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"Land of Opportunity" Falls Short for Iraqi Refugees

posted on: Dec 16, 2009

Since the inception of the Iraq war in 2003, approximately 2 million Iraqis have declared refugee status. And while the majority have made their new home in neighboring Middle Eastern countries, an influx of Iraqi Muslims and Christians are now seeking refuge in the United States.

Due to stringent US immigration policies, up until 2006, only 200 Iraqis were allowed into the US. However, in the past three years, 33,000 refugees have settled in the Metro-Detroit area alone, with approximately 15,000 settling just in the 2009 calendar year. The growth is the result of a reformed, more lenient “open door” refugee strategy implemented in 2007.

With Michigan home to a sizeable Iraqi population, many community members are happy to have reconnected with long-lost family. However, dampening their happiness is the fear that a faltering economy and an insufficient US replacement program will hinder refugee opportunities, or even survival.

Just last week, Michael Corbin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, addressed the Chaldean community in an attempt to answer critical questions regarding the status of refugees. The visit was seemingly part of a larger effort to build better ties with the Iraqi population, both within and outside of the country.

At the event, members of the community sought answers on how the US planned to adequately accommodate the refugees, whom only after 8 months, are dropped from replacement benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid. They argued that with a limited window of coverage and an unwelcoming job market, refugees had been left to struggle for their most basic human needs.

Unfortunately, Corbin’s diplomatic responses weren’t enough to alleviate the community’s fear and frustration. Amongst those dissatisfied was Joseph Kassab, Executive Director of the Chaldean Federation of America. “We welcome all that has been said by governmental agencies, and we support their efforts. Yet at the same time, we refuse to hear lip service. We need to see action,” he says.

Amne Darwish Talab, a program director with the Arab Community Center for Social and Economic Services (ACCESS), agrees with Kassab’s sentiments that US replacement policies need reform. “It has been very difficult to accommodate the growing refugee community. We are still trying to assist those who came in the 90s as a result of the Gulf War. So, our resources are certainly stretched thin at this point.”

Along with the Chaldean Federation of America and ACCESS are other community organizations trying to compensate for an increased demand of resources. While now they are able to offer services such as health appraisals, job search & placement, ESL instruction, and legal consultation, they worry that eventually, refugees seeking “the land of opportunity” may not find opportunity at all.

Ameera David
Arab Detroit