Refugees find Detroit ‘paradise,’ hope for more Syrians

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Rahek Habbush and her parents consider themselves lucky, one of the few Syrian families who managed to escape their homeland, then Turkey and land in the United States, far from the war, death and hunger that hounded them for years.

Rahek Habbush speaks of her family’s journey from war-torn Syria. “I am very happy to be here,” she says about her home in Detroit.

The three live in a tiny rented house on Detroit’s west side where families fill the neighborhood. Inside, furniture is sparse, the cupboard is still being stocked with food and Habbush’s disabled mother rests on a bed, sheets and blankets tucked around her small frame.

It’s a warm summer day and Habbush and her father, Abdulkarim Habbush, sit outside under a covered front porch, watching life unfold near Warren and Greenfield, where many local businesses advertise in Arabic and English. It’s quiet, except for a repair crew working on a nearby home.

“I live in paradise now,” Habbush, 35, says through an interpreter, a huge smile spreading across her face. “America is my dream. I am very happy to be here.”

The Syrian civil war has been growing in intensity and scope in recent years, leaving more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced, the United Nations estimates. Since 2011, almost 12 million people, equivalent to half of the Syrian population, have been displaced by the conflict, including 7.6 million displaced inside Syria, according the White House.

The Habbush family fled Syria three years ago with just the clothes on their backs and were smuggled into Turkey by their son, who returned for his wife and children and got them to Turkey, too. He later was killed in the fighting in Syria.

Habbush’s father explains, “We left with our life. War, killing, too much stress.”

After seeking refugee status for 19 months, the trio was approved to leave Turkey by U.N. immigration officials and arrived in the United States on July 7. They are living legally in Detroit as refugees; each has a government-issued Form I-94 card as they await official status.

It’s a new life, in a new country. Abdulkarim Habbush and his wife don’t speak English. They are grateful to be alive and here in Detroit.

“It’s safe, it’s secure, it’s organized,” says Abdulkarim Habbush, 67. “I respect American society. I don’t cross anyone’s freedom.”

Rahek Habbush becomes excited as she talks about the future — becoming a citizen, finding a job, getting married and having children.

But her mind quickly turns to the people left behind, including her brother’s widow and two children, and to President Barack Obama’s recent pledge that the United States will take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next 12 months.Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that the U.S. will accept 85,000 refugees from around the world next year, and up to 100,000 in 2017.

“Of the 10,000 people the president is allowing to come in, does that include people already approved or new ones?” Habbush asks through the interpreter. “It’s our dream that other Syrians come here.”

The U.S. is on track to accept about 1,500 Syrians this year — a small fraction of the 11.6 million people who have been chased out of the country or uprooted from their homes during the four and a half year civil war in Syria.

Bringing refugees from Syria, the Middle East and across Europe and into Detroit has support in Michigan from local leaders including Haifa Fakhouri, president and founder of the Arab American and Chaldean Council.

In Metro Detroit, the ACC already is working with thousands of refugees, including the Habbush family, trying to find them shelter, medical care, mental health services and basic needs.

Since June, the ACC has seen 5,000 refugee families at its local centers. They are from Syria, Iraq, the Middle East and Africa.

Abdulkarim Habbush says leaving Syria was harrowing. “We left with our life. War, killing, too much stress.”

Fakhouri wants thousands of new refugees to come to Detroit and make their home along the Seven Mile corridor where the ACC has its campus and offers community-based human and social services.

A former United Nations international adviser and Jordanian, Fakhouri says now is the time for investors and the government to prepare the area along Seven Mile between Woodward and John R by developing housing, retail and commercial areas.

The empty spaces could be part of a new “Northtown” being pushed by the ACC to house incoming refugees, she said.

“Detroit needs more people,” she said. If refugees settle in this area, it would develop the commercial strip and nearby area, she said. “The people will become taxpayers, own homes. ... This would be an ideal place to have them settle. This is ACC’s dream and this is my dream.”

The state accepts roughly 4,400 total refugees a year — a number determined by the federal government, according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s office.

Fakhouri said Snyder has called for an infusion of 50,000 immigrants as part of a program to revitalize Detroit, and signed an executive order creating the Michigan Office for New Americans.

Last month, the ACC received a $200,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to continue its refugee health screening services program for the next three years.

Meanwhile, the Habbush family is working with ACC officials on getting proper identification so they can search for work and apply for services. They are receiving food stamps and are enrolled in Medicaid. Mental health services, including those for victims of trauma and torture, also will be available to them.

Shawqi Raji, a social worker at the ACC and for Wayne County Behavioral Health, said the Habbush family is a typical Syrian story.

“They all escaped and they are now safe. They all lost loved ones. The father, you lose your only son, your life is a disaster,” he said. “Can you imagine walking out of your home, leaving everything behind?”

As Rahek Habbush stands near her mother when her cellphone rings: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is the ring tone. Her enthusiasm for her new life is unmistakeable.

Fatina Asmar says the family will never return to Syria. “It is gone,” she says.

“America is very good country, freedom, self-achievement. It’s a lot better than what I was imagining,” she said. “I heard bad news about Detroit, but we don’t see it.”

Her mother, 65-year-old Fatina Asmar, says all she needs now is for her grandchildren and daughter-in-law to come to Detroit.

Asked if the family would ever return to Syria, Asmar responds with “What Syria? It is gone.”

Detroit is the future now, the family says.

“It’s a good life. Thank God,” Asmar says, closing her eyes.

Associated Press contributed.

Funds for refugees

The ACC Syrian Relief Fund will assist refugees with basic need items that are not covered through state and organization programs, such as food, shelter, clothes and medicine. The site is slated to be up by the end of next week and can be accessed through the ACC website, Several other organizations including Google have created refugee relief funds.