Michigan no longer land of promise for Iraqi refugees

bilde.jpgGregg Krupa / The Detroit News
Michigan’s economy is so bad that State Department is sending fewer Iraqi refugees to the area because of concerns that their future would not be bright.

After a request by relief workers, the policy of bringing Iraqis to Metro Detroit if relatives or friends live in the area was changed to allow only those with immediate family to settle here, according to the State Department.

“The State Department has taken the measure of things and decided it would be better to send them somewhere else, where they might be self-sufficient, instead of coming to Michigan, because the economy is very bad here and we have the highest unemployment in the country,” Belmin Pinjic of Lutheran Social Services of Michigan said Thursday. The agency is one of several designated by the federal government to provide relief to the refugees.

The war in Iraq has displaced 4.4 million people, according to the United Nations. Two million have left Iraq. The Christian population of the country is under intense pressure, as extremists root them out from villages and homes, officials say. But Muslims, especially those who have been employed by the United States in Iraq, also are seeking refuge in the United States.

About 3,000 of the 13,000 Iraqi refugees resettled in the country in the last year arrived in Metro Detroit, which is the home to about one-third of all of the Iraqi-born residents in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

State Department officials said the policy change was implemented in late June partly because relief workers were having difficulty finding the refugees jobs. The officials, who declined to be quoted by name, citing department policy, said relief workers in Metro Detroit were becoming overwhelmed by the numbers.

“We made the change because people from the agencies were expressing concerns,” said an official, who asked not to be named.bilde1.jpg

Despite requests, he said, the policy change will not be reviewed, because the department does not want to spur a significant new flow of Iraqis to Metro Detroit, he said.

Michigan is home to 35 percent of all Iraqi-born residents of the United States, according the Census Bureau. The vast majority of them live in Metro Detroit, where the Iraqi Muslim community numbers perhaps 12,000 and there are about 90,000 to 105,000 Chaldeans — Iraqi Catholics — according to sources in those communities.

That is the largest population of Chaldeans outside of Iraq.

Officials for local relief agencies, selected to handle the refugees, and local Iraqi-American leaders said some of the refugees placed in other states come to Metro Detroit, regardless. Because the financial assistance funneled from the State Department through the relief agencies does not follow them, it will compound the difficulties of resettling them.

In addition to providing $420 as a one-time stipend for each refugee, the State Department also designates an agency to help refugees find housing, employment and educational resources. That approval for assistance from an agency does not travel with a refugee who chooses to relocate, officials said — even if the agency in another state has a branch in Michigan.

Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of American, said he raised the issue with officials from the State Department.

“I explained to them that no matter what you do, if those people are sent somewhere else, they will end up here, no matter what you do,” Kassab said, of the federal officials. “If they don’t have kin or relatives, they are still coming to Metro Detroit because our people like to live together and we support each other.

“We have people who own businesses who are willing to come forward, and they are doing that now to help them, to provide jobs until they are settled,” Kassab said.

Chaldean owners of hotels in Metro Detroit have provided shelter for the refugees, often free of charge, Kassab said.

Meanwhile, the Chaldean Federation is organizing a job fair and will begin providing some automobiles to the refugees with low-cost loans and easy payment terms.

Relief workers say the lack of public transportation in Metro Detroit is often the most difficult barrier to resettlement, because it affects the housing, employment and education of the refugees.

Last year, municipal officials in Warren expressed concerns that a massive influx of refugees would challenge government services, but they said few problems have arisen.

The enrollment of the Warren Consolidated School District has increased this year by about 250 to 15,453, but officials said it is unclear how many of the new students are refugees and that other factors — like the first year of daylong kindergarten in all of the elementary schools and an influx of former private school students in a bad economy — may account for much of the increase.

State employment officials say the current number of unemployed in Michigan is 190,300. If all 3,000 refugees are unemployed, that would account for 1.5 percent of those counted as not having jobs.

“The refugees are doing well and prospering,” Kassab said. “We are extending our arms to them. The only problem is the transportation issue and we are preparing a program so they will have cars.”

Staff Writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report. You can reach Gregg Krupa at (313) 222-2359 or gkrupa@detnews.com.