“It was like a movie,” says Ahmed Hamdi. Seven years ago, when he was twenty-one, men with guns burst into his family’s home in Baghdad. They shoved Ahmed and his father to their knees and pushed their heads against the wall. As they slapped his father’s face, Hamdi could hear the cries of his mother and sisters, whom the intruders had forced into another room.
Fortunately, their neighbors heard the cries, too. They gathered in front of the family’s home, and the intruders quickly left. “We were minutes away from being kidnapped,” says Hamdi, his voice rising. A week later, the family, lifelong residents of Baghdad, fled to Jordan. It was the first step in a journey that would ultimately lead to Hamdi’s arrival, with his wife, Riaa Al-Ward, in Ann Arbor in June.
“I am very happy to be here,” Hamdi says during an interview at the offices of Jewish Family Services on South State. JFS began with grassroots efforts by Ann Arbor Jews to resettle Jews escaping persecution in the former Soviet Union; though it’s grown into an all-round social services agency, it remains the official refugee assistance center for Washtenaw County. Clients usually arrive in waves; after the Russians came Kosovars and Serbs fleeing the Balkan wars of the 1990s, followed by Somalis. Now it’s the Iraqis’ turn.
Since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, more than two million people have fled the country. Almost none were permitted to enter the United States until 2008, when the U.S. government belatedly acknowledged that anti-American militias had murdered hundreds of people who worked for the military and its contractors. Since then, nearly 85,000 Iraqis have been admitted as refugees. More than 200 of them have ended up in Washtenaw County.
“This is the busiest year we’ve had,” says Mira Sussman, JFS’s resettlement coordinator. “We’ve had more than sixty so far—about the same as we had all of last year.”
A dozen or so refugees came from other countries, mostly in Africa. But the overwhelming majority have been Iraqis. Largely well-educated professionals who practice the Sunni form of Islam, the refugees weren’t all on the American payroll—but all were caught up in the political, religious, and social upheaval that followed the invasion.
Under contract with the State Department via the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, JFS is responsible for helping them get settled. As refugees, they’re allowed to work immediately and also to collect welfare benefits if they can’t immediately find jobs. (Most first need to master English, which is why all refugees are required to attend language classes at JFS.)
The arrival of the Iraqis puts an interesting spin on the agency’s work. Not only was Hussein a sworn enemy of Israel, but, like other Arab countries, Iraq expelled its historic Jewish population after Israel was founded in 1948. Sussman, who’s thirty-seven, says that some refugees, seeing the stained glass Star of David in her office, have made it a point to tell her that their grandparents had Jewish friends.
Sussman, who has lived in Israel, acknowledges some self-consciousness. “In most cases I’m the first American they have a meaningful relationship [with],” she says, “and probably the first Jewish person they’ve met.”
The energetic social worker seems to have made a good impression: the refugees all know her by her first name, and one Iraqi woman even named her daughter “Mera.”
“Believe it or not, I have never heard anti-Jewish remarks,” says Sussman’s boss, JFS executive director Anya Abramzon. It probably helps that the law is laid down at the daily English classes that no one disparages another ethnic group. More important, says Abramzon, the refugees all “have one goal—of becoming Americans.”
“Jewish Family Services does a great job!” says Tawfik Alazem, director of the Detroit field office for the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. The office is in Dearborn, home to the largest Middle Eastern population in the country, which is probably why about two-thirds of the refugees sent to Michigan over the last five years came from Iraq. While some Iraqis who seek help from JFS eventually move to Dearborn or perhaps Canton, Alazem says he believes most stay in the Ann Arbor area, partly because of the effective work of JFS. Another big attraction, he says, is the bus service here, since many refugees can’t afford cars.
Sussman’s funding is quite limited—Abramzon calls her “a one-woman band”—and most of her helpers are volunteers or interns. Fortunately, most of the arrivals have a friend or family member in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti. Those who don’t have a tougher time.
Last spring, Sussman drove to the airport to pick up one such “unanchored” family—a couple and their three daughters. Two days later, I accompany her and an interpreter in a visit to the family’s Pittsfield Township apartment.
When we arrive, two guys are moving in gently used furniture—a couch, a rocking chair, and a couple of lamps—all donated by JFS. The three girls—twelve, nine, and six—hum in and out the living room, jumping on the rocking chair, giggling as they look at the visitors. Like their dad, they are dressed in Western clothes; the mother wears a head scarf and long dress.
As the interpreter translates, Sussman gives the parents forms to sign: a furniture inventory and an explanation of government benefits, which includes a one-time payment of $925 per person. Though McKinley Inc., helps her find affordable apartments for the refugees, that’s only enough to pay rent for a month or two.
The parents, an attractive couple in their thirties, listen gravely, with the father sometimes asking questions. Sussman learns that the family is low on groceries. Though she’s supposed to take the next day off, she immediately arranges to come back then to help them shop.
Nervous about the presence of a journalist, the couple are sparing in what they share. The father says only that he worked for Americans “in a warehouse,” and that, after the U.S. troops left, life for the family became “dangerous.” He says he will work at any job. The mother suddenly looks at me and says, in English, “I will work too.” The translator explains she had worked in a beauty shop in Iraq.
“Great people!” Sussman says as we leave. Some new arrivals are so culture shocked they won’t leave their homes without intervention, but a few days later the father shows up at the JFS office in Ann Arbor—no easy feat for someone who doesn’t have a vehicle or speak English.
But this family, with no American relatives and less educated than some, is in for a rough time. A month later I talk to the couple at JFS—where they both take English lessons—and the mother looks sad when asked how the girls are doing in school. It has been hard for them, she says, and the twelve-year-old particularly is struggling with her English. Another month later, when I ask Sussman about them, neither has found a job. Her voice rising in frustration, the social worker adds that crucial government welfare and food stamp payments are delayed. Cracking the Department of Human Services bureaucracy has been difficult, despite her many contacts there. “Each caseworker has about 700 clients,” she exclaims. “It’s ridiculous!”
Not long after we talk, the benefits finally come through—but only after the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center sends an attorney to advocate for the family at a DHS hearing.
Two years ago, Sanaa Al-Salman was also fresh off the plane. But the former civil engineer mastered English quickly, and JFS, charmed by her warm personality, hired her as a receptionist/interpreter. When I was there recently, a new worker rushed to hug her, declaring, “Sanaa is like our grandmother!”
A well-coiffed woman, dressed stylishly but conservatively in a long-sleeved silky blouse and a black skirt, she agrees to be interviewed, but adds that talking about the past is difficult: “When I think too much, I cannot move on.”
Al-Salman was responsible for hiring contractors to install electrical connections in Baghdad. Both Sunnis and Shiites—who have a history of conflict—plus a small number of Christians lived together peacefully, she recalls. Speaking out against Hussein was dangerous, but if you avoided politics, you usually would be left alone, she says.
“Hussein saw himself as a regional strongman,” confirms Saeed Khan, a Wayne State professor and Middle East expert. “He did not want sectarian conflict to create a diversion. Baghdad used to be not just cosmopolitan but well interspersed—Sunnis and Shiites living in hybrid neighborhoods.”
Al-Salman and her family hoped that Hussein’s death would usher in an era of new freedom. But their early optimism faded as disaffected members of his regime jostled with Shiite and Sunni groups for power and revenge. Al-Salman, who had turned down bribes to hire contractors, quit her job for fear of violent retaliation. Her husband ran an engineering firm, but closed it after a colleague was killed.
“We sit at home all the time,” Al-Salman recalls. “Everyone has weapons. They are doing what they want, and there is no protection.” A threat—an envelope with a bullet—was left outside their apartment door. Then one day, “strange men”—she shrugs when asked who they were—showed up at their home “and gave us forty-eight hours to leave.” They flew to Jordan, where they stayed five years until their refugee applications were approved.
Their adult daughter and son are with them and are working to get the credentials required to pursue their careers here—he is a physician, she a pharmacist. Al-Salman’s husband does maintenance jobs, and the couple live more modestly than they did in Iraq, where they traveled frequently to Europe for vacation. It doesn’t matter, she says: “When you compare everything with your life, you choose life. “
JFS has occasional dealings with Central Academy principal Luay Shalabi, who notes that about 10 percent of the students there are recent Iraqi arrivals. The agency also occasionally works with the small Muslim Social Services center. But though JFS is desperate for Arabic-speaking volunteers, it has no connection with the large Islamic Center on Plymouth Road.
It’s a sensitive subject. “We’ve tried to make contact,” Sussman says, and leaves it at that. (The Observer’s efforts to reach the center also went unanswered.)
Sussman believes that most refugees eventually find employment. The less educated may work in construction or cleaning offices, while others, if they master English sufficiently, return to their professions.
That’s the path Ahmed Hamdi hopes to follow. The only thing his misses about Baghdad, he says, are the friends he left behind; the terror cancelled out earlier, happier memories. An observant Muslim, he is not worried about fitting into American society. In medical school in Jordan, he says, he had close Christian friends. “I didn’t come here to pray. That belongs to a person himself.”
Sussman and Abramzon believe the Iraqis will continue to dominate their clientele for a while. But Sussman, who follows world news closely, told me at our first interview last spring that she was sure the next group to come in large numbers would be the Syrians: “I’m waiting with bated breath for when they’re coming.”
In July, the first Syrians turned up at JFS.
The current chaos is only the latest crisis in Iraq, which has been torn by war and internal conflicts for more than thirty years. In smaller numbers, refugees from earlier conflicts also found their ways to Ann Arbor; I met with two who moved here more than a decade ago to see how they were doing.
I find Amal Najf, a middle-aged woman in a headscarf and long gown, in line at a food pantry at Peace Neighborhood Center. She exchanges friendly greetings with Peace director Bonnie Billups Jr. and tells me, in limited English, that she came here in 1998 to join her husband, who left Iraq after he was injured in the first Persian Gulf War (when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, only to be ejected by a U.S.-led force.). She eventually divorced him, but stayed here with their four children.
She says the move was hardest on her oldest child, who was eight when they moved here. She recalls he “was crying every day, I pick him up. ‘Mom, I can’t understand.'” Today, she says proudly, he is a graduate of Eastern, has a full-time job in “security,” and supports the family.
Zilan Taymour is a Kurd, an ethnic minority persecuted by Hussein. She was just five when he attacked the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, infamously killing civilians with poison gas. Her family fled on foot to Turkey, an exhausting three-week journey that still haunts her.
Now thirty, Taymour greets me in her University Townhouse apartment where she is playing with her three-year-old daughter. Pregnant with her third child, she works full time at the U-M library. She wears no head scarf and has no trace of an accent.
She explains that her family moved to suburban Detroit—where the older children took jobs—and then to Ann Arbor, where she graduated from Pioneer High. She belonged to a Muslim student group at Pioneer, but she had plenty of non-Muslim friends and says she still does. “I was very social,” she recalls. Though her husband is also a Kurd—they met on her one trip back to Kurdistan—she describes a life of balance. Her family eats both western and Kurdish meals, and while she attends the Islamic Center, she’s not a regular.
While her older siblings “are very traditional,” she says, “my mindset is different.” Her dream is to go to law school and work for human rights.