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Iraqi Refugees Find Michigan Is No Land Of Plenty

Rawa Bahou's three children sit with their cousin (right) for dinner. Bahou and her children live share a two-bedroom apartment in suburban Detroit with her brother-in-law, his wife and their two children.
Jamie Tarabay/NPR
Rawa Bahou's three children sit with their cousin (right) for dinner. Bahou and her children live share a two-bedroom apartment in suburban Detroit with her brother-in-law, his wife and their two children.

Michigan has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, so the last thing the state needs is more people coming in without jobs — and that includes refugees from Iraq. The economy is so bleak that the State Department no longer wants to allow Iraqis to settle in Michigan unless they have immediate relatives already living there.

At the Catholic Archdiocese refugee center in Detroit, Raed Jabro is talking with caseworker Rhonda Perkins about a possible job lead. Jabro, a 49-year-old engineer with neat hair and trim spectacles, has been in Detroit since August. He is hoping for something in his field, but the market doesn't look good.

"It's not easy to find a job now," he says.


Jabro is one of thousands of Iraqi refugees trickling into the United States — a fraction of the millions who have lost their homes in Iraq because of the war. His brother and sister already live in Detroit, and they sponsored Jabro and his family to move there.

The search for employment may not be easy for Jabro, but he has a head start compared with other Iraqis: He has qualifications, workable English and access to a car, which is critical to getting anywhere in this city stacked with highways but lacking in public transportation.

Two years ago, only 202 Iraqi refugees were allowed into the country. This year, that number is almost 14,000 — and most refugees have gravitated to Detroit, home to America's largest Arab population as well as a sizable Iraqi Christian or Chaldean community. But now officials say they're swamped.

John Bimatta, the head of refugee services for the Archdiocese of Detroit, says it's not easy to handle all the newcomers.

"They need the help of the entire community," Bimatta says. "When everything will be easy for us, we can say bring more."


Resettling Refugees

Bimatta's office is just one national agency that the State Department pays to help resettle refugees. He expects to resettle about 1,000 people this year, but only those who have immediate relatives already living here.

This new policy is creating another problem: secondary migration. Refugees are settled in another part of the country, and they come to Detroit anyway.

In Farmington Hills, northwest of Detroit, Rawa Bahou and her three children live crammed into a two-bedroom apartment with her brother-in-law, his wife and their two children. Bahou's children are all under 9 years old. They climb onto chairs and poke at their bowls of beans and rice, and it gets a bit crowded at dinnertime.

Bahou is a widow. She says she left Iraq after her husband was killed by an American military patrol. After three years of waiting in Syria, she finally was granted asylum status. Her nearest relatives live in Detroit, but the United Nations — which works with different countries' resettlement agencies to place refugees — sent her to Atlanta.

"We stayed in an apartment they rented for us," Bahou says. "I didn't go out. I closed the door, rang my in-laws to come get me."

Her brother-in-law rented a van, drove to Atlanta and brought them to Detroit. But all the things that came with her resettlement — the apartment, the cash assistance, the food stamps — stayed behind. The bureaucracy has yet to catch up with her move.

A Competitive Market

Bahou's sister-in-law complains that no one has been able to give them answers, and her brother-in-law, his hands black with grease from his job as a mechanic, says he has to carry the burden of providing for everyone.

But at least one of the people they have gone to for help insists everything is OK. Joe Kassab, the head of Detroit's Chaldean federation, says the Chaldean community can take care of its own. He disagrees with the decision to restrict the numbers of Iraqi refugees.

"Those who aren't working, their families are supporting them. They are not a burden on the government or the state," Kassab says. "They are a clannish people. They live among each other, and if I lose money, I have my cousin — my uncle going to help me."

Many Iraqi Chaldean refugees who want to work are employed in Chaldean-owned hotels or supermarkets, Kassab says. Those are rare jobs in a state where unemployment is 8.7 percent.

Kassab sympathizes with the out-of-work Detroiter, who he says is more entitled to such jobs than a refugee. "I have no quarrel with that, but it's a competitive market," he says. "This is something that's up to the employer who they want to hire."

And that's what worries officials. The immediate resettlement — finding a house, giving three months' worth of cash assistance — is the easy part. The hard part comes afterward, when the money has run out, the economy is still bad and affordable housing is hard to come by. These refugees will have to deal with that in the long run.

Sarah Hulett contributed to this report.

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