By Ali Harb | The Arab American News
DETROIT — Aseel Machi, a refugee from Iraq, faced racial and religious discrimination while going to school in the 1990s. Her Islamic headscarf, the hijab, was once yanked off by bullies. But the most hurtful aspect of her experience was her family’s socioeconomic status.
“When you’re growing up and there are certain things you can’t have because you can’t afford, it has a lasting impression on you mentally,” she said. “When it’s religion, in your head you’re always thinking, ‘this is the truth to me.’ It doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t accept it or if they judge me because of it.”
To Machi, poverty was more daunting than bigotry because there was nothing she could do about it.
Machi and her family were a part of the wave of Iraqis who were settled in the United States from the Rafha refugee camp in Saudi Arabia.
Following the First Gulf War, a Shi’a-led uprising against then-President Saddam Hussein in 1991 resulted in a violent Baathist backlash that pushed about 33,000 southern Iraqis out of their homes. They sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, where they were confined to a desert camp under dire conditions.
More than 10,000 of those refugees eventually made it to the United States. Thousands were settled in Michigan or moved here, despite the cold, to join the state’s large Arab community.
Machi, a freelance journalist who now lives in Austin, Texas, was a child when her family arrived in Lansing.
She said her parents encountered tremendous economic difficulties because it was hard to find work without speaking English, “in a country that expect us to have a college degree in order to get a job.”
“A lot of times we were on assistance from the government,” she said. “I didn’t go to college without taking more than $20,000 in student loans.”
Machi and her family are doing well now. Her brother and father own a car dealership. Her byline has appeared in prestigious publications, including the British newspaper the Guardian. They are all naturalized citizens.
Other Iraqi refugees were not as fortunate in moving up the social ladder. The Machis’ struggles are common in the Iraqi American community. Folks escaped the horrors of war only to plunge into the distress of poverty in a new world.
“I was in good health”
Abu Abbas was 40 when he arrived in the United States from the Rafha camp in 1997. His mental and physical health deteriorated here, leaving him dependent on state help.
He originally was settled in Pennsylvania, but later moved to Detroit, where he heard there is a large Arab community.
He did not speak or read English and was unable to find a job. He then fell into a depression and started suffering from diabetes.
Abu Abbas, who chose to be identified by his nickname because of the Arab cultural sensitivity about discussing one’s economic hardships, said he found it difficult to thrive in a society where he could not communicate with people.
“I was in good health,” he said in a nostalgic tone.
Despite his despairing situation, Abu Abbas is grateful for the United States. He boasted about becoming a U.S. citizen.
Abu Abbas was praying at the Imam Ali Islamic Center in Warrendale, a Detroit neighborhood between Greenfield Road and the Southfield Freeway, along Warren Avenue.
Another worshipper said everyone at the mosque that evening came from Rafha.
The neighborhood is home to a large refugee population.
Mansor Almoslemawi, an Iraqi American accountant, said newly arrived Iraqis were mentally fatigued after fleeing Saddam’s persecution and spending years in the desert camp.
He said Iraqis were de facto prisoners in Rafha; they couldn’t leave the camp, where they lived in tents that did little protect them from the desert’s searing heat, under the threat of being shot on sight.
“After coming here, people didn’t have it in them to go to school,” he said. “Older people didn’t even learn English.”
Almoslemawi said many Iraqis had to take low skilled jobs, producing little income. He added that the effects of those issues can be felt today, as most Iraqi Americans in Warrendale are poor, working class families.
“There is a difference between being a cashier and being an engineer,” he said.
Hashim Al-Tawil, an Iraqi American art professor at Henry Ford College, echoed Almoslemawi’s comments on the socioeconomic struggles of the Iraqi refugee community. He said many of the newcomers had college degrees, but without English, their education was rendered useless for employment.
“That deficiency led them to total frustration,” the professor said. “They were forced to work in other ordinary service fields, such as grocery stores, party stores, restaurants and gas stations.”
He said some were so desperate that they contemplated going back to Iraq; others turned to state help, which merely covers basic needs. A few were able to improve their situation and realize their productivity.
“The sad truth is that there are still hundreds of these first generation refugees and immigrants full of potential energy, but they can’t find the proper conditions to utilize what they can offer because of the lack of language, proper training and cultural adjustment,” Al-Tawil said.
He said Iraqis who were settling here in the 1990s chose Warrendale because of its affordable housing and proximity to Dearborn, the city with the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the country.
For example, the poverty rate in the zip code that covers Warrendale is 46.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census.
Al-Tawil said Iraqi students suffered behavioral problems at Detroit Public Schools, including bullying, peer pressure and drug abuse.
Iraqi painter Haydar Alyasiry lost his 21-year-old son to gun violence in the city. He said his son was attacked by nine people after cashing his paycheck.
Alyasiry moved to the United States from Rafha at the end of 1992. He worked two jobs to make ends meet.
“We had enough to eat and live,” he said. “But there were no ambitions, no dreams.”
But it was raising the children that posed the biggest difficulty to the artist.
He said the discrepancy in discipline and laws between American and Iraqi societies created problems between parents and their kids.
Alyasiry added that many children of refugees falsely accused family members of crimes if they did not get their way.
“The Iraqi community is closed,” he said. “People don’t interact with non-Iraqis.”
He called for promoting cultural activities in refugee communities to foster relationships between newcomers and the wider society.
“Instead of letting children on the streets, why not offer them affordable music or painting classes,” he said. “Not only refugee children, all children.”
Alyasiry is now fully dedicated to his art. He makes a living by selling his paintings.
Despite the emotions oozing from his tableaus, Alyasiry said buyers often undervalue his work.
“I would start collecting pop cans before selling my paintings on the cheap,” he said.
The tides of the refugee crisis on Europe’s shore have reached U.S. politics. President Obama has pledged to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. However, Republican officials nationally and locally have raised concerns about perceived security threats posed by those who arrive from war-torn countries.
Immigration advocates have countered that rationale by talking up the contributions of newcomers, often painting a rosy picture about the refugees’ integration.
However, acquiring financial and social independence is a long, excruciating process, according to those who have witnessed or gone through it.
“It is not an easy transition or a quick transition,” Hassan Jaber, the executive director of ACCESS, said. “You have to put a lot of resources to make sure that these people are integrated.”
He added that integrating refugees from Iraq in 1990s was difficult on multiple levels.
The volume of Iraqi newcomers who settled in Michigan that decade was overwhelming, Jaber said.
He added that it is hard to estimate the number of Iraqis who came to the state because of a second migration — when refugees leave the cities where the federal government places them for a new location.
Michigan was an attractive destination because of the existing Arab community here.
Jaber estimated that more than 6,000 Iraqis moved to Michigan annually during that period.
He also said second migration proved troubling because when newcomers moved, the federal funding designated for them stayed behind.
Jaber said many of the arriving refugees suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and came from poor backgrounds.
“They came with exaggerated expectations,” Jaber said. “Whoever was processing them was giving conflicted information or they themselves felt that they deserved a better treatment after what they had gone through.”
Jaber said the newcomers were traumatized, which made it hard to establish trust with those who wanted to help them.
“Because they felt that they were betrayed in their own country, and they were betrayed when they went to Saudi Arabia and they were betrayed when they were promised things, the first step was to build a level of relationship between us and them,” he said.
While calling for recognizing the challenges, Jaber warned against falling into the trap of disparaging refugees for their own struggles.
“A real, sustained investment in refugees will pay off in the future,” he said. “It’s documented that immigrants have given more to the economy than taken from it.”
Jaber added that the United States has a moral obligation to help those trapped in war zones in the Middle East.
“These people are frankly the result of wars that we started,” he said.
As for the lessons learned from the experience of Iraqi refugees, Jaber said it is impossible to integrate refugees in six months — the designated period of federal funding.
“You need at least three years for people to start understanding their potential and the things they can do to be sustaining themselves and their families,” he said.
Jaber called for investing in mental health aid for refugees who encountered violence.
He also said the federal government should support school districts to accommodate refugee children who may need additional language and academic resources.
Al-Tawil, the Henry Ford art professor, suggested college programs to expedite the integration process for adult refugees, starting with intensive English classes.