, especially Syrian immigrants, to come to Michigan, or the U.S. “It was a powerful letter,” he said, and it motivated the pastor at their church to spur them to action.

The family that is staying with them in Birmingham, Driscoll said, first left Syria over five years ago, after they experienced a lot of firefighting around them, including an injury to one of the sons. “They went to Jordan, rented a home, applied for refugee status, and waited. Their life was on hold,” he said. The father, at age 63, is starting his life over, and they have no family in metro Detroit. 

The family is beginning to take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and the two sons will be enrolling in school for the fall. In a few months, the father should hopefully get a job. About 70 volunteers from the church are taking turns providing them with all of their transportation needs, driving them shopping, to medical appointments and making sure they have check ups, helping them get groceries, providing them with clothing. Driscoll noted he has discovered an area in Sterling Heights with markets geared towards them, and enjoys taking them grocery shopping. “It has really been wonderful for us. There's a lot of excitement in our church. A lot of people want to help them.”

Driscoll said that in addition, First United Methodist Church is planning on hosting weekly meetings for the family as well as other Syrian refugees in the area, “so they can share with people of similar backgrounds what they have been going through.”

The church group is committed to the family for six months, providing transportation to each member to and from school, and once they get a job, back and forth to work, all appointments, and to cultural outings around metro Detroit. “We have them for six months, and when they leave us, we will provide them with an automobile and furnishings for their new place.”

Their generosity is matched by the family, Driscoll asserted. “When you visit them, they take hospitality to the next level. They want you to sit in the most comfortable chair, and they offer you and always want you to have something to eat or drink.”

Julie Huellmantel was motivated by the picture of the drowned young Syrian refugee boy washing up on the shore of a Turkish beach to similarly act. She spoke to her pastor at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church, and the church decided to support a family. They were contacted in February about a refugee family from Iraq who had just arrived in Troy.

“They were set up in an apartment (by Samaritas), but while it was furnished, they really needed everything, from toothbrushes, toilet paper, furniture, light bulbs, bath mats – all of the little things you never think of,” Huellmantel said. “After we moved them in, I took the father to Meier and took him grocery shopping for food and staples, things for the kitchen. We had brought certain basics, but we wanted them to get the kind of food they would feel comfortable with.”

She said they have stayed in contact with them since the family has become more established in their community. “They're in a great community, the kids are enrolled in school, and they have a great support network,” she said. As a Christian Iraqi family, they are one of many relocated to the Troy/Sterling Heights area, with restaurants, schools and grocery stores around them. “It's all culturally familiar to them when they're in a new country.”

Huellmantel said that about once a month, the family comes over to the east side to Grosse Pointe Memorial Church. “He (the father) got a job, and he's employed. We got them a car from someone in our church who donated a car. They have been so, so, so grateful for our generosity.”

However, Huellmantel said that she and her fellow volunteers have been the fortunate ones. “Whenever you volunteer, you take home much more than you give,” she said. “Every time we're with them, it's always been a great experience.” So much so, they have now welcomed a second family, a mother and two children from the Ivory Coast. 

But families are not left on their own, with volunteers driving and helping them out. Established organizations are trained to deal with immigrant issues and needs.

Once they take them to their apartments from the airport, “We provide them with a safety orientation,” Samaritas' Mitrofan said. “We want to educate them about personal safety – not to leave their apartment unlocked, not to venture outside in the streets, not let their kids go out alone. That happens immediately after arrival. Then we immediately educate them on U.S systems, laws, and the legal system. We talk about education in the United States, and the importance of enrolling them and their children in the U.S educational system, and we help enroll them in school,” especially in ESL classes. 

They also receive all necessary inoculations and medical checks.

She said local schools are very welcoming to new immigrants. “We have been working with many schools, for them to obtain ESL and other language services. Many schools in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties are very welcoming, with resources to work with the incoming refugee population.” 

Samaritas has a refugee school impact program which acts as a liaison between the refugee students and the districts to ease other cultural differences. “We help (immigrant) parents with parenting skills in the U.S.,” Mitrofan said. “We teach them about disciplining in the U.S., the different ways of acceptable disciplining, ways to engage with education, tutoring, how they can get direct assistance between school personnel, like teachers and parents, such as dealing with report cards and parent/teacher conferences, so they understand what they need to be doing.”

She said they also assist them with resume preparation, job prep and job searches, as well as job placement assistance, “and we follow up on them.” She said most refugees, especially those from Iraq and Syria, are typically placed in sustainable employment between three to six months of their arrival. 

“It's one of our successes. We work very intensely when they arrive, going through their past employment, their education, mental and physical health, their English proficiency – they're all factors to how soon they can gain employment,” Mitrofan said. 

She said they arrive with work permits, and they connect the refugees with Social Security numbers, and enroll them in driver's education, or if they already know how to drive, help them get their driver's license. They also help them get assistance through the Department of Health and Human Services, to get Bridge cards. “It's just a little help to get them on their feet,” she said.

Once they get on their feet and learn English, many come to the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit, Zolnowsk said, where they enter into career development and job placement programs, and vocational programs for less skilled refugees and immigrants. Many learn carpentry, to be electricians, plumbers, and seamstresses and tailors. “Thirty to forty percent of our participants come to us as refugees,” he noted. “There's a growing demand for professional sewing machinists. This multi-level training program allows them to accelerate the process of becoming a self-employable individual,” which is especially important for many wives, who can then work producing sewn items from home.

“We have a very good return on investment that way, to have them stay employed. We check on them. We also want them to understand the culture and interact with people. We want them to go to a PTA meeting, or a city council meeting. We want them to be successful,” he said.

An important program he encourages them to participate in is a financial empowerment programs that helps build their credit history, which they do in collaboration with the United Way of Southeast Michigan. “We can enroll the immigrant in a twin account program to establish their credit, and we get it from zero to 680 FICO score in six to eight months,” Zolnowsk said. “We have an agency that loans them $200, and they have to repay it in increments of $20 to $50 a month, and they have to report it, and in that way they begin to earn credit.”

It is not only a way to earn credit, it becomes a gift. “It's not only a loan – it's a match,” he said. “Once it's paid off, it's given to them as a gift.”

Tariq, who has now been here for six months, said he and his family have felt welcomed by the Americans they have met here. “People have been very open and welcoming.”

While they are still settling in, acculturating, he said, “from a security and peace of mind, I feel much better here. We're safer and happier.”

“Immigrants are not better or smarter, but when they come to the U.S., they are willing to work harder, longer, to sacrifice for their children,” Zolnowsk said. “I look at them as the new pioneers.”

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