Dearborn: Home Away from Home for Iraqi Refugees
“There are parts of the city that for many Iraqis and other Arabs feel like being back home,” said Veronica Marroki, an employee of the Dearborn, Mich., field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), which helps refugees start a new life in the greater Detroit area. “It’s a close-knit community,” she said of the 300,000 some Arabs living in the Detroit area. “Most store owners in Arab parts of town will speak to you in Arabic when you enter their shop.”
Since 2003, more than 45,000 Iraqis have been resettled in the United States as refugees or special immigrant visa (SIV) cases. Last year alone, USCRI helped more than 2,000 Iraqis start over in America. The largest concentration of Iraqis found a new home in Dearborn.
While most of the Iraqi refugees are spread out thinly across the United States—in areas where they often lack a support network of fellow expatriates to lean back on—those arriving in the Detroit area enter a home away from home. With over 30 percent of its residents being of Arab descent, it is no wonder that Dearborn is dubbed the Arab capital of North America. The city boasts an array of mosques, Islamic schools, the Arab American National Museum, Arab festivals, as well as ethnic businesses and shops.
As soon as they arrive in the United States, refugees face an enormous task: to become self-sufficient within a few months. USCRI Dearborn tries to make the adjustment process as smooth and easy as possible from the moment the refugees set foot in America. The resettlement agency’s staff and volunteers, most of whom speak fluent English, Arabic, and some Chaldean, meet the arriving families at the airport and from there on assist them in finding housing, health care, and enrolling their children in school.
What’s more, the agency is dedicated to assisting refugees during their job hunt by providing career counseling, taking refugees to job fairs and interviews, helping them create a resume, offering pre-employment training activities, and otherwise preparing newcomers to enter the U.S. workforce. The proof of their success? About 60-70 percent of refugees who come through USCRI Detroit find a job within three to six months—a particularly impressive statistic given the current ailing economy and a high unemployment rate among Americans.
USCRI Detroit has developed relationships with various local companies that often contact the agency asking for Iraqi refugees to hire. These include Luckmarr Plastics, Inc., Turri's Italian Foods, A&M Hospitality, as well as an array of small businesses owned by members of the Arab and Chaldean community.
Approximately 121,000 Chaldeans, Christian Iraqis who came to the United States some 40-50 years ago, live in the Detroit area and about 60 percent own at least one business. Chaldeans have welcomed Iraqi refugees with open arms. Not only do they employ Iraqi refugees, they also provide charity work, transportation services, organize fundraisers, and donate space for USCRI to host workshops for refugees.
As a result, newly arrived refugees rely on USCRI and their “anchors”—immediate family members who sponsored them to come to the United States—to drive them to doctor’s appointments, job interviews, English classes, and anywhere else they need to go. The anchor agrees to help USCRI in providing the refugees he or she is sponsoring with permanent or temporary housing, as well as basic assistance and transportation for the first few months.
Another major challenge for refugees is learning how to budget the little bit of money they receive through grants and public assistance. USCRI Dearborn distributes the financial assistance in installments. “It’s very important to budget that money,” said Marroki. “But it’s sometimes difficult to explain to newly arrived refugees why we can’t give it to them in one lump sum.”
Despite these obstacles, Iraqi refugees are quick to adapt and become independent. They are eager to enroll their children in school, get a driver’s license, learn English, transfer their degrees, and find work. It takes an average Iraqi family about six months to a year to get fully adjusted and comfortable in their residence. The younger the refugee, the faster she adapts.
The Detroit community, Arab-American or not, shares a special bond with Iraqi refugees. Many feel a personal connection with refugees either because their parents were refugees from Europe during World War II or their kids are serving in Iraq. “People from the local community often tell us how their kids deployed in Iraq are forming friendships with local Iraqis,” said Musaibli. “And this makes them eager to give back to Iraqi refugees here.”
Iraqi refugees resettled in Dearborn truly feel at home in their new city, so much so that the vast majority ends up staying in the Detroit area. “There is a very diverse and welcoming community in Detroit,” said Musaibli. “We’ve all experienced adversity one way or another and we’re all able to share in this together.”
Photos from top to bottom: USCRI employees Veronica Marroki and Asra Musaibli; a recently arrived Iraqi family at a USCRI Detroit event; and a group of USCRI Detroit volunteers.