Michigan’s Iraqi refugee crisis
The Iraq War’s displaced still flow into Michigan and struggle to find employment — what should the government do about it?
Published: July 15, 2014
For the refugee, Iraq will always be home. But knowing he can never return to his native land, he must instead seek refuge in the country whose very military invasion set off the domino effect leading to his displacement.
There are parallels between the veterans of the Iraq War and its refugees. The war shaped both of them and forced them to redefine themselves. Yet, when veterans return stateside, they have the government’s help in doing so: free healthcare and the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, which provides a monthly housing stipend and full tuition for most schools.
The VA system is far from perfect, but it’s still far better than what the refugee receives upon landing here. Men and women volunteered to enlist in the military that would invade Iraq; the refugee had the unfortunate luck of living there when the bombs began to fall.
Taking in refugees is only half the job. Ensuring they have a fair opportunity to be active participants in the economy is another. An improved refugee program, whether run by the state or the federal government, would be expensive. So is war, though, and a country that starts one should feel the weight of those whose lives are uprooted by it — both its soldiers and the refugees.
Not days or hours, but minutes to leave their home. No bags, suitcases, or money — no packing at all. Leave or die was the option an unknown group of militants gave them, so at 4 a.m., Sabah Kiwalk, his wife, Linda, and their four children loaded their vehicle and fled their home in Mosul.
That was in 2006, when large-scale sectarian violence erupted in Iraq for the first time — or as one source put it, when “hell broke loose.”
Millions of Muslims and Kurds, but mostly Christian individuals and families, were caught in the middle of it, and like Sabah and Linda, it was either leave or die.
Back in 1988, Sabah, a Christian, had lost his left foot after stepping on a landmine while serving mandatory duty in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. He was fitted with a prosthetic and returned home, where he used his degree in engineering to work on planes. He lived a financially comfortable life — an “upper class” one, he says — in the northern Iraq city of Mosul.
Since that day in 2006, nothing has been the same for him or his family.
After being kicked out of their home, they drove to a small Syrian village near Damascus and the American embassy, where they’d go for interviews, health screenings, and the other requirements that must be met before entering America. When the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, Sabah said it was so dangerous there they couldn’t even walk the streets — just like Mosul in 2006. As the battle between rebels and the Syrian government intensified, the American embassy closed. The staff members working on the Kiwalks’ case went with it.
So they fled again, this time back to the outskirts of Mosul. They hid, fearing the same people who had threatened him seven years earlier were still lurking. For the next eight months, they traveled back and forth from Mosul to the American embassy in Baghdad — a harrowing journey in itself, as the family was repeatedly caught in firefights between Iraqi soldiers and insurgents.
Earlier this year, they finally got the OK to come to America and made a final drive south on Highway 1 to Baghdad International Airport.
In February, they landed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. For the first time in eight years, they felt safe. Next, though, came the struggle that others like them face: surviving the harshness of the Michigan economy.
Sabah, 47, and Linda, 45, attended a June picnic for refugees in Warren’s Halmich Park. Sabah — eyes heavy, soft-spoken, unshaven, and limping — looked as tired as you’d expect a man who’s spent eight years out of work and on the move between war zones. Linda, dark-brown hair down to her shawl-covered shoulders, stood nearby, periodically interjecting details of their past as her husband spoke.
“He’s grateful to be here, but he’s tired,” Sabah said through Manal Rabban, his caseworker from Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan who interpreted for him that day. “He’s tired of not having a job.”
While speaking, he lifted his pant leg and pointed to his jury-rigged prosthetic foot, held intact by tape. It broke when the family was still in Syria and still causes Sabah pain with every step he takes. Rabban said he tried to get the prosthetic replaced, but Medicaid wouldn’t cover it. The monthly welfare stipend his family receives barely pays for his bills, so there’s no chance of saving for one. And despite having skills considered in demand, Sabah has been unable to find work.
Back in June, the family had just found a place to rent in Sterling Heights, but the couple, who speak and read very little English, said they were duped into signing a three-year lease for a monthly rent that’s more than they can afford.
Rabban says it’s not unusual for landlords to sign off on such an agreement. They assume families or the community will pitch in the difference, which they often do.
“I just had another case,” she says. “The same thing happened.”
When Rabban first met Sabah in February, she told him that, with his condition, he could easily get on disability. He declined.
“I want to work,” he told her instead.
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