Group helps wave of Iraqi refugees, Arabic immigrants integrate in Macomb County

Ikran Hirmi of Sterling Heights came to metro-Detroit 22 months ago to flee the violence in her homeland, Iraq. Like thousands of other refugees from the war-torn country, the 43-year-old wife and mother of three has had to adjust to a new culture, language, economy and bureaucracy. 

She got help from various agencies but feels she recently found a second home at the Sterling Heights office of ACCESS, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. She has taken advantage of several of the free services, including English classes, financial and credit assistance, and help with obtaining government benefits. 

She appreciates the services so much she volunteers at ACCESS in addition to working as a cashier at a Warren grocery store. “I’m very happy with my family,” she said with a wide smile in reference to ACCESS. 

Four years ago the Dearborn-based organization made its first expansion into Macomb County partially to address the rising flow of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, most notably Chaldeans –- Iraqi Christians. Of the approximately 4,600 refugees in Michigan in 2013, nearly 40 percent landed in Macomb County, mostly on the west side. 

“In the last seven years we’ve seen an extreme growth” in refugees, said Madiha Tariq, public health programs manager at ACCESS. “We have a huge population and it’s growing, and Macomb County is the largest recipient of Iraqi refugees in the state.” About 90 percent are Christian; 10 percent are Muslim, said Belmin Pinjic, ACCESS director of business operations. 

“’Chaldean town’ used to be on Seven Mile in Detroit, and with time, as the city’s condition changed, people moved north and for some reason moved to Warren, Sterling Heights, this area,” Tariq said. “There’s a religious support system, a culture support system here, I think that’s why they have ended up here.” 

Many also have settled in eastern Oakland County, in Troy and Madison Heights, she added. They have flocked to this area following family, relatives and friends who came here earlier. “The concept we have here is we’re a one-stop shop, and we don’t just treat people, we treat families,” she said. 

ACCESS, formed in 1971, is one of several groups helping refugees and other immigrants integrate into American society. ACCESS President William Swor, a Grosse Pointe Woods resident and Detroit-based attorney, said the goal of the organization is “to empower people.” “We try to give them the support and guidance they need to integrate into society,” he said. 

“We want to reduce the pain of integration and help them be successful.” Gov. Rick Snyder, in a speech last June at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, which is operated by ACCESS, called the organization “a national treasure.” Michigan and Macomb County officials have recognized the importance of immigration and entrepreneurship. 

Snyder said he wants to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start a business, recognizing that an immigrant is three times more likely to start a business in Michigan. In his ACCESS speech, he mentioned getting 50,000 visas for immigrants who want to live and work in Detroit. County officials have promoted delivering a “welcoming” image of Macomb, with the slogan, “Embrace. Share. Celebrate,” to encourage newcomers to “make Macomb their home.” 

Swor said some newcomers to the United States are professionals or entrepreneurs, with skills and some with wealth. “One of the first things they want to know is, ‘How do I get a license?’” he said. “They want to be integrated as quickly as possible.” With refugees continuing to arrive from Iraq and an influx expected from Syria in 2016, the 11 percent of Macomb’s population that is foreign-born is expected to increase, Tariq said. 

ACCESS is one of eight organizations nominated for a Macomb County Business Award in the Model of OneMacomb category. Awards will be announced Feb. 10. Operating on a $19 million budget, ACCESS provides a myriad of services – health-care and insurance related services; English language instruction; legal aid; and employment, career and business assistance, including small loans, among others. 

It employs 367 people at its 11 locations, all but three in Dearborn. Although geared toward the Arabic population, anyone can take advantage of many of its services. Sixty-three percent of its clients are Arabic, 18 percent are black, 13 percent are white, 4 percent are hispanic and 2 percent are Asian and other, according to ACCESS’ 2014 annual report. 

Two-thirds of its clients’ households earn less than $20,000 per year, and 4 percent of client households earn over $50,000 per year. A big part of the Sterling center’s mission involves health care assistance, hence its name, Community Health & Research Center of Macomb County. 

As a designated navigator of the Affordable Care Act, case workers have assisted 2,672 people sign up during the current enrollment period Nov. 15 to Feb. 15, Tariq said. About half of the clients have been Arabic, she said. Donia Hana, 24, of Madison Heights, was accompanied by her mother, Kefah Estefo, on Friday in getting help sifting through the Affordable Care Act web site from case worker Maha Mustafa. 

Hana works at an electronics factory in Sterling Heights but doesn’t have health care coverage there. Hana and her mother also are Iraqi refugees, coming to the United States five years ago after Hana’s brother was killed while working in a “dangerous place,” her mother said. People also get help in linking with doctors and medical organizations, including mental health services. 

Mental health is a particular concern for the refugees who have witnessed or even been a victim of violence and brutality, and spent long periods in a refugee camp, said Pinjic, who works at the Macomb office. He said many need treatment for post traumatic stress disorder. The Sterling Heights center also oversees programs for HIV/AIDS screening and breast and cervical cancer control. 

It helps direct refugees into careers in the health care field. ACCESS is one of the county’s providers of Women Infant Children, a federally-funded nutrition program for low income residents. The ACCESS site serves about 2,000 people per year of the 12,000 total served in the county. The Macomb location operated a small medical clinic when it opened but it has since closed. 

Pinjic said ACCESS plans to reopen it soon, in cooperation with county health officials. Bill Ridella, director of the Macomb County Health Department, praised ACCESS’s Macomb location in playing a key in helping improve the health of residents. He said it has helped officials deal with the county’s increasing Arabic population. 

“It’s important to have these cultural relationships in the community,” he said. “ACCESS helps us appreciate the diversity of the county and educate us about the Arabic culture.” 

By Jameson Cook

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