As some Syrians arrive, Michigan makes case for more
Dearborn — For Mahmoud Karaz, there is no going back to Syria. But he feels welcome in the United States, surrounded by familiar food and culture while he learns English and trains for a job.
Karaz and his family fled Homs after a house bombing in Syria’s civil war killed two relatives, and they spent three years in limbo in Jordan before recently settling in Michigan. The state, already home to a large Middle Eastern population, has accepted about 75 Syrian refugees this year and is making the case that it’s ready for more. Unlike some places where people have been wary about Syrian refugees, Michigan sees them as one solution to the state’s population loss.
“A lot of people … told us Michigan has a lot of Arabs and is a good area to go to, but we didn’t realize it was this concentrated (with) accessibility to everything,” said Karaz, 28, through an interpreter.
Karaz, his wife, and their toddler son are among the earliest U.S. arrivals of those fleeing Syria’s civil war, but also part of a century-long history of Syrians and Arabs building lives in the Detroit area. That heritage and the economic and cultural connections, centered in Dearborn, make it likely Michigan will be a top destination for current refugees. Other probable locations include Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Millions of Syrians have fled to neighboring Middle Eastern countries and Europe, and President Barack Obama’s administration has pledged to accept about 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next 12 months. GOP presidential candidates have criticized the plan, with Ted Cruz and Ben Carson saying the refugees are infiltrated with terrorists, while Donald Trump has said he would simply send them all back.
Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is bucking those party leaders by welcoming the Syrians, both for humanitarian reasons as well as to address the state’s job and population loss. Saying those who have cleared security hurdles have something to offer economically and culturally, he is talking with federal officials about what the state can do to accept more people.
At least among officials, anti-Arab or anti-refugee sentiment is more muted in Michigan and in its largest city.
“It’s time for refugees and immigrants to be seen as a benefit to society that offer economic development and growth to communities, and Detroit seems to get that,” said Michael Mitchell of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine national organizations resettling refugees for the U.S. government. “That is a very enlightened view.”
No decisions are final on numbers or locations, Mitchell said, but the Detroit area stands out for its large Arab-American population and leaders eager for more refugees.
It’s the economic argument that dominates in Michigan, hit hard by the globalization of the auto industry. Its largest city, Detroit, went through the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy after seeing its population fall by more than 1 million since the 1950s.
“Detroit will not come back without a significant population push,” said Ismael Basha, an area business owner who came from Syria in the early 1980s.
Basha recently attended a meeting of resettlement agency officials and business, government and community leaders where Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan asked them to determine how they could help newcomers. Duggan recently was in Washington talking with officials about Detroit’s desire to take more refugees.
Over the years, Basha says, he’s hired refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Iraq, and, in recent weeks, several from Syria for his TSS Inc., which makes automatic car wash fixtures and systems. He said the refugees typically work hard and are dedicated.
“In the U.S. we do have a moral obligation to these people,” he said. “Eventually, they will be an asset (economically). Sometimes in a few short weeks.”
While it’s unclear how many Syrians may end up in Michigan, Basha said he and others are working with resettlement agencies to be ready. The private citizens bought land in Pontiac north of Detroit to build homes, operate a warehouse filled with clothing, furniture and household supplies, and recruited volunteers for transportation and doctors for health care needs.
For Karaz, whose family is staying with another in Dearborn while they find a home, a new life unfolds: The former baker has started an employment program and thinks about opening his own business someday. For inspiration, he can look down the street: The Shatila Bakery & Cafe, started in the 1970s by a Lebanese immigrant fleeing war, now ships its pastries globally.
“Everyone we have dealt with … (is) willing to help us become independent and self-sufficient,” Karaz said through an interpreter, Jeralda Hattar, director of immigration and refugee services for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan. “It would be great (to work) in the same field, but it doesn’t have to be. Whatever opportunity I have, I don’t mind at all.”