Nearly 5 million Iraqis have been uprooted since the US-led invasion and occupation of their country in March 2003. Mary Coons visits Detroit, Michigan, to learn how Iraqi refugees are adapting to life in the United States.
“I was playing soccer in the street with a friend. When we finished, I started walking home and noticed a car coming behind me with three people wearing masks. They stared right at me with a look like they wanted to kill me. I was scared and started running. Thank God my dad was just opening the door to our house, and I ran in.”
Dani Faraj, now 16, vividly recalls this horrifying event six years ago in his west Baghdad neighborhood. “These would-be abductors must have known that we had relatives outside of Iraq and if they kidnapped my son, they would get ransom money,” Talal Hermez tells me through an interpreter as we gather around his sponsor’s kitchen table. Dani’s experience is not unique. In fact, during my visit to Detroit, Michigan – an area with 78,000 Iraqi refugees, the largest Iraqi population in the U.S. – I repeatedly heard similar powerful stories. And not all of them had happy endings.
Stories of threats to close stores that went unheeded resulting in shooting deaths of the shop owner or a relative. Stories of family-owned businesses torched to the ground because a family refused to leave the country. Stories of discrimination and religious persecution. Stories of abduction, ransom and death. Stories of living in fear of leaving one’s home to go to work or buy food with no police security as protection. Stories from a generation born after 1980 that knows nothing but war.
“I lived half of my life in a village on the border of Iraq and Iran,” Al Zara, an Iraqi American tells me. “Every evening from 1980 to 1988 Tehran would blow a missile to us right at sunset. You just sit and wait until the missile passed and then head outside and go about your business. If the missile hit nearby, we’d rush to help the injured. This was our life for eight years.”
Salah Zoma, an engineer who left Iraq for American in 1973, empathizes. “So many of these refugees have only seen war. This is what they were raised in. You can see it in their body language when they first arrive. When a generation only knows shortage of food and abundance of bullets and bombs, it’s bound to have a profound effect.”
“I rarely left the house,” Nagham George, Dani’s mother, explains through the interpreter. “As a Christian woman, I had to wear a veil in Baghdad. If I did not, it would be known that I was non-Muslim.”
It’s not only Christian women having to veil themselves, replies Vivian Kazanji, “but also Jews, Catholics and those of other orthodox religions. My niece cannot leave her hair uncovered in Baghdad when she leaves her home. Every woman who is not Muslim fears for her life.” Mr. Kazanji and her husband, Fred, along with their three children immigrated to the U.S. in July 1992.
“A big reason for the religious persecution in Iraq is that if Iraqis know you are Christian, they automatically assume you are pro American,” believes Al Zara. “The insurgents truly believe that Christians are automatically involved with Western civilization. And since the majority of people in the U.S. are Christians… well, do you see their thought process? Because the Christians cannot protect themselves and represent a very small percentage of the population, they have basically become target practice.”
“Based on your last name, they automatically assume you are Christian,” interjects Zoma. “But that happened between the Shia and Sunnis too, not just with the Christians.”
Kidnapping has become a cottage industry in Iraq. Nafa Khalaf, an Iraqi American Muslim and president of a successful business, left Iraq in 1986 under no duress. He had two brothers kidnapped, one in 2003 and one in 2006. “I paid the ransom for both,” he says. “One of my brothers was held for three and a half weeks. The first ransom was for $120,000, but the second one was $275,000, a car and a house. I had no choice but to agree. Seven members of my family were killed because I opened an office in Baghdad to work with an American.”
Although Muslim refugees are also fleeing their homeland, Christians tend to comprise the largest religious numbers seeking refuge in the U.S.
Mosul, Iraq’s most ethnically and religiously mixed city was once home to many of Iraq’s estimated 750,000 Christians. July and August 2009 saw numerous church bombings that Christians believe was a direct message that they were not welcome. Although Iraqis of all religions and ethnicities worry it may worsen, Christians, as the weakest link in the Iraqi society chain, fear they may be the targets of further insurgent violence.
American-born Iraqi Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, explains why. “Iraqis are fleeing because of religious persecution, ethnic intimidation, force conversion and treatment as second and third class citizens. It is a desolate environment with no infrastructure. Chaldean villages in northern Iraq are in an area dominated on the north by Kurds and located near a Sunni population. The Kurds are trying to annex the land; the Arabs are not in favor of that, and the Chaldeans are caught in the crossfire.”
Just as being Arab is a culture and Islam is a religion, Chaldean is an ethnicity. Most Chaldeans are Catholic; all are Christian. Mesopotamia – now Iraq – is their recognized place of origin. Because Chaldeans were a silent minority throughout history, their culture remains one of the least historically known and understood.
“While the U.S. is trying to curtail terrorism, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world is being wiped out,” emphasizes Manna. “The new Iraqi constitution has Sharia law, and although the Christians are only five percent of the population, they represent a much larger percentage of attorneys, physicians, engineers, businessmen and other educated individuals. The Iraqi Parliament is based on sects, and because of that, Christians are not represented within the government.”
Dr. Noori Mansour, a now retired surgeon who came to the U.S. in 1972, concurs. “In May 2003 the Baath regime created the Council headed by Paul Bremer, the American ambassador. The Council was divided by sects – Sunni, Shia, Kurds – and that created a bad atmosphere between the nationalities. The minorities had very little representation in Parliament. It is still that way today.”
“In 2006 and 2007 in Baghdad, Al Qaida Muslims imposed conditions for Christians,” continues Dr. Mansour. “They either had to convert to Islam, pay a 10 percent tax, or leave without their belongings. We all love Iraq and want to nourish and see it progress for the betterment of all Iraqis regardless of ethnicity or religion. But there are sects among the fanatics who want to empty Iraq from those who originally built the country.”
“Regardless of their miseries and experiences, the Iraqis are one people – Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Chaldeans, Jews and Christians. The Iraqis persecuting those in Iraq are not the Iraqis we lived with,” Nafa Khalaf says. “Someone has an agenda.”
“Culturally, we cannot live without a mix,” he believes. “The Iraqi culture and society was built on the mix of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. We were never asked if we go to mosque or church to pray because it was all under one name – The House of God. Under humanity we are all bonded; we live together. This war has nothing to do with religion. The message may be taking the shape of religion, but power is what the fight is about.”
The Great Migrations
Regardless of the era, the vast majority of Iraqis coming to America came for the future of their children, which translates to religious and political freedom. And most realized that future was not in Iraq. The Detroit area has the largest Iraqi population in the U.S. with another 25,000 refugees expected in the next two years. But why Detroit?
“A very simple explanation,” Amir Denha, publisher of the Chaldean Detroit Times replies. “In 1913 Henry Ford started the assembly line in Detroit and advertised for workers. He was paying five dollars a day. Iraqis came, got jobs and sent money back home to support their parents. Otherwise, the beginning was in New York where the ship landed.”
Back in the 1920s and 30s, Iraqis coming to America didn’t know what to expect and were quite clannish, according to Mike George. Fondly known as the “godfather of the community” for helping so many refugees, Mr. George was instrumental in forming the Chaldean Federation of America 28 years ago. “Refugees came here penniless in need of food, clothing and shelter. We just continued our custom of helping others.
“Because so many who came here didn’t know the language and therefore couldn’t find a job, they worked for relatives. That way you learned a business. Once qualified, they then opened their own business. The way they would do that was to borrow money from all of their relatives and friends – maybe 25 people – with no interest or notes. As they made their money, they repaid their debt,” explains George.
Michael Sarafa, a U.S.-born Iraqi, is one of many leading the community into new industries. “Martin Manna always felt that the Chaldean community was successful with enough built-in demand to have its own bank,” he says. Although a challenge, the Bank of Michigan became reality with the help of other groups and partners, and Sarafa now at the helm.
No one came to America during the Second World War. Large numbers relocated in the 1950s and 60s, and were more highly educated. In those days, America was prosperous, and Iraqis who were well educated were in demand. Most Iraqis entering the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s were on student visas with the intention of completing their master’s or PhD and returning to Iraq. The next largest refugee influx occurred during the 1970s followed by the 1990s.
Dr. Mansour was working in a Baghdad hospital treating political prisoners in the late 1960s when the Baath party was in power. “I saw the situation with the new regime unbearable; therefore, I left Iraq in 1970.”
“People thought I was crazy for leaving Iraq in 1973,” Zoma, a U.S. citizen, states. “I was making good money as an engineer, and things were good in Iraq. But after I finished serving in the Army and went to work, I felt the country was going in the wrong direction, and so I left. I came to the U.S. and worked for my uncle before returning to school to continue my education.”
According to the Metro Detroit Chaldean Survey 2008, commissioned by the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, and administered by the United Way and Walsh College in the Detroit area, the pattern of immigration to the Detroit area corresponds with periods of Iraqi instability.
Akram Namou came to the U.S. in 1981. “I was not persecuted, but we had limited opportunities to grow our businesses. My father encouraged me to leave Iraq and study accounting abroad.” Namou, who owns and/or manages two dozen branded hotels, acknowledges that he wanted to use his education and “come to the land of opportunity.”
The current exodus has been called the largest population movement in the Middle East since 1948. Nearly 90 percent of refugees who have relocated to the Detroit area have no plans to return to Iraq. In the past half year, the government has sent many refugees scheduled for Michigan to other states due to Michigan’s staggering unemployment rate.
Refugees coming to America do so legally at the invitation of the U.S. Government.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement for the Archdiocese of Detroit has the mandate from the Federal government to assist incoming refugees. For four years, they have resettled refugees regardless of race, ethnicity and creed. The others directly involved are Lutheran Social Services of Michigan and the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants.
The Archdiocese runs the Resettlement and Placement Program, an intense 90-day crisis management program to assist families when they first arrive. Sister Beth Murphy, volunteer outreach coordinator, explains how they address a family’s orientation to the United States and work with family member sponsors.
“The relatives typically meet the refugees at the airport. We bring them into the office a few days later to learn of any medical needs or disability issues so that our caseworkers can immediately begin addressing those. We explain the resettlement process; complete their paperwork that entitles them to apply for welfare benefits. Within the first 30 days,” she continues, “kids are enrolled in school, health appointments are made for vaccinations and physicals, and non-English speaking individuals are studying intensive English through the community education system.”
Lutheran Social Services hosts an employment orientation, teaching refuges how to write a resume and explaining the American business ethic and work culture.
“Because Iraqis are quite highly educated, we help those with professional degrees to get their degrees evaluated and then accepted into the recertification program,” Sister Beth explains. “You can’t do anything in this country without a certificate.”
Mr. George explains that the Chaldean Federation of America is trying to establish a program in Michigan that retrains refugees in their vocation. “Advocacy is a challenge for organizations not funded by the Federal government,” he says. “The only reason we exist is because we took the initiative to help these refugees by bringing them here and making the world aware that they exist.”
Every refugee coming to Detroit is also seen for a mental health screening. “Trauma does not always show up immediately,” discloses Sister Beth. “For some families, it’s very obvious, but for others it might not surface for six months or more. That’s where the benefit of the community comes in. They’ve got family members, relatives, and non-profit programs and agencies they can be referred to.”
One refugee told Sister Beth how much better it was in the U.S. than Iraq. “’There are no bodies lying on the streets here’ she told me. But then the next thing out of her mouth was that she’s living in such a small apartment. ‘My home in Iraq was a palace compared to this. But it’s safer here.’ This is the trade-off for them. Americans are amazed when they see photos of the gorgeous, well-kept homes the Iraqis left behind.”
Sister Beth concurs with what Iraqis told me about their relocations. “It’s about their children and their future. They are willing to sacrifice anything for their safety. ‘The U.S. is home to them now, even though I may never be at home here. But my children are, and that’s why we’re here’ is a familiar response,” Sister Beth replies.
Many non-profit organizations, such as those mentioned earlier, along with the Adopt a Refugee Program, the Ladies of Charity, a new youth mentoring group program for middle school and refugee college students, and others are helping Iraqis feel welcomed and comfortable. Not only are they helping them physically, spiritually, financially and emotionally, but also constantly reassuring them that they do have something to contribute.
Assimilating into a New Society
Is there an expectation that refugees need to assimilate into American ways? Most Iraqis said they had been willing to adjust to a new society and its culture; however, that did not mean abandoning their culture or heritage. Mosques, churches and tight-knit community support have done a good job in keeping the Iraqi culture and customs alive.
For new refugees, it’s the little things to adjust to that are so frustrating for them. “Coming from a war-torn environment makes for a very difficult transition when you’re accustomed to bombs going off around you,” comments Sister Beth. “But just the cultural shift and family gender roles are so different, and when you add that to living in a war zone and a dad who feels as though he had lost control of his family and can’t find a job – which is a shame for him – while his wife is working in a hotel, it’s no wonder issues arise. There is no piece of their life untouched.”
Young Dani Faraj, in America for one year now and with an impressive command of English, admits he misses his friends, but not the lifestyle. “This will be my new home, and I’m okay with that. I was so scared back in Iraq. I came here and saw the life. I like it.”
Muslim Hikmat Mahmood, who came to the U.S. in 1968, knew Saddam Hussein when they were both in high school. “Saddam would sit in the coffee shop and when school let out, he and his gang would hit us and throw our books for no reason as we walked by. Then I watched the Baath party come to power in 1963; it wasn’t very pleasant. When Saddam came to power in 1968, I left Iraq. I hated him for what he did to us every day in school. I did not have a good feeling of where Iraq was heading under him.”
Adjustment requires time. Iraqis who have lived here now for a while agree their elders have the most difficult adjustment.
“It’s not easy for them to leave Iraq,” Fred Kazanji, who became a U.S. citizen a year ago, tells me. “Every day is different. Yet once they get used to the U.S. system, it is very hard to go back to Iraq.”
Nafa Kulaif also agrees the change of culture is difficult on the elders, particularly if they don’t drive. “When my father came here, he sat outside my home all day long. Finally, he asked me why no one came by to say hello. In Iraq you know your neighbors well. He insisted that we leave our lights on at night in case somebody needed help, which is also an Iraqi custom. For 22 days he sat on the deck before insisting on returning home,” Kulaif recalls. “’A society with no relationships or friendships is not my society’ he told me. It was something he could not accept.”
George believes refugees embrace the change dramatically. “The problem is that their expectations are too great. They hear how wonderful America is and how families are prospering. Then they come expecting the same almost immediately. It doesn’t happen like that. It’s hardest on the professionals because they have to start at the bottom and work their way back up. That’s difficult and degrading when the only jobs available are working in fast food outlets or menial warehouse work. But the community helps each other. When these refugees come, people help them. That custom has not changed. I think that’s the most wonderful thing of all: helping others and not looking for anything in return.”
“The Iraqis here in Michigan are Americans more than anything else,” believes Akram Namou. “We get involved in local and national politics and elections, and feel a part of this community. We donate money, raise funds and participate within the community. But it is a very difficult and sensitive situation when you are a citizen in a country you are loyal to that has a conflict with the country in which you were born.”
Loyalty comes in two forms, believes Kulaif: Loyalty in the heart and loyalty in the mind. “I can be Iraqi and live in the U.S., and I can be American and live in Iraq. But the reality is who you are. As long as you don’t diminish the value of being an Arab or Chaldean, you can live as an American absolutely as equal as living as an Iraqi.”
Going Forward Means Not Going Back
Amir Denha says that as a parent the first bridges he built were at home. “At home my children are Chaldean; outside the home they are American. They were all taught the language and we spoke it at home.”
Namou doesn’t think the new third generation of American-born Iraqis have issues with Iraqi culture, religion or customs. “We are the second generation. It is difficult to transfer our language and culture onto them. They were born American and co-mingle as they please. The culture will continue though,” he predicts, “because there are always newcomers, which feeds the old culture, although eventually this evaporates. Despite having our own churches, mosques, heritage and languages – and as much as possible trying to keep them alive – all of our culture will melt within the American culture and become part of American society. We have to accept that.
“It’s nice to speak Arabic; it’s nice to have a rich culture and ancient history, but to me it is a full integration into the American society whether one realizes it or not. And that’s as it should be. Yes, we will try to keep our background, history and heritage alive as long as possible.”
If Iraq suddenly did an about face, becoming incredibly stable and democratic, would these Iraqi Americans return to their homeland?
“America is my country; Iraq is my dream,” explains Hikmat Mahmood, president of his own investment and management company. “America offered me everything. I love Iraq passionately, and my kids have a strong love to go and visit, but at the same time, is Iraq a mirage, a dream, or reality? America has opportunities if you can seize them and grow with them,” he continues. “And change is something you have to adapt to. If you don’t adapt, you get left behind.”
To visit, yes; to live, no was the resounding conclusion. Denha sums it up most succinctly.
“When we came to Detroit, we explored. We are part of the system; involved in politics and building bridges with other communities. We changed for the better. Although we retained the Iraqi mind and lifestyle, we are American. We have freedom of speech that includes the freedom to disagree. We are still infatuated with this country and its politics, people and open society. We live everyday to the fullest. We love this country, and we’re not going back.”