Syrian refugees eager to build new lives in metro Detroit
Gazing through his living room window in a quiet block in Garden City, a 48-year-old Syrian refugee ponders his new life in America.
"In Syria, there's no safety; it's too dangerous," Moustafa Assad said from a sparsely furnished home he rents, with his two sons sitting next to him on his couch. "At least here, it's safe for them. There's no war. ... I want to stay here for my kids' future so they can go to school and learn."
Assad's hopes are echoed by up to 100 Syrian refugees who have arrived in Michigan this year, one of almost 1,500 who came to the U.S. in 2015, fleeing Syria's four-year civil war and refugee camps. It's a small number compared with the hundreds of thousands of Syrians and others who are fleeing war, conflicts and poverty in other parts of Asia and in Africa and arriving in Europe, but the number could grow in coming months as the U.S. Department of State seeks to increase the number of refugees the U.S. takes in.
More than 4 million Syrians have left their country in what is now the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. On Monday, President Barack Obama said the U.S.will increase the number of refugees "we admit to the U.S. to 100,000 per year for the next two years," an increase from the 75,000 the U.S. took in this fiscal year. Many of those refugees are expected to be Syrians who could end up in Michigan, which has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the U.S.
In Michigan, state officials, elected representatives and Arab-American social service agencies are keen to welcome refugees, saying they could help the region and repopulate areas like Detroit. An opinion piece in the New York Times in May, cowritten by a Stanford University professor who called for bringing Syrian refugees to Detroit, has sparked discussion about how refugees could help the city.
"This will add to the population of Detroit," said Haifa Fakhouri, president of the Arab American and Chaldean Council. "And it will bring economic benefits."
The number of refugees who would settle in metro Detroit is unclear; federal officials decide where to place them. It's a sensitive topic, given that some in Michigan may be opposed to bringing in newcomers while many metro Detroiters are struggling economically and may fear that refugees would drain resources and take jobs. Some Republicans also worry about potential security risks, such as members of the Islamic State trying to gain entry. And a new survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center showed that Americans view immigrants from the Middle East the most negatively when compared with immigrants from other parts of the world.
But Fakhouri, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Gov. Rick Snyder say the state should be welcoming. On Tuesday, Snyder said that refugees can be an asset to Michigan's economy, saying that some of them "were professionals; they were people who hire people and tend to create jobs."
His spokesman Dave Murray added: "The images that we’ve seen of refugee children and their families are certainly heartbreaking."
"Gov. Snyder has said that Michigan is a welcoming state," Murray said, "and we are open to working with the federal government to see if there is a potential role for Michigan to play in relocating some of the refugees."
Peters of Bloomfield Township, one of two senators to meet with Syrian refugees this month at a camp in Jordan, said, "We need to do more about allowing folks to come into the United States."
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said through a spokesman that "everyone is welcome in Detroit, including refugees from Syria."
So far, only about 1,800 Syrian refugees have been admitted into the U.S. since the start of the Syrian conflict in spring 2011, according to State Department figures. Countries neighboring Syria, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have taken in millions of refugees, and Germany plans to take in 800,000.
Murray said that "it is still very early in this process" and unclear how many refugees would end up in Michigan, which takes in about 4,400 refugees from various places a year. The state receives $20 million per year in federal funding for refugee assistance, said Murray.
'Our history ... is to help'
Refugees like Assad usually get three months of assistance that helps with shelter and food. After that, they're on their own. Assad, who arrived in June, is concerned, as his assistance of $760 per month will end in October. He doesn't speak English and was a house painter in Syria, doing odd jobs to support his wife, two sons and three daughters, ages 8-19.
He works two days a week, filing at the Royal Oak office of Basha Diagnostics, run by an immigrant from Syria, Dr. Yahya Basha, an advocate for Syrian Americans. About 10,000 people in Michigan are of Syrian descent — a third of them were born in Syria — with the largest concentration in metro Detroit. They and other Arab Americans have been advocating to bring the refugees to Michigan.
Basha, who has cousins fleeing from Syria to Europe, said refugees can be a valuable asset to the region. Several who work in his office are refugees from the Balkan war in the 1990s who settled in Hamtramck and other cities.
The Syrian refugees "don't want to be on welfare," Basha said. "They want to work and educate their kids."
He watched a video on his cell phone of some of his cousins on a boat with other Syrian refugees, going from Greece to Macedonia. They were able to settle this year in the Netherlands, which accepted them as refugees. Some say the U.S. should do more to admit such refugees.
"Our history in this great country is to help the needy," Fakhouri said. "From a humanitarian perspective, we should be more compassionate. ...They've suffered enough. They have no place to go."
This month, Peters visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the largest center for Syrian refugees in that country. "They are basically losing hope," Peters said. "It's a tough existence for people there, in the middle of the desert, in small trailers and tents."
Regarding concerns about security threats expressed by Republicans, Peters said the U.S. has its "own screening process to make sure folks are indeed refugees and don't pose any risk to the security of the United States." The Department of Homeland Security oversees that process.
'We feel safe'
Syrian Americans in metro Detroit have been helping out with refugee assistance and trying to convince U.S. officials to take in more refugees.
"They are innocent, hardworking people," said Rasha Basha of Bloomfield Hills, with Women for Humanity, a Michigan group that helps Syrian refugees. "They deserve a chance."
Shadi Martini of Farmington Hills, a senior Syria adviser with the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, is helping organize medical screenings of Syrian refugees in the Middle East and Europe. He was a hospital manager in Syria and left with his family to escape the Syrian government's attacks.
Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, based in Troy, has been processing most of the refugees arriving in metro Detroit. The agency has helped resettle 62 Syrian refugees so far this year, said Mihaela Mitrofan, the Resettlement Program Manager at Lutheran Social Services for refugees. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and Catholic Charities are also handling some refugees.
Most of the Syrian refugees are from Jordan and are glad to be in the U.S., Mitrofan said. They say: "We feel safe. We feel we are human again."
Assad and his family feel the same way. In Syria, the bombing and gunfire made it difficult for their kids to sleep. "Everyone had that anxiety," Assad said. "The city got shelled day and night. The kids were scared all the time, fast heartbeats. The house was shaking."
Assad's home was destroyed in the war and so the family moved to a sister's home, but that, too, came under attack.
In summer 2012, they fled for the border with Turkey, hopping on the back of a pickup with about 50 others. They were denied entry into Turkey three times, but finally got through in August 2012.
Assad's family lived in Istanbul for three years, but it was too expensive.
Now in Garden City, they appreciate the calm, though it can seem too quiet at times. His 8-year-old son quips: "Here, you don't see anyone on the street for two hours. In Syria, you see people everywhere."
Another challenge is finding Arabic speakers nearby. Garden City doesn't have many Arab Americans, and there's only one other Arabic-speaking student in the public school the 8-year-old boy attends.
Assad said he worries about how he will support his family once his refugee assistance ends: his monthly rent, plus water and electricity, is $1,450. The only possessions they were able to bring were clothes. In their living room, a button made by a son with the flag of the Syrian opposition and a copy of the Quran are among the few items.
"If I don't find a job, it will be a problem," Assad said. "How am I going to support my family?"
Despite the challenges, he and his wife are committed to their new lives.
"It's for my kids," said Assad's wife, Wafa Al-Ahmad, 39. "They can study and have a future. I'm staying because of the kids."
Contact Niraj Warikoo: firstname.lastname@example.org, 313-223-4792. Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo
To donate to help Syrian refugees, visit U.S. government websites: AidRefugees.gov or https://www.usaid.gov/crisis/syria
To help Lutheran Social Services Michigan, text "LSSMrefugee to 41444, or visit www.lssm.org