Some Worry Sluggish Michigan Economy Can't Support Iraqi Refugees

The area in southeast Michigan where 2,000 Iraqi refugees are expected to resettle already has 169,000 people out of work. Some fear the influx will push the state's unemployment rate even higher.

Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, is concerned that the area cannot support many more people without significant federal aid. He likened it to "bringing more passengers to a ship that is already sinking."

The mayor of Warren, which has a large Arab-American population, recently said the refugees will strain services and drag down an already struggling state economy.

But others, such as University of Michigan economist Donald Grimes, say the entrepreneurial attitude and advanced degrees of many Iraqis might help turn the ship of state around.

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"It's one of the things that could help Michigan recover," he said.

Federal officials expect about 7,000 Iraqis fleeing the fighting in their homeland to move to the United States by September, with up to half of them eventually going to Michigan. The first few should arrive this month in the Detroit area, home to about 300,000 people who trace their roots to the Middle East.

Michigan's unemployment rate climbed to 7.2 percent in June — the highest in the nation. The rate hit 7.7 percent in Detroit and the surrounding area last month.

Kurt Metzger, a Detroit-area demographer, said there are reasons to be concerned about high unemployment and cutbacks in retail and service jobs, since many earlier Arab-American immigrants found jobs in small shops and stores or started their own ventures.

But he said local Arabs and Chaldeans — Iraqi Catholics — have a history of owning businesses and helping out newcomers.

"The immigrants are willing to put in long, hard hours at jobs that Americans will not take. ... [They] aren't coming over here to get on the public dole," said Metzger, research director of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Metzger said refugees can help revitalize aging communities that are losing population. He cited the example of Hamtramck, a city surrounded by Detroit. The population of the once predominantly Polish enclave grew by 25 percent between 1990 and 2000 — after dropping for 50 years.

"If you look ... at the main thoroughfares, there are Yemeni, Bangladeshi, Bosnian and Serbian communities developing," he said. "New restaurants, grocery stores and other development are being driven by these new immigrant groups.

"By and large what you're seeing is a rebirth of the city because of immigration."

Still, the state struggled to meet the needs of those who fled Iraq in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, Hamad said.

"Even with all the conveniences in Michigan, language and culture-wise ... I don't think that the state or social workers were fully ready and well-trained," he said. "The state received additional funds from the federal government, but not enough to address the needs of the influx of refugees."

Warren Mayor Mark Steenbergh doesn't oppose refugees, said his spokesman Joe Munem. He based his concerns about a surge of refugees on estimates that ran as high as 15,000 new Iraqi immigrants.

"People who have lived here their whole lives are having trouble finding jobs," said Munem, a first-generation Arab-American. "If you're going to have refugees coming here and you want them to be self-sustaining, why aren't we talking about sending them to Texas and Florida, which have a comparatively booming economy?"

Rafat Ita, who came to the U.S. in 1994 from Iraq and now helps other refugees in his job with Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, said it's unfair to deny those who have been traumatized in their homeland from rejoining friends and family here.

Ita's agency is the local affiliate for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and Episcopal Migration Ministries, one of the main resettlement agencies working with the U.S. State Department.

"I know we're struggling with the economy, but we're going to reach out to the communities and other agencies to help out and serve those refugees," he said. "We're not going to back off from doing that."

Once resettled in Michigan, Ita said he worked two jobs and was able to buy a house after two years. He followed his brother, who lives in Warren.

"He's serving in the U.S. Army now, overseas," Ita said. "Is this a burden to the community or an asset to the country?"

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