Driving through the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, one may easily confuse their surroundings with that of the Middle East. The city of Dearborn, which is surrounded on three sides by the economically embattled Detroit, Michigan, is often referred to as “little Iraq,” for its large Iraqi contingency. The Iraqi community in Dearborn has grown significantly since the onset of the Iraq war in 2003. While the new Iraqi diaspora in the United States is undoubtedly in a safer environment than their native country, it seems these communities have left a war-ravaged country, only to begin fighting a different battle: One of acclimation to a foreign country.
The Iraqi diaspora is now dispersed throughout the world - with the United States accepting well over 90,000 Iraqi refugees since 2003. Many refugees sent to the United States are moving to Dearborn, largely due to the fact that there is a large Lebanese community establishment there, as well as a “newer” Iraqi immigrant base that came to the United States in the early 1990s after the first Gulf War.
“It is no accident that many are finding their way to Michigan and carving a niche for themselves. I think there is a comfort in being in the vicinity of a large concentration of mostly Lebanese coreligionists,” said Dr. Hani Bawardi, a professor of History and Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan. However, “there is no evidence that, save entry level jobs in Lebanese-owned grocery stores and restaurants, that the two communities are coordinating some form of safety nets for newcomers,” Bawardi said. But, “being part of an Arab American population may have softened the blow, at least psychologically,” he added.
Since 2003, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Iraqi refugees a year come to the Dearborn, Michigan area in search of social, economic and professional stability. Refugees are not given the choice of where to live, but, the U.S. State Department gives strong consideration to placing refugees into communities where some sort of support system is in place.
“We helped the Americans in Iraq. Because we helped them, they gave us the visa to come here because the situation in Iraq was miserable. We came to the United States to find academic and professional opportunities,” said Ali, an Iraqi now living in Dearborn. Upon coming to the United States, Ali was placed in Montana, which he described as an isolating experience, given the vastness of the state and the relative lack of Arabs. He said that once he came to Michigan, his experience was more positive.
“Due to their distribution across the United States... [Iraqi refugees in the United States] differ in how they deal with each other within their respective communities,” Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, told Al Arabiya News. “These differences also cause for there to be a lack of harmony among the Iraqi diaspora in the United States,” the ambassador said.
Over 30 percent of the Detroit area’s residents are of Arab descent, which brings with it a strong sense of social, cultural and religious understanding. The streets of the Detroit area are lined with mosques, Arab restaurants, and businesses run by Arab-Americans. The community “cushion” eases the anxiety that most refugees feel, as they are expected to start working within 12 months of arriving to the U.S.. Particularly in areas like Detroit, which were hit hard by the collapse of the auto industry, the challenges of being a foreigner seeking employment are only amplified within the context of an embattled economy.
To further exacerbate the problem, many of these Iraqi refugees come to the United States with various physical and mental conditions that are a symptom of their tormented country. Iraqis that faced physical or emotional abuse in Iraq continue to battle the demons that plague them, either in the form of physical disabilities and recuperation, or by way of emotional distress or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For these Iraqi refugees, the acclimation process, along with the financial burden of medical bills, takes a heavy toll.
Continuing to follow the progress and paying attention to the varied needs of the Iraqi refugee population in the United States is something that the Iraqi Embassy in the United States takes seriously, said Ambassador Faily. “It’s natural, and it’s [Iraqis] right that they want to feel connected to their home country and feel that their native country is taking care of them,” even after they’ve left, Ambassador Faily said. It is in this same vein, the ambassador said, that Iraqi embassies both in the U.S. and worldwide, are working to re-gain the trust and confidence of their people.
Though it has been ten years since the onset of the Iraq war and U.S. military operations have ended there, Iraq, by many accounts, is still a country at war and a country in factions. The wounds from years of warfare are still deep and fresh for many Iraqis. There are generations of Iraqis that do not know a country outside of the context of war, and simultaneous generations of Iraqis that do not know their native country. Iraqis were driven out of their country by the masses by unrelenting violence and sectarianism, left with the task of re-building their lives in a foreign country. For many, they are also struggling to stay connected with their Iraqi identity, though they are no longer living in Iraq. The idea of maintaining the Iraqi identity may seem elusive for many, given the broken nature of the country that has been beaten by years of political, economic, and religious warfare.
Despite these years of tumult, Faily said that the Iraqi people have not lost their unity in identity. “The Iraqi identity is very clear,” he said, “they share the same culture, food, and history,” among other things. When you speak to an Iraqi, Faily said, “you ask them are you Iraqi? Not are you Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Arab or Chaldean. This is the wrong approach and this approach needs to be reconsidered.”
Many Iraqis seem to hold hope that their re-location to the United States will finally bring them the peace and prosperity that they envisioned coming with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein—a reality that sadly is yet to come to fruition in Iraq. “I’ve achieved half of the American dream,” said Ali, the Iraqi now leaving in Dearborn, who has also opened a successful restaurant serving traditional Iraqi food. “God willing,” Ali said, “I will fully realize this American dream.”
Yasmeen Alamiri is with Al Arabiya in Washington, DC. You can reach Yasmeen on Twitter: @Yalamiri