Iraqi refugee sues Walmart, claims workplace racial discrimination

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Dearborn — An Iraqi woman who came to the United States as a refugee is suing her employer for alleged racial discrimination, claiming a hostile work environment due to her national origin and religion, according to a lawsuit. 

Seenaa Najim, 46, of Inkster filed the suit Thursday against Walmart and two of its employees with the Wayne County Circuit Court, claiming, "constant, heinous discrimination and verbal abuse" on account of her Iraqi origins and being a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab. 

Seenaa Suhail Najim gets emotional while recounting the discriminatory names that she was called while working at Walmart during her lawsuit presentation on October 14th 2021 in Dearborn, Michigan.

Najim alleges in the suit that the two employees, managers at the Walmart Supercenter in Dearborn, directed racist language at her, calling her a "camel jockey", a "stupid f------- Arab" and saying "Arabs are s---" and "Muslims are s---."

Najim, her attorney Nabih Ayad and members of the Arab-American Civil Rights League (ACRL) announced the lawsuit at a Thursday afternoon press conference at ACRL headquarters. 

"We take allegations like this seriously and want all our associates to feel welcome and respected," Jacquelyn Cook, senior manager of corporate communications at Walmart said Thursday. "We will respond appropriately with the court once we have been served with the complaint.”

Citing several specific incidents as well as a generally abusive environment, Najim blamed the two defendants for health problems involving anxiety and a heart condition she said she developed since she started working for Walmart last year. 

Najim said Thursday at the press conference, where she spoke in Arabic, that she had been elated to get the job at Walmart because of how often she had heard people say that name when she first moved to the country. But then the abuse started, she alleged, when she had to ask for clarification in staff meetings and the managers began making fun of her. 

“This is discrimination because I am Muslim and because of my hijab specifically,” Najim said. "I don’t understand what I did wrong. Is it just because I don’t speak English? I am not a stupid person, I don’t deserve to feel stupid at work."

Najim is a permanent legal resident in the U.S. who arrived in Colorado in 2015 as a refugee from Iraq and moved to Inkster three years later because, Ayad said, she wanted to live near other Arabs.

She said at the press conference that she could not understand some of the insults that were hurled at her because she is not fluent in English, but she recognized enough words to know what was happening.. And when she informed higher ups of the alleged behavior, it did not stop. 

Ayad said the suit was filed because the employees were in violation of the Elliott-Civil Rights Act, which prohibits Michigan employers from discriminating against their employees on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status or marital status. 

Rula Aoun, director of the Arab-American Civil Rights League records a segment of Seena Najim's testimony during the lawsuit presentation on October 14th 2021 in Dearborn, Michigan.

"This just didn't happen once, it happened over and over ... again over months," Ayad said. "It's already hard enough to go in and work in a job where you literally have a deficiency in the English language...but to be berated every day like you're a third-class citizen or an individual who is just not a human being is something else." 

ACRL director Rula Aoun said the agency stepped in to provide assistance because it exists to help folks like Najim fight against discrimination "at the hands of individuals, at the hands of government, at the hands of corporate actors." 

Nasser Beydoun, chairman of the board at ACRL, pointed to Dearborn's large Arab-American population as further indication of how egregious the alleged crimes are. 

"It's unconscionable that today, here in Dearborn, somebody of Arab-American descent has to face such ridicule and harassment and discrimination," Beydoun said. "Particularly by a company like Walmart, whose majority of customers here in one of their busiest stores are Arab-American."