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The United States of Resettlement

Michigan Offers Warm Welcome But Few Jobs to Iraqi Refugees

Michigan, with its long Arab-American history, offers refugees fleeing war in Iraq a family away from home. Yet the financial crisis made it even harder to find work there, while the arrival of secondary migrants drawn to Michigan’s sense of community strains resources.

Written by Danish Mehboob Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Iraqi Americans in Dearborn, Michigan. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

When Iraqi refugee Mohamad Soleiman visited Dearborn, Michigan, it felt like home – a feeling that is missing where he lives in Albany, New York.

“My family is in Michigan,” he says, referring to the Iraqi population in the state. “Of course I will want to move.”

“It’s likely that someone coming from Iraq will know someone in Michigan,” says Joseph Kassab, an Iraqi-American and member of the Chaldean Federation of America, a Michigan-based education and community nonprofit. Iraqis there are sustained by the sense of community, he says.

In the last decade, more than 35,000 refugees have been resettled in Michigan, and over 60 percent of them were Iraqis. In Dearborn, roughly one-third of the city’s 95,000-odd residents are Arab-American or of Arab descent.

Michigan has a history of Arab immigration and refugee resettlement that dates back more than a century. The first wave of Arab migrants was made up of mostly Lebanese and Syrian Christians coming in the late 19th century to escape religious persecution under the Ottoman Empire.

At the start of the 20th century, Michigan’s booming auto industry, especially the Ford Motor Company, drew large immigrant numbers from the rest of the world, too. Many Arabs arrived at this time as economic migrants looking for work. And by the time the auto industry suffered heavy setbacks in the early 1970s and 1980s, the area around Detroit had already established its Arab-American identity.

Michigan continued to draw Arabs from across the U.S. and the world, especially in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War of 1975. The influx of the Lebanese put southeast Michigan, which includes Detroit and Dearborn, on the map as the place with the largest concentration of Arabs in the U.S.

A large number of grocery stores opened to serve the immigrant community, according to Matthew Jaber Stiffler, a researcher on Arab-American history: They were first owned by the Lebanese, and then, when they moved to the suburbs, Iraqis took over.

Iraqis now run many grocery stores and gas stations in southeast Michigan. “If it’s not owned by an Iraqi person, then it’s probably owned by a Lebanese person,” Stiffler says. These “legacy stores” are opening jobs to newly arrived refugees in Michigan.

The total number of Iraqi immigrants, including refugees, per county in Michigan. Visualization: Danish Mehboob. Data: US Census Bureau.

Yet despite such help from the community, Department of Labor statistics show that employment took a dive in the last decade. In the wake of the 2008 recession, Michigan had one of the largest Arab refugee populations and one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

Nearly half of Iraqi refugees coming to the U.S. live in either Michigan or California, states that had some of the highest unemployment rates in the country in 2008. While California and Michigan are recovering, refugees face particular challenges in this economic climate: A 2012 study shows that refugees generally face higher rates of unemployment than other demographics in the U.S.

Resettlement agencies in Michigan say their resources are not only stretched by refugees being directly resettled in Michigan, but also by people moving to Michigan from other states to join family and friends, so-called “secondary migrants.”

Ahmad Jaber, director of the Arab American Association of New York, says there has been a trend of Iraqi refugees settling first in other states, then moving to Michigan within a couple months of being in the U.S. This puts a strain on resources because most federal funds allocated to the resettlement program in a state are meant to cover refugees initially resettled there, and not secondary migrants.

There is no federal system for keeping track of where refugees relocate to, so most resources do not follow refugees across state borders. Some states do receive funds based on secondary migration, but they are allocated based on the historic resettlement patterns, which may not reflect future trends. Many refugees who move states need to find new social service providers or start anew without any government support.

Joseph Kassab says refugees moving to Michigan from other states tend to lose out on money and government benefits such as housing, healthcare and employment services. “It’s hurt them more than it’s benefited them, to be honest,” says Kassab.

Nonprofit organizations like the Arab Community Center and the Chaldean Federation are trying to help the still-growing Iraqi population. They reach out to members of the local community via job fairs and provide transport, which tends to be an issue in metro Detroit.

According to Madiha Tariq, deputy director at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Detroit, it’s still difficult for newly arrived refugees to find employment, but their prospects are on the rise. The community center connected more than 2,000 people with jobs throughout metro Detroit in 2013, and Tariq says those numbers have kept steady since. Based on data from the Economic Policy Institute’s State of Working America Data Library, unemployment in Michigan is finally returning to levels before the 2007–08 economic crisis.

The enduring uncertainty is incentive enough for Mohamad Soleiman not to move to Dearborn. He says he has wanted to move to Michigan for a long time – while his current home, Albany, has a history of resettlement and a significant Arab population, its Iraqi community is small compared to Michigan’s.

Yet moving would be financially risky – it took him years to rebuild his career after he and his family fled extremists’ threats in Iraq in 2008, leaving their hair salon business behind. “It took [so] long to get my business,” he says of the new salon he established with his wife in Albany. “It will be difficult to move from here and continue.”

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