Refugees, advocates gather as number of arrivals falls

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Manal Bakghouth,  with her children Munther, 5, left, and Tasnim, 5 months old,  pose for a photo during the picnic.

Dearborn — Despite the lower number of refugees resettling in Michigan this year, community members gathered Wednesday to celebrate the voyage of many who now live in Metro Detroit. 

About 100 refugees gathered at Arthur Basse Park in Dearborn for Samaritas’ eighth annual World Refugee Day picnic. Samaritas, an immigrant social services agency, helped place each of the families within the last five years. 

Children enjoyed playing sports, cracking open piñatas and hopping behind the wheel of a Michigan State Police car while their parents attended workshops with law enforcement and Blue Cross Blue Shield. 

“We want refugees to feel welcomed, loved and supported in their new communities in spite of dialogue going on right now with some wanting to condemn refugees,” said John Yim, a Samaritas supervisor. "We want to show them compassion."

Shams Alkrad, 7, top, and Marcus Hoyt, 8, observe and play with the devices inside the car of Michigan State Police Trooper David Bellestri, right.

Last year, Samaritas placed close to 900 refugees statewide. So far this year, Yim said, they’ve placed about 300 asylum seekers. 

“It’s been extremely slow and completely different than what we are used to,” Yim said. “The president set the number at 40,000 for this year and we believe we’ll see half of that nationwide with travel bans and everything in place.” 

With fewer refugees resettling, agencies like Samaritas are struggling. Operations are being put on hold at the group's Ann Arbor office, where Zaid Altaweel is one of the few caseworkers left. 

“In 2016, we had about 22 case managers and now it seems like it’s just me,” Altaweel said. “I had hundreds of cases to handle by myself and now I have about five active ones. It’s a shame.”

Altaweel said it takes about 12 to 15 months for a family to get settled through the program and said it’s becoming more challenging. 

“Many think of the ‘American Dream’ but they also just want safety,” he said. “The biggest challenges are language/ It’s a totally different culture here, finding work, transportation and even the weather. It’s extremely difficult. That’s why we honor their strength and celebrate their accomplishments.” 

With families being separated at the U.S.-Mexican border, Yim said refugee advocates and the families they serve are concerned. 

“Our other program is in the process of submitting for assistance about 50 to 70 of those children in our foster care system if it’s approved,” said Yim. “We are hearing concerns from families who are still waiting for other members to come and if they’ll face the same process. Unfortunately, these are questions we can’t answer with certainty.” 

Assmaa Almahamid, 37, of Oak Park, traveled from war-torn Syria with her daughter and husband to Jordan in 2011, hoping to seek refuge in America. She said her home was one of the first to be attacked by Islamic State militants. 

“We waited three years in Jordan before we were accepted and now we’ve been here for about 22 months,” Almahamid said. “My daughter Aya is 11 and she can have the education and safety we couldn’t provide for her there. I miss my home but this is better than both Syria and Jordan.” 

Michigan State Police collaborate on workshops held monthly at Samaritas’ Dearborn and Troy offices. Yim said the program has been so successful almost every class is full. 

“Michigan is so great and welcoming; that’s why we partner with MSP because they’re also passionate about building relationships with this community,” Yim said. “It’s important because they teach about the law and in other countries, authority is often feared and we want them to feel safe and have a space to ask questions like what they should do when they get pulled over and how to communicate.”

Twitter: @SarahRahal_