By Sherri Welch
Clients seeking work, English language training or other help meet with social workers at the Chaldean Community Foundation’s Sterling Heights office. We’re looking at developing community, President Martin Manna says.
When the Southfield-based Chaldean Community Foundation opened its second location in Sterling Heights in 2011, it expected to serve about 400 people a year.
But last year, 9,500 Chal-dean refugees who had fled religious persecution in their native Iraq showed up at the office, seeking immigration aid or help to speak English or find a job, car or health care.
“A lot of what we do … is to help solve some of (their) long-term issues,” said foundation President Martin Manna, who is also president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce.
Refugees are given eight months of federal assistance when they come to the U.S., he said. The Chaldean Community Foundation focuses on helping them assimilate to U.S. culture and systems so they can apply for permanent residency after a year.
The foundation, which provides services rather than grants, works with a number of other organizations to help meet clients’ needs. For example, St. John Providence Health System donates medical supplies for the free health care provided by volunteer Chaldean doctors and nurses, and Macomb Community College provides English-as-a-second-language classes. Now the foundation is looking to build a home away from home for the refugees, in the form of new housing in the West Bloomfield Township area.
“We’re looking at developing community,” Manna said.
A lot of the refugees are living in crowded apartments, some of them subpar, in the Sterling Heights area, he said.
“We know we could make an impact by helping them find long-term housing … it’s part of our strategic plan to get something announced by Sept. 30,” Manna said.
The foundation is operating on a budget of $2.6 million, up from $1.6 million last year, thanks to a near-doubling of its contract with the Michigan Department of Human Services. The foundation also does an annual appeal and annual golf outing to raise funds.
The organization is negotiating the purchase of several acres of property in the West Bloomfield-Bloomfield Hills area on which it plans to build long-term housing and incorporate other supportive services, Manna said. The foundation is consulting with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority as it looks at launching long-term housing and studying the efforts of nonprofit housing developers like Southwest Housing Solutions.
Serving as the developer of long-term housing can be a good source of income, said John Van Camp, president and CEO of Detroit-based Southwest Solutions, the parent of Southwest Housing Solutions. In tax-credit projects, there’s an allocation for a developer fee: 15 percent or $1 million, whichever is lower.
But it can take years to line up financing for projects, and it takes a certain skill set that wasn’t natural to Southwest initially, Van Camp said. It took Southwest a couple of years to line up the 14 levels of financing it took to aggregate $23.9 million to fund its Piquette Square veterans housing and supportive services project in Detroit, he said.
Van Camp said he’s encouraging the Chaldean Community Foundation to take a long-term view on the housing development and hire a development consultant to line up financing. Then the group could access its ability to handle financing for a housing development on its own.
As the nonprofit arm of the Chaldean chamber, the foundation has leaders who are used to running businesses and startups, and looking at spreadsheets and business plans, Van Camp said. That will help, he said.
While it develops a strategy to move into long-term housing development, the Chaldean foundation is looking for a larger location in Sterling Heights to replace its 2,500-square-foot offices, which connect with the bulk of the people it serves on a walk-in basis. The new site will house its growing staff, which has expanded from 11 a year ago to 20, and soon will add three more as the foundation fills positions for two case managers and a transportation coordinator.
Ideally, the new east side location will also be large enough to host the 800 to 1,000 Chaldean refugees who come for quarterly town hall meetings hosted by the foundation.
In addition, the foundation has started programs to help community members with other basic needs.
Following its 2008 launch of Project Bismutha, which provides free or reduced primary health care and discounted medication for the uninsured in its community, the foundation launched the Chaldean Loan Fund in October. The fund provides low-interest loans of about $5,000 toward the purchase of a used vehicle. Both programs were modeled after similar programs in the Jewish community.
By the end of March, the foundation also plans to launch a microenterprise loan fund to help Chaldean entrepreneurs. Members of the Chaldean Community put up $50,000 for the fund, and the Chaldean American bishop, Ibrahim Ibrahim of the Southfield-based Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle, the diocese for Chaldean Catholics living in the eastern half of the U.S., matched it, Manna said.
It will grow further based on fundraising. Since Chaldeans are highly enterpreneurial, efforts are focused on helping people find their niche.
Two-thirds of local Chaldean households own at least one business, and 39 percent own two or more, Manna said. Those businesses include supermarkets, cellphone stores and franchised food establishments.
“One of the challenges we see with these refugees is … some of these women work, but at the same time they can’t find day care,” Manna said. “So we’re working with some of these women to start a day care.”
Chaldeans, who were Iraq’s indigenous population, are Eastern Rite Catholic.
Over the past 30 years as it has fled Iraq, the Chaldean population of the U.S. has grown from roughly 20,000 to about 220,000, with about 150,000 of those living in the territory of the Southfield-based diocese, according to a recent report in The Michigan Catholic.
About 8,000 to 10,000 Chaldean refugees have come to metro Detroit since 2005, Manna said, increasing the number living in the region to about 121,000 by 2008, according to a survey by United Way for Southeastern Michigan and Walsh College.
There are 10 Chaldean Catholic churches in the Detroit region, making it one of the largest dioceses for the church in the world.
The Chaldean Community Foundation expects the number of Chaldean refugees coming to Southeast Michigan to rise even further, as they continue to flee Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East, he said.
“One of the most gratifying things to me has been the opportunity to help people understand … these (refugees) came here because they had no choice. They were being persecuted,” Manna said.
“Immigration … will be a net gain for our state for years to come. The places around the country that are flourishing are welcoming to immigrants.”