They Can’t Go Home Again

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Motor City blues

When the families arrived in Michigan, they found a community willing to help them assimilate, a unique regional attribute.

“The community is established already,” says Rafat Ita, my translator and community resources coordinator for the Lutheran Social Services of Michigan (LSSM). “They walk in, they speak the language, and they feel like they are home.”

LSSM, a state-funded nonprofit agency, helps refugees from across the world obtain housing, food, transportation and employment. It also provides refugees with translation services, English as a Second Language classes and some financial assistance.

Ita, who resettled from Iraq in 1994, says LSSM’s support was critical to his successful immersion into American life. “It was a blessing when I came here and they took care of me, getting me transportation, finding me a job,” he says. “Without [LSSM], it definitely would have been very difficult.”

But what Detroit boasts in Middle Eastern culture, it lacks in economic opportunities. As Michigan sheds more and more manufacturing jobs — 300,000 since 1999 — its unemployment rate rises. In November 2007, that rate hit 7.4 percent, a full percentage point higher than any other state in the nation. Even worse, the Department of Treasury forecasts that unemployment will jump to 8.3 percent this year and 8.9 percent in 2009.

“It’s hard because the economy is so bad,” says Ita. “When they came in, there were no jobs, and the services [like food stamps and Medicaid] were … more difficult to get than they were 10 years ago.”

Since arriving in September, Fadi has failed to secure employment, although it’s not for lack of effort. He’d prefer to work in accounting, but his age and his cursory knowledge of English are major liabilities in the tight labor market, and he’s applied for entry-level work in a variety of fields. So far, he’s found no takers.

His eldest son, a former university student in Baghdad, landed a job working in the stock room at a department store. His mother and father were thrilled, but his bosses quickly cut his hours to 15 per week, meaning he nets only around $400 a month, the family’s sole income source.

The youngest son is adept with computers but has been turned down repeatedly for information technology jobs. As the months pass, his father says the 18-year-old, who has battled depression since leaving Iraq, spends more and more time holed up in his room.

Samir’s English is better than Fadi’s, but he has had just as much difficulty scoring work. Down the road, he would like to sell jewelry like he did in Baghdad, but he says that without a car, which he can’t afford, it’s difficult to connect with people in that industry. For now, he waits patiently with his wife and son at home, hoping something comes up.