New wave of Iraqi refugees finds a haven

Nick Najjar waited 23 years to see his sister freed from the violence of Iraq.
Gliding down the escalator at Metro Airport last month, 54-year-old Intesar Najjar rushed into the outstretched arms of her beaming brother. The Iraqi refugee arrived with her husband and 19-year-old son. “I’m so excited to see my family,” she said between hugs. “I’m ready for a new life.”

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Intesar Najjar and her family are the latest of some 5,300 Iraqi refugees to move to metro Detroit since 2007, when the U.S. government, under pressure to protect Iraq’s minority Christian Chaldean community, eased visa restrictions.

Another 7,000 Iraqi refugees are expected by the end of 2011, the state’s refugee director said.

More than half are settling in Macomb County, where a growing number of Chaldeans are transforming cities such as Sterling Heights and Warren. Though far from the Arab presence that has changed Dearborn, Arabic and Chaldean shops, a church and community services are following to meet demand.

A new melting pot for Iraqi Chaldeans
This isn’t the America Zuhair Yaqo imagined.

He’s jobless, uninsured and unable to afford surgery to remove painful kidney stones.

“If I have to continue living like this, I’m going to have to go back to Iraq,” Yaqo, 60, said as he slumped onto a mismatched sofa in his sparsely furnished Sterling Heights apartment, waiting for the nagging pain to end.

Yaqo is among more than 5,300 Iraqi refugees to arrive in Michigan since the federal government in 2007 relaxed restrictions to allow more Iraqis fleeing their homeland to enter the U.S.

Another 7,000 are expected to arrive in Michigan this year and next, more than in any two-period year since at least 1995, according to estimates by the state Department of Community Health. Yaqo, a Chaldean Catholic, was twice kidnapped and robbed in attacks directed at Christian minorities in Iraq by Islamic and other extremists. He and his wife arrived here last summer.

In America, the refugees face an uncertain life in a state with a recession, few jobs and usually no more than eight months of benefits. For many, just being safe for the first time in years is enough to make the move and sacrifices worthwhile, though many hope for a better life here, at least for their children.

Nearly all of the Iraqi refugees are Christians who fled the violence that persists in Iraq. On Tuesday, at least 90 people were killed and another 350 wounded, the bloodiest day in the country since December. The continued attacks raise concerns about the safety of Iraqi citizens as the U.S. withdraws half of its remaining 92,000 troops in Iraq over the next four months.

The influx of refugees in metro Detroit is proving to be a major challenge to the patchwork of social service agencies, churches and Chaldean volunteer groups that provide tutoring, job readiness, health, counseling and other services.

“We haven’t seen this demand for our services in our 32 years,” said Haifa Fakhouri, CEO of the Arab American and Chaldean Council, a Lathrup Village-based association.

Last year, after the council opened an English language and job readiness program at its new Sterling Heights office, 370 applicants signed up for 128 spots.

The new Chaldean corridor
More than half of the Iraqi refugees to come in the last three years have settled in Macomb County, particularly in Sterling Heights and Warren, because both cities offer affordable housing in communities with large Chaldean populations.

Oakland County also has had a large influx and now outnumbers Wayne County as home to Michigan’s Iraqi refugees. Sizable communities have developed in the lakes region of northwest Oakland, as well as in Madison Heights, Farmington and Farmington Hills.

Metro Detroit’s last two waves of migration from Iraq in the decade following the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 brought mostly Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims who settled in Dearborn and Detroit’s west-side Warrendale community.

So many of the newer arrivals have moved into Macomb County that some Chaldeans refer to a new Chaldean corridor, bounded by I-75, I-696, Van Dyke and 22 Mile Road.

Up and down Ryan Road, in communities built by Poles, Slovaks and Jews, Arabic and Chaldean businesses are growing and newcomers are buying or renting homes, bringing tax revenue and investments to aging communities.

“Warren has become a big melting pot,” Mayor Jim Fouts said. “It has made the community more dynamic.”

A new church offering Arabic-language masses has sprouted in Sterling Heights, and social services agencies are moving programs to Macomb to be closer to the new community. The Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services’ Community Health and Research Center, headquartered in Dearborn, is scheduled to open a new medical clinic on Wednesday at 14 Mile and Ryan in Sterling Heights, its first office outside Wayne County. The clinic will offer health screenings for new refugees as well as medical care and other services, such as immunizations for the flu.

The new arrivals face old problems common in communities in transition, including landlords overcharging on rents and refusing to make repairs. “There are solutions we are working on, but they will take time and money,” said Joseph Kassab, CEO of the Chaldean Federation of America.

Al Horn, refugee program director for the Michigan Department of Community Health, said Michigan received $1.8 million in fiscal 2010 to help refugees with housing, employment, mental health counseling and English language training, up from $1.1 million in 2009.

The money does not include spending by the federal government for welfare and medical care many refugees receive for a maximum of eight months. A family of four receives $597 a month for housing and other basic expenses, plus Medicaid and food stamps.

Horn said he hopes Michigan will get another $200,000 to $300,000 next year to serve the state’s growing refugee population.

The kindness of others
Bashaar Azeeza, 37, of Sterling Heights and his wife, Dina Hadad, also 37, arrived in metro Detroit on July 4, 2008, and moved into a hotel room with their children, ages 10, 8 and 6.

Azeeza found work delivering pizzas and washing dishes at a Pizza Hut, where he had asked: “Can you help me?” He added a job on the late-night shift at a gas station until someone told him to call a Chaldean man who tries to help out his community by hiring refugees.

The son of Chaldean immigrants, Jason Najor, 33, of West Bloomfield has hired a dozen refugees like Azeeza and Hadad at Super Fair Cellular, his Ferndale company. It’s his way of showing gratitude to the Chaldeans who hired his father and uncle years ago, a legacy many other young Chaldeans share.

Azeeza and Hadad are pleased that their children are doing well at Holden Elementary in Sterling Heights and that their neighbors have welcomed them in the home they rent in a middle-class neighborhood. Their 90-year-old Jewish neighbor helped Azeeza fix his barbecue grill a few weeks ago and has shown him how to make other household repairs. “This family is like honey on your heart,” Azeeza said.

Refugees keep coming
On Wednesday, Nick Najjar, who came from Iraq in the late 1970s, saw his sister for the first time in 30 years when she, her husband and 19-year-old son arrived at Metro Airport as Iraqi refugees.

Family members swarmed the tired trio with hugs and kisses.

“I’m so happy,” his sister Intesar Najjar, 54, said in Arabic. “We’ve been trying to get here for 10 years.”

They were tired of the violence in Iraq and lured by the promise of America. Until they find jobs, learn better English and adjust to the new country, they’ll live with Intesar’s mom in Sterling Heights.

The son, Salar Halabi, said he may return to college or look for work. “I’m going to wait and relax until I see everything before I decide,” he said, clutching his suitcase. “I don’t know what’s next.”