Detroit's Chaldeans Expand Services for Refugees

Metro Detroit is seeing an increase in immigration due to the turmoil in the Middle East, straining community services. With more than 400 Iraqi refugees, mainly Chaldeans, arriving each month, the Chaldean Community Foundation faces a growing demand for its services. 

It recently started construction on a $3 million Chaldean community center in Sterling Heights, one of the first cities where many immigrants arrive. Since 2007, more than 30,000 of these refugees have entered Michigan seeking citizenship, said Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce in Southfield. 

Recent immigrants have been forced from their homeland by the Iraq war, the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS, the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Since the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003, and continuing with ISIS, more than two-thirds (800,000) of Iraq's Christian population has fled due to religious persecution and are displaced as refugees all over the world. 

"Iraq is losing most of its Christians, such as Chaldeans, Assyrians ... and many come to this country," said May Seikaly, an associate professor of modern social history of the Middle East at Wayne State University. 

Additionally, many refugees from Syria are expected in Michigan in the next few years, as Metro Detroit is home to the second-largest Chaldean community in the world. Many of the estimated 130,000 live in Macomb County in communities such as Sterling Heights, Warren and Madison Heights. 

The 11,500-square-foot community center project at 15 Mile and Ryan will replace a 2,400-square-foot building nearby and offer social services to Chaldean refugees, most of whom are relocating from Iraq. Manna said the need to expand was immediate. "We were planning to service 400 people just within the first year and almost 4,000 walked through," Manna said. 

"Now that number exceeds 15,000 people a year. All of the services are geared to help them after their first eight months of federal assistance (Department of Human Services) runs out." The history of Chaldeans spans more than 5,000 years, dating back to Mesopotamia, which includes all of modern-day Iraq. 

Chaldeans are not Arabs; their language is Aramaic and they are Christians. "Chaldeans are one of the Iraqi Christian groups," Seikaly said. "Chaldeans are a Catholic-Christian denomination; in other words, they follow the pope. The Chaldeans are prominent in Michigan and are better known and seen." 

Through a partnership with Macomb Community College, the Chaldean Community Foundation offers English classes and provides job placement, housing, free medical and mental health services, aid in filing applications to become naturalized citizens and more. "They need that support; many have endured trauma," said Sharon Hannawa, foundation program manager. 

"These are people that perhaps didn't want to be here but were forced to come here. They have to start over." Five Iraqi Christians refugees living in Michigan shared their stories of leaving behind family members, homes and careers, in order to find peace and religious freedom during an event hosted last month by New Detroit's Multicultural Leadership Series in West Bloomfield. 

Hannawa said many of the foundation's programs, funded through the Michigan Department of Community Health, are geared to help Chaldean refugees, but they will assist anyone who comes through the door. While most services are offered at the Sterling Heights location, some are provided at the foundation's office in Southfield. 

Hannawa said 15 percent of refugees the foundation helps are non-Chaldean and members of the Arabic, Bosnian and Vietnamese communities. None of the refugees who spoke at last month's series wanted to use their names, fearing for the lives of those they left behind. 

They talked of family members being held for ransom or murdered, their homes being bombed and being forced out of their jobs. One woman, a former nurse and an instructor at the University of Baghdad in Iraq, said she was forced out of her teaching position because she is Christian. 

She, like many of her fellow refugees, is educated and has work experience that is often not recognized once in the U.S. Seikaly said the Chaldean community is cohesive in many ways but is not a monolith. "They have many classes among them. There is a strata that is very wealthy," Seikaly said. 

"At a certain point these people had very good lives in Iraq where many, particularly those who left the villages and went to major cities such as Baghdad, became officials and members of the government." 

Like most immigrant communities, Chaldeans support each other, are hard workers and stress the importance of education to their children, who often go on to excel in professions such as law and medicine, Seikaly said. 

She added the Chaldean community will continue to grow and thrive. "There are those who established themselves in this society 60 to 80 years ago, those who came yesterday, and those who will come tomorrow," Seikaly said. 

By Ursula Watson

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