Facility to expand Chaldean outreach in Detroit area

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Jennifer Chambers, The Detroit
(Photo: Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
More than 16,000 immigrants and refugees walked into the Chaldean Community Foundation last year and left with a lifeline to navigate their new world.

The Sterling Heights-based foundation helps its clients learn English, find jobs, become citizens and access health care in Metro Detroit, where Chaldeans number about 150,000, making the region home to the second-largest Chaldean community in the world.

Preparing for an influx of Middle East refugees to Michigan in the next year amid an international refugee crisis, the foundation is expanding its services and footprint by building a new community center.

The foundation officially moves into a 11,500-square-foot space on Nov. 13 on Maple near Ryan, just a quarter-mile away from the cramped strip mall office it’s called home since 2011.

Foundation president Martin Manna says the ultimate goal of the foundation is to help immigrants and refugees adapt to a new culture and become less dependent on government-funded services. The new center provides an opportunity to knock down inaccurate notions of immigrant and refugee populations by educating the community on what the foundation does, he said.

“We always wanted to create this kind of pathway to prosperity, this independence. We want them to be independent of government subsidies,” Manna said. “Many people assume immigrants are here illegally, they don’t pay taxes for seven years, and they are on government assistance. No, that is not true. They pay taxes. Everyone we are serving is here legally.”

The center, which is expected to serve 20,000 people a year, will allow the foundation to house all of its social and health services under one roof and provide more breathing room for its 23-member staff, which includes caseworkers and attorneys who are often trilingual, speaking English, Aramaic and Arabic.

The center will provide a classroom for Macomb Community College instructors to teach English, another area to hold town hall meetings to talk about health care and wellness, and a computer lab to work on job retraining. There also will be a program to teach younger children Aramaic, the native language of Chaldeans.

“We close at noon for lunch and people will line up. … This is not a career, it’s a calling,” said Manna, who also is president of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce. “People drive from Saginaw and Lansing here because they know they will get the best quality service.”

Sharon Hannawa, foundation program manager, said some refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress due to their experiences fleeing their homeland and trying to live in a new world with no job or English skills. Often, they just need someone to talk to in their native tongue.

“As part of intake process, we focus on them as humans and what they need addressed. Through the process we are able to ask all these questions on what they need,” Hannawa said.

The foundation has a program that helps clients with developmental disabilities, with two distinct programs for those with visual impairments and those with hearing impairments.

Hannawa said the average age of a client is 38 and most come from Macomb County, but the foundation serves anyone in southeast Michigan.

“When you help one member of the family, you help the entire family,” she said.

The foundation has a $5 million fundraising campaign underway — $3 million for the new center, $1 million for the Chaldean Loan Fund and $1 million for long-term housing. Manna said it has raised $2.1 million. Of that, $1.7 million has been privately donated, he said.

The new center will serve as a community hub open to all, Manna said, and it gives the foundation the platform to educate the public on who the Chaldeans are, why they migrated here and what their contributions have been to this region.

Most Chaldeans are Eastern Rite Catholics who speak their native language, Aramaic, and are indigenous to Iraq, Syria and parts of Iran and Turkey. Chaldeans also own more than 15,000 businesses in Michigan, and there are at least 12 Chaldean Catholic churches in Michigan.

Michigan ranks third in the nation in accepting refugees. About 4,000 were resettled here last year, with more than half of those from Iraq, according to data from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s unclear how many Syrian refugees the state will get, though Gov. Rick Snyder has said he wants to Michigan to be a “welcoming state.”

Iraqi Sarmad Esttaifan fled his homeland in 2010 after working as a barber for U.S. military personnel.

Once he began getting death threats, he made plans to leave.

The 37-year-old came to Michigan and with the help of the foundation, received a green card, his state barber’s license and a car loan through the foundation’s special program.

Esttaifan now works as a barber and lives in Madison Heights.

“They helped me with a car and get good credit,” he said through an interpreter. “They have an open heart to help me.”