The next few months we will see a huge wave,” predicts Anya Abramzon.
Abramzon, the executive director of Jewish Family Services, is speaking about refugees from the Iraq War. She says twenty Iraqis and their families have already settled in the Ann Arbor area—and the number may double soon.
The newcomers are among thousands of refugees who’ve been waiting, some of them for years, for permission to settle in this country. JFS is helping out under a contract with the State Department.
Abramzon says many Iraqis want to come here because they have relatives in southeastern Michigan. “People want to be with people they know,” says Abramzon, herself a Russian immigrant who learned English in Ann Arbor.
Some of the refugees served as translators or otherwise helped the U.S. military in Iraq. Though most are middle class and well educated and speak some English, they initially receive public assistance and live in apartments partially subsidized by megalandlord McKinley. JFS is scrambling to find donated furniture for the apartments—and cars so the immigrants can get to work. So far about half a dozen have found jobs, ranging from substitute teacher to pharmacy technician.
A few of the Iraqis have received grief counseling for their losses of loved ones during the war. “The explosions happened in front of your eyes,” recalls Suhair Al-Azawi, who wears a brown head scarf. Like many refugees, she and her family lived in Jordan while waiting to be admitted to the United States. She and her husband hope to find jobs that draw on their business and computer skills.
Though the refugees come from both sides of Iraq’s sectarian divide, JFS teacher Barbara Schreier says she’s seen no tensions in her English as a Second Language classes. “Whether they’re Sunnis or Shiites, they’re very supportive of each other,” says Schreier.
It may seem ironic that a Jewish agency is helping Muslim refugees from the Middle East. But JFS, which learned the ropes of immigration helping Jews fleeing the Soviet Union, has since helped people of many backgrounds settle here, including Somali refugees, Hurricane Katrina victims, and a handful of Zoroastrians from Iran.