DETROIT, (AP) – The U.S. government resettled Mazen Alsaqa in Massachusetts in February. Within a month, the Iraqi refugee moved to Michigan.
It wasn’t that Alsaqa disliked Worcester, Mass. But he never thought twice about staying. Even though the U.S. government tried to keep him away from the Detroit area and its soaring unemployment, that was the only place Alsaqa wanted to live.
Tens of thousands have fled Michigan’s troubled economy in recent years, yet Iraqi refugees continue to move there despite a U.S. government policy trying to limit refugee resettlement in the Detroit area. Family ties and cultural support from the region’s large Middle Eastern community appear no match for the U.S. effort, which tries to place refugees in cities where they stand a better chance of financial success.
“What the government gives you as a support is not a great deal. … If you’d like to live decently, you should have a live connection — that’s your family here in Michigan,” said Alsaqa, 34, who lives in suburban Birmingham with family.
Southeastern Michigan has one of the country’s largest Middle Eastern populations — about 300,000 can trace their roots back to the region — and has long been a top destination for Arab immigrants to the U.S.
Kabobs are easier to come by than Big Macs in some areas of the Detroit suburb of Dearborn that more closely resemble a Middle Eastern city than a Midwestern one. Arabic signs are common on storefronts, headscarves are worn by many women and at some fast food joints in the city, the meat is halal — meaning it is prepared according to Islamic law.
But as Michigan’s auto industry crumbled and thousands were laid off, the State Department decided in June 2008 to limit the number of Iraqi refugees it sent to the area to only those with a close family member such a parent or sibling.
The policy came as the U.S. government began increasing the overall number of Iraqis it granted refugee status. Between July 2008 to September, the U.S. resettled only 3,400 Iraqis in the Detroit area — about 13 percent of the total number of Iraqi refugees that came to the U.S.
But that hasn’t stopped Iraqis from coming to Michigan.
At least 460 Iraqi refugees have come on their own to Michigan since July 2008 after first being told to resettle somewhere else, according to Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, one of the state’s primary refugee agencies and the only one that collects such data in Michigan on what is known as secondary migration. “Whether the economy is good or bad you’re still going to have secondary migration to Detroit because of historical and cultural significance,” said Elizabeth Campbell, senior advocate of the Washington-based advocacy group Refugees International.
That was the case with Alsaqa. It was a relative in the Detroit area who helped him land jobs teaching nursing students and tutoring.
“Without these connections, I couldn’t figure out how I could do it,” said Alsaqa, who is studying to get his medical doctor rectification.
The same was true for Rawaa Bahoo and Sinan Shamsulddin. Both Iraqi refugees never intended to stay where the U.S. government relocated them in July 2008. Bahoo, 29, said she stayed just a few days in Atlanta before heading to Michigan, where relatives could help her overcome her language barrier. An uncle and other relatives in Michigan helped Shamsulddin, 21, get a job assisting cooks in a Detroit-area restaurant — the main reason why he left Vermont after about a week.
“There’s a lot of (people from my) community here,” Shamsulddin said in Arabic through an interpreter.
When Iraqis are granted refugee status to the U.S., they are “strongly advised” against secondary migration, said Jamal Al-Fakhouri, a cultural orientation coordinator in Jordan for the International Organization for Migration, which works with the State Department on resettling refugees.
“They are told about national unemployment numbers and rates and about the regional ones, and the fact that finding jobs these days is highly competitive especially in areas such as Detroit as a result of layoffs in the auto industry,” he said in an e-mail.
The State Department says its policy has relieved pressure on community and social services groups in Michigan. But Al Horn, Michigan’s director of refugee services, said while it initially cut back on the number of Iraqis coming to the state, many eventually made their way to the Detroit area, putting a strain on some local agencies.
The State Department gives resettlement agencies $900 for each arriving refugee, with much of the money going to immediate needs such as rent and food. But the money doesn’t follow refugees if they pack up and leave the city the government resettled them in.
“Just getting a job may not be the end-all — they may need a period of time to be with friends and familiar settings in their adjustment to the United States,” Horn said.
But even with relatives nearby, life in the Detroit region hasn’t been easy.
The U.S. government picked Tucson, Ariz. as the home for Ahmad Mahmoud and his brother. But they left within two weeks of arriving for the Detroit area earlier this year because Tucson lacked any resemblance to the streets of Iraq.
Once in Michigan, Mahmoud, 22, started looking for work and taking classes toward his goal of earning a Ph.D. in engineering. His brother, though, felt there were no good job opportunities and returned to Iraq.
“When he left, I felt homesick,” said Mahmoud, who shares a rented condo in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills with a friend from his mosque.
Now, Mahmoud struggles to pay his bills with his $7-an-hour job at a supermarket. Still, he doesn’t plan to follow his brother.
“I decided if I sleep in the street … I do not come back to my country,” he said. “I am here to achieve my goals.”