They Can’t Go Home Again

  • Written by:


Bureaucratic purgatory

Not surprisingly, a growing number of Iraqis — many of whom are running out of savings and weary of conflict — have attempted to resettle outside of the Middle East entirely. For those seeking refuge in the United States, southeast Michigan has become a popular destination.

Jumana Salamey, curator of education at the Arab American National Museum in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, says that Christians from Syria and Lebanon began immigrating to Detroit at the turn of the 20th century, looking to establish economic security abroad by selling textiles or working in the burgeoning auto industry.

Another wave of Muslim and Christian Arab immigrants arrived after World War II, some hoping to continue their educations and others lured by their well-established families. Wars and political tension in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq led a third generation of expatriates to Detroit in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

Today, more than 150,00 Chaldean Americans and 300,000 Arab Americans call Metro Detroit home. For many, they considered this the Arab capital of the United States, home to Arab-owned businesses, mosques and the Arab American National Museum.

While in Jordan, the Rabbans had dreams of resettling in Detroit, both to join the vibrant Chaldean community and to reunite with their daughter, who had previously married and moved to the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills. Gaining such a coveted resettlement allocation was a grueling process. Over a span of 18 months, the Rabbans were interviewed seven different times, first by representatives from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), then by FBI agents.

“The interviews were very detailed and very hard,” Fadi says. “They were so serious, they were taking every single bit of information from us.” Field agents spared no details, verifying the consistency of their accounts, administering physical exams and running background checks. “You want to make sure all of the information is correct,” he says, “but because the situation is so hard in Jordan, you feel that you want to make [the process] shorter.”

The Karanas had a similar experience in Syria. Two years passed between the day they submitted their UNHCR application and their resettlement date in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park. They acknowledge they were lucky — only 10 percent of applicants who register for relocation qualify, according to the Christian Science Monitor — but that didn’t make their time in bureaucratic purgatory move any faster.