Easter in America brings joy to Christian refugees amid many uncertainties

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Catechism students at St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church in Troy sing Palm Sunday hymns that they learned in Aramaic. (Gina Joseph/Digital First Media)
By Gina Joseph, Macomb Daily
Iraqi Christian refugees, Sameerah Alqas-Hanna, center, and her daughters talk about feeling safe and being able to celebrate Easter in America. (Gina Joseph/Digital First Media)

Sameerah Alqas-Hanna feels fortunate.

She and her husband and their six children fled their home in Iraq in 2014, heeding their neighbor’s warning that ISIS was coming.

They were among the Iraqi refugees who made it to Michigan before President Donald Trump’s executive orders in January of 2017 banned arrivals from several Muslim-majority countries, including their own.

Not everyone was as lucky.

Her parents left with them but gave up.

As with many of the elderly who fled the Christian village where they lived, near Mosul in Iraq, her parents could not endure the conditions of a refugee. At one point, while in Jordan, they were all living in one room, unable to work or go to school.

Her husband’s parents also returned from their village but they have since learned that his mother passed away and his father is gravely ill.

Her brother and his family waited too long to leave. Like many refugees, they are now living in limbo in Lebanon, praying that a country – any country – will accept them.

She’s not alone.

Many of Alqas-Hanna’s new friends in her Troy community are worse off. They’re also refugees that she’s met through St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church, which is among the churches sending aid to Christian refugees.

Some are of them are parents who arrived without their children, or children who became separated from their parents. Many refugees are in limbo.

Still, they have faith.

“It’s the one thing that they can always be assured of – it’s the one thing they all have in common,” said Sue Kattula, program manager of behavioral health for the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights, doing her best to be heard over the noise created by a steady stream of catechism students entering a hall next to the church to prepare for their role in a Palm Sunday Mass.

More than 600 students from Kindergartners to eighth grade, along with their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members, were in attendance.

For Christians, Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem prior to being put to death. It is tradition for churches to hand out palm leaves, which is what was laid in his path. Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday, is the last Sunday of Lent and the first day of Holy Week.

“They’re all very excited,” said Stephanie Bahoura of Sterling Heights, who was among the catechism teachers corralling the students into groups.

“I’m excited for them,” she added as two children ran up to give her a hug. “Each group will be singing a Palm Sunday hymn they learned in Aramaic.”

Among her favorites is “Kullokhun Aamme.”

“When I hear that song I can imagine how exciting it must have been for everyone, the men and women and children following behind Jesus as he walked into Jerusalem,” Bahoura said.

Candice Enochs of Macomb Township and choir director at St. Joseph’s agreed.

“It’s so beautiful and so energetic. The elders know it. The kids know it. Everyone knows it, and when they hear it they get up, to clap and sing,” Enochs said.

Both of Enochs’ parents, Salah and Amal Kima, were born in Iraq. Like many of the elders who recently arrived, they long for the Easters they once enjoyed.

“Easter brings all of the generations together,” Enochs said. “I am celebrating today with my husband and newborn son, and they are remembering celebrations of the past. It’s like all the happiness that our parents felt back home in Iraq, when they were free to celebrate openly, before the war and before the killings return.”

Alqas-Hanna was not able to attend Saturday night’s festivities, but she did color Easter eggs with her special-needs son. It was a first for both of them.

“I am very happy for him,” Katulla said, translating for Alqas-Hanna, whose son has Down syndrome and did not have access to any special needs programs in Iraq.

“We probably should have come to America sooner,” she said to Katulla, who organizes the events for special needs children hosted monthly by the Chaldean Community Foundation. “He loves school. He is learning a lot of life skills, and when school is closed he wants to know why.”

He has also learned to sit calmly at the dinner table, which will be a blessing shared by everyone in the family on Easter Sunday.

Sameerah Alqas-Hanna and her family were among the refugees from Iraq to be relocated to Troy and Sterling Heights before the end of 2016.

The Detroit area has a regional tradition of welcoming immigrants.

In 1994, Michigan ranked 12th among states as a destination for 2,600 refugees and 12,700 immigrants. Of those refugees, 73 percent chose to settle in the Detroit area. In 2014, Michigan rose to third among the 50 states, with 4,600 refugees heading to the Great Lakes State.

The number of refugee families coming to Michigan has steadily declined since the Trump administration heightened U.S. security due to the terrorist group ISIS and turmoil in refugee processing countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

Between Oct. 1, 2017 and March 15, 2018, only 318 refugees have come to Michigan. Of those relocating in the state, just 10 have been from Iraq and Syria.

The decline has been especially hard on refugee families in Troy and Sterling Heights, where many Iraqi refugees traveled ahead of other family members, who are now trapped in processing countries because of the cap on admissions and suspension of the program.

Before the ban, Troy’s five-year average of refugees settling in the city by this time of year was about 225. For Sterling Heights, the average was 170. This year, the communities have only seen two each.

Alqas-Hanna is praying for the tide to turn, and that the next wave of refugees includes her brother, his wife and their four children.