Michigan’s Iraqi refugee crisis

The Iraq War’s displaced still flow into Michigan and struggle to find employment — what should the government do about it?

For the refugee, Iraq will always be home. But knowing he can never return to his native land, he must instead seek refuge in the country whose very military invasion set off the domino effect leading to his displacement.

There are parallels between the veterans of the Iraq War and its refugees. The war shaped both of them and forced them to redefine themselves. Yet, when veterans return stateside, they have the government’s help in doing so: free healthcare and the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, which provides a monthly housing stipend and full tuition for most schools. 

The VA system is far from perfect, but it’s still far better than what the refugee receives upon landing here. Men and women volunteered to enlist in the military that would invade Iraq; the refugee had the unfortunate luck of living there when the bombs began to fall.

Taking in refugees is only half the job. Ensuring they have a fair opportunity to be active participants in the economy is another. An improved refugee program, whether run by the state or the federal government, would be expensive. So is war, though, and a country that starts one should feel the weight of those whose lives are uprooted by it — both its soldiers and the refugees.

Not days or hours, but minutes to leave their home. No bags, suitcases, or money — no packing at all. Leave or die was the option an unknown group of militants gave them, so at 4 a.m., Sabah Kiwalk, his wife, Linda, and their four children loaded their vehicle and fled their home in Mosul.

That was in 2006, when large-scale sectarian violence erupted in Iraq for the first time — or as one source put it, when “hell broke loose.”

Millions of Muslims and Kurds, but mostly Christian individuals and families, were caught in the middle of it, and like Sabah and Linda, it was either leave or die. 

Back in 1988, Sabah, a Christian, had lost his left foot after stepping on a landmine while serving mandatory duty in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. He was fitted with a prosthetic and returned home, where he used his degree in engineering to work on planes. He lived a financially comfortable life — an “upper class” one, he says — in the northern Iraq city of Mosul.

Since that day in 2006, nothing has been the same for him or his family.

After being kicked out of their home, they drove to a small Syrian village near Damascus and the American embassy, where they’d go for interviews, health screenings, and the other requirements that must be met before entering America. When the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, Sabah said it was so dangerous there they couldn’t even walk the streets — just like Mosul in 2006. As the battle between rebels and the Syrian government intensified, the American embassy closed. The staff members working on the Kiwalks’ case went with it.

So they fled again, this time back to the outskirts of Mosul. They hid, fearing the same people who had threatened him seven years earlier were still lurking. For the next eight months, they traveled back and forth from Mosul to the American embassy in Baghdad — a harrowing journey in itself, as the family was repeatedly caught in firefights between Iraqi soldiers and insurgents.

Earlier this year, they finally got the OK to come to America and made a final drive south on Highway 1 to Baghdad International Airport.

In February, they landed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. For the first time in eight years, they felt safe. Next, though, came the struggle that others like them face: surviving the harshness of the Michigan economy.



Sabah, 47, and Linda, 45, attended a June picnic for refugees in Warren’s Halmich Park. Sabah — eyes heavy, soft-spoken, unshaven, and limping — looked as tired as you’d expect a man who’s spent eight years out of work and on the move between war zones. Linda, dark-brown hair down to her shawl-covered shoulders, stood nearby, periodically interjecting details of their past as her husband spoke.

“He’s grateful to be here, but he’s tired,” Sabah said through Manal Rabban, his caseworker from Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan who interpreted for him that day. “He’s tired of not having a job.”

While speaking, he lifted his pant leg and pointed to his jury-rigged prosthetic foot, held intact by tape. It broke when the family was still in Syria and still causes Sabah pain with every step he takes. Rabban said he tried to get the prosthetic replaced, but Medicaid wouldn’t cover it. The monthly welfare stipend his family receives barely pays for his bills, so there’s no chance of saving for one. And despite having skills considered in demand, Sabah has been unable to find work.

Back in June, the family had just found a place to rent in Sterling Heights, but the couple, who speak and read very little English, said they were duped into signing a three-year lease for a monthly rent that’s more than they can afford.

Rabban says it’s not unusual for landlords to sign off on such an agreement. They assume families or the community will pitch in the difference, which they often do.

“I just had another case,” she says. “The same thing happened.”

When Rabban first met Sabah in February, she told him that, with his condition, he could easily get on disability. He declined.

“I want to work,” he told her instead.

Still, he waits.

Near the conclusion of the interview, Sabah expressed the feeling of invisibility common among refugees, or as he puts it, it’s like they’re “in the middle of nowhere.”

“He was told this is the land of opportunity,” says Rabban, “[but] there is no opportunity.”



Sabah and Linda’s story is a common tale among refugees. As fighting in Iraq continues and until Michigan and the federal government find a way to get these refugees to become more active parts of the economy, stories like theirs are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. 

Georgetown Law conducted a study in 2009 pointing out that Iraqi refugees in Detroit, San Diego, and Washington, D.C., were largely unable to find sustainable work. Many of those same issues still linger today in Michigan. Interviews with refugees and their caseworkers and data on income and poverty show foreign-born Iraqis struggling economically. 

With the opening of the Office of New Americans earlier this year, Gov. Rick Snyder announced a desire to draw talented immigrants to Michigan and asked the federal government to designate an additional 50,000 employment-based visas for skilled immigrants who commit to living and working in the city of Detroit. 

But advocates feel Iraqis, who have very little choice but to come here, are a talent pool that’s being overlooked.

“They don’t see the value of the ones that are already here,” says Jeralda Hattar, resettlement director for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan.

Hattar says they come with skills that could be used right away: all types of engineering, medicine, and years of experience in the oil industry.

“Use them,” she says. “Give them an opportunity.”



The number of displaced Iraqis ballooned after 2006. In February of that year, the Al-Askari Mosque — a Shiite holy site in Samarra — was bombed. Its iconic golden dome was destroyed. Shiite militants took to the streets seeking revenge on those they believed responsible: Sunni Muslims. Sunni militants responded equally, and as Americans fought to thwart the militancy on both sides, the violence uprooted people. 

The United Nations reported in 2007 an estimated 2.3 million Iraqis were displaced both in and out of country. Congress lifted the cap on the number of Iraqi refugees allowed to enter the United States, and the numbers jumped from 1,608 in 2007 to 13,822 in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of State. Michigan took in 2,500 that year, second only to California.

Three years after the bombing, the Human Rights Institute of Georgetown Law released a study titled “Refugee Crisis in America: Iraqis and their Resettlement Experience.”

As its title implies, it was a damning report.

“I think there were aspects of this that were a surprise, but it validated a lot of anecdotal evidence we were hearing,” said Ian Kysel, a fellow with the Human Rights Institute, in a recent phone interview. Kysel was a law student involved in the research at the time.

The study was twofold: uncovering the backlog of Iraq refugee applications, and the plight of those living in Washington, D.C., California, and Michigan since the American invasion in 2003.

Despite there still being challenges, particularly with security clearances, improvements have been made to clear the backlog for those still waiting for resettlement — especially for Iraqis who worked for the American government.

Stateside, the study found the steps needed to get Iraqis to sustainable employment — English training, transportation, employment services, and professional recertification — were inadequate and not viable. Further, U.S. anti-poverty programs designed for native-born Americans did not promote the long-term self-sufficiency of refugees, the study said.

Five years after the study, the volume of refugees coming to the United States hasn’t let up. Last year, 19,488 Iraqis were admitted as refugees. Michigan took in 3,597 of them. Refugee case managers here say metro Detroit has consistently taken in somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 Iraq refugees a year since 2007— most living with or near families in Arab enclaves in Dearborn and Sterling Heights. (Some census tracts on the border of Sterling Heights and Madison Heights are made up of more than 60 percent Iraqi immigrants, according to a study done by Global Detroit.)

The intense fighting that’s erupted in Iraq since June indicates it could be a long time before the flow of refugees here ebbs. One refugee with family still over there says it’s worse than in 2006. 

While they’ll find relative safety here, they’ll also find more economic hardship. Affordable housing is elusive. Refugees are without pay stubs, credit, and very little savings, if any at all. They receive an initial, one-time assistance of up to $1,125 from the federal government, but most of that is eaten away by initial necessities. After that, for someone over 21, they receive public assistance of $306 a month for eight months, not counting food stamps. A family of four receives traditional welfare: $600 a month for 48 months.

“I understand the law has to be fair and the assistance has to be fair among everybody,” says Hattar, “but there’s no consideration that some of these refugee families are starting from scratch. It’s more of a unique situation where there’s a lot more need than just having a difficult time right now.”

Landlords often ask for high deposits that the refugee alone cannot afford. So they’ll take on a co-signer, who is required to have multiple times the rent in monthly income. (Hattar tells me that landlords sometimes require a $5,000 monthly net income for someone co-signing with a refugee on a lease.) 

Most can find employment within the first four to six months, but it’s often for low wages. According to the Department of Human Services, Michigan’s refugees (70 percent of whom are from Iraq) who found work through its employment program last year were paid on average $8.81 an hour.


Of the nearly 44,000 Iraqi immigrants living in Michigan, 40 percent of them entered after the year 2000, according to the 2012 American Community Survey three-year estimate. About 40 percent of Iraqi immigrant families and individuals are living below the poverty line — compared to 12 percent of all Michigan families and 17 percent of individuals. The median income of Iraqi immigrant households in Michigan, $27,540, is about half that of everyone else in the state.

It wasn’t always this way for the refugee.

One May morning, Rafat Ita, a refugee caseworker for Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, called to reschedule an interview. Ita had just found out one of his clients was being evicted and had to hurry off to find him aid.

Ita himself is an Iraq refugee, a former soldier. He came here in 1994. Within two weeks of arriving, he had gotten a job for a trucking company in Sterling Heights working as a janitor. His initial pay was $8 an hour in 1994 dollars. That’s nearly $13 an hour today. After only a few months on the job, he got a raise without even asking. 

Before he left for LSSM a year later, the trucking company offered him even more money to stay.

He declined and began helping people like him find work.

“I remember a long time ago, I used to take 20 or 30 people with me, and they’d pick what shift they want: ‘You want the morning? You got the morning. You want the afternoon? You’ve got the afternoon. You want midnight? You’ve got midnight,’” Ita recalls. “And there was overtime. Nobody was working in housekeeping or at a gas station. They didn’t even need the welfare. 

“Now it’s different.”

The economy, he says, has changed, but public assistance for refugees has not. 

Ita believes a refugee needs a year to get on his feet and that cash assistance throughout that time should be standard — not taken away if he finds a job. 

“That first year is critical for any refugee,” he says. 

The way things are right now with mostly low-wage options available, Ita says refugees opt for under-the-table jobs to avoid losing welfare benefits — even though he and other caseworkers discourage them from doing so.

“We try to explain that you live your life as you want to,” Ita says. “You are lucky to come here, there are thousands of people begging to come here, but at the end of the day, it’s about putting food on the table for your family and surviving, basically.”



Albert Yousif sees things differently. To Yousif, who owns a cleaning company in Troy, getting the refugees off welfare and into a working environment is most essential to them learning English and transitioning into an American life.

“As a previous refugee, I think my government is spoiling the refugees,” he says. “There is a lot of incentive for the refugee where you make them lazy.”

When he first arrived in America with his wife in the early 1990s, Yousif had to rely on welfare. After a testy exchange with a social worker who made him feel as if he was receiving charity, Yousif demanded she close his file and no longer send him welfare checks.

“That was a good push for me,” he says.

He began working two jobs. One of them was at a liquor store, where he met the owner of the cleaning company he now owns. He hired Yousif to work the nightshift, was impressed with his work ethic, and promoted him to supervisor.

“He asked me to hire people like me,” Yousif says.

So he did, and it’s something he’s continued to do since becoming owner of the company, A2Z Facility Maintenance, in 1995.

“I came here and cleaned bathrooms, and that’s what put me in this chair,” he says. 

Yousif believes his is a perfect recipe for today’s refugees: work, get paid, learn how taxes work, learn English through interacting with American customers, and then move onto brighter and better things. He starts his employees out at $9 an hour (after one week of training and initiation for $8 an hour.) Yousif says that those who’ve graduated from his program have gone on to start businesses of their own or to find higher-paying work elsewhere.

There’s a flaw in his plan, though: Yousif hires between 35 and 45 refugees a year, just a fraction of the number coming to metro Detroit. Further, many Iraqi-American business owners in southeast Michigan who he’s met with don’t share his desire to hire newly arrived Iraqis.

“Not all of them are as concerned about it, unfortunately,” Yousif says. “And I feel bad to say it especially in Detroit, Michigan.”

He’s even met with federal, state, and local officials to urge the creation of an incentive program for small businesses to hire refugees, but that idea has yet to take root.

But Yousif plans to keep doing his thing. “I feel it’s a duty to this country that gave me a beautiful life and a duty toward my people.”



The state is trying something.

At the end of June, Gov. Snyder, alongside Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, attended the ceremonial opening of the city’s Office for Skilled Immigrants inside Michigan State University’s Detroit Center. Staff from Upwardly Global, a nonprofit organization focused on getting highly educated immigrants and refugees back into their professions, will provide job interview preparation, guidance through the state’s licensing process, and more to the state’s foreign-born.

Tadd Wamester, the organization’s manager of strategic services who worked with the state in setting up the office, described it as “Phase 2” of the refugees’ professional reintegration process.

Before Upwardly Global can even help them, they must become self-sufficient through work, and their English skills need to be at the high-intermediate level or better, Wamester says. (The latter is another challenge. Nearly two-thirds of Iraqi immigrants living in Michigan reported speaking English less than “very well,” according to the American Community Survey.)

In Phase 2, people from Upwardly Global will look for work best fitting the refugee’s skills that does not require recertification. For example, Wamester says an engineer doesn’t necessarily need to be licensed to work under a professional engineer, who would supervise a project. An accountant might not have his CPA license, but could still do accounting work.

Better put: “What are skills you have right now, and where can you use them,” Wamester asks.

There are still many professions, though, where a license is required no matter what position you’re applying for.

For example, Michigan may require physicians to retake various parts of medical school. Depending on the certificates they brought with them and how long they’ve been out of practice, it could take a physician five to 10 years and up to $16,000 to get back to practicing medicine — that’s not including residency, which can be another five years. Teachers can take up to three years, at a cost of $31,000 for recertification.

“Sometimes they have to completely redo a degree even if they’ve already taught for 15 years,” Wamester says.

Other states are creating alternate paths for educated refugees and immigrants, steps that Wamester hopes Michigan will soon adopt. One example, a refugee or immigrant in Florida who was a physician abroad can take an accelerated course for a master’s in nursing.

The University of California Los Angeles offers immigrant physicians from Latin American countries free recertification exams and residency in family medicine. In return, they must practice medicine in an underserved part of Los Angeles. 

“I really hope at some point a program like that will be replicated in Michigan,” Wamester says.

But recertification can only get you so far when employers and recruiting agencies simply choose to overlook refugees, either out of ignorance of the law or simple discrimination. Wamester says the misperception that a refugee is either here illegally or requires sponsorship to work is common. 

“I’ve had to work with some of my clients in Michigan to convince recruiters that they don’t require sponsorship,” Wamester says.

Some recruiting agencies simply won’t recommend refugees for hire.

“Recruiters don’t care,” Wamester says. “Their primary client is the employer, and they don’t want any sort of a risk.”



Back at the refugee picnic, Laith Somo, an information technology student at Oakland Community College, spends an hour recollecting his life story. All the while, he grins and chuckles, even at the bleak points, like when a Baath Party official unlawfully took over his family’s home in northern Iraq. 

Laith, 26, is now an American citizen. He moved to this country with his family — his mother, father, and two brothers — five years ago as a refugee. They fled Iraq in 2003, just days before the American invasion began. They spent the next seven years living in Damascus. 

He and his family worked under the table for less than what a Syrian citizen would’ve made to make rent and pay bills. Perhaps more importantly in his case, the Syrian government (and the governments of all other neighboring countries) would not allow Laith or other Iraq refugees to attend school.

When he started taking classes here, he found himself treading in a sea of remedial courses — mostly ESL classes. Laith told me he’d taken 105 credits’ worth of classes — 65 are non-transferable to a university.

“These will be gone,” he said, with a swipe of his hand and a smile.

Laith is part of a generation of Iraqi refugees who Jeralda Hattar, of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, is most concerned about. 

Hattar says that when she meets with people between 20 and 30, they have no idea what they want to do with their lives. They shrug when asked, she says. 

War has deprived them of the opportunity to dream.

“Young elementary through high school students will have that opportunity,” she says. “Older adults who’ve had a career — they’ll just continue on with what they have, but the young ones, I’d say 20 through 30, are almost forgotten.”

Hattar has seen many of that young Iraqi group start taking a couple of ESL courses at a community college, but then they’ll get a job, give up ESL, and their college altogether.

“And then,” she says, “that’s where it ends.” 

Laith’s cheery disposition, at least on the surface, is an indication he’s likely to buck that trend. When asked if he’s ever frustrated or if he feels the number of courses he has to take seems insurmountable, he responds with a story. …

One of his few native-born American friends is studying Japanese and hopes to soon spend a year abroad. Anxious about adapting to Japanese culture, he turned to Laith for advice. Laith’s advice was simple, and seems applicable to the thousands of refugees like him, young and old, who now call this state home: “Don’t give up.” 

Robert Guttersohn, a freelance writer and a staff writer for C & G Newspapers, is an Iraq War vet. Follow him on Twitter @rguttersohn

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