Finding Safe Haven

Refugees fleeing hardship in their home country start anew in southeast Michigan — and give back by helping others

The very idea of school puts a huge smile on Majed Al-Rachdan’s face. Having spent the last three years scraping by in a Jordanian refugee camp before his family was granted amnesty in the United States, the 18-year-old  didn’t have much time for class.

Now he, his parents, and six of his siblings are settling into new lives in a four-bedroom home in Hamtramck. Al-Rachdan is quickly absorbing English, taking classes to prepare for his GED exam, and since the family arrived here this past August, he has picked up occasional side jobs to save up enough to buy a laptop.

“Back there, I couldn’t go to school, I had to work all day to help the family,” says Al-Rachdan, partly in Arabic, partly in English, with the help of an interpreter.

The Al-Rachdans are among six other Syrian families who chose Hamtramck when they were granted refugee status in the United States. As of late 2015, roughly 200 Syrians made their way to Michigan last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of State. Hamtramck has long been a destination of choice for generations of refugees, and recently elected a Muslim-majority city council.

So far, residents here of all backgrounds have enthusiastically greeted the new families. Each of the six families in Hamtramck were put up in temporary, rent-free housing by a fellow Syrian. A Bosnian refugee organized a donation drive to collect care packages of toiletries, clothing, and used furniture. And a union organizer born in Canada who lived in Greece when he was young turned his birthday party in December at a raucous Hamtramck dive bar into a donation headquarters, where barflies, labor leaders, and local politicians handed over cases of essentials.

“It’s one thing to expect this kind of reaction from your own people, from other Muslims, but it feels amazing to see it come from complete strangers whom you’ve nothing in common with,” says Emina Ferizovic, 32, the refugee from Bosnia.

It’s a sentiment shared by many of the refugees who’ve found a safe haven in Michigan, despite political backlash. Roughly 4.5 million Syrians are registered as refugees globally. The Obama administration had called for 10,000 additional refugees to be accepted in the U.S., with Michigan in line to receive a large share of them in 2016, among the highest numbers in the country (After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in France, Gov. Rick Snyder had called to not accept that higher figure until the vetting process could be assessed).

The process of being granted refugee status can range from one to two years. Applicants and their family members undergo interviews to make sure their claims check out. Once interviews are completed, they must wait to find out which country will accept them.

Because southeast Michigan has a significant Muslim population, the move here becomes a logical option. Resettlement organizations are then tasked with assisting them in finding housing, employment, and education, as well as applying for public assistance. Lutheran Social Services of Michigan is the largest such agency in Michigan. Others include Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants-Detroit.

Refugees have had a lasting impact in southeast Michigan. Hour Detroit talked to a variety of individuals at different stages in their pursuit of the American Dream: a single father, newly arrived from Syria; an Iraqi woman who finds fulfillment in working as a resettlement case worker; four Bosnian brothers who built a successful company; and the Al-Rachdans, the family in Hamtramck adjusting to life here after surviving the violence in Syria. Here are their stories.

A fresh start

Imad Jazmati and his three children have been making the adjustment to life in the United States with the help of volunteers, many who are themselves refugees.

After enduring four years of poverty in Lebanon after they fled brewing conflict in Syria, Jazmati, 44, looks forward to seeing his children finally get to visit with their cousins, watch television, and play in the park.

“It feels like I’ll have a stable life here and that my kids will have a future here because they are safe,” Jazmati says in Arabic through an interpreter.

Jazmati’s fight for freedom started in 2011. He and his wife divorced, he packed up his kids — the youngest being 4 years old — in a taxi cab, and they fled to Lebanon.

Jazmati, his daughter, Alin, and two sons, Mohamed and Allaith, left behind a middle-class lifestyle: a well-paying job, a comfortable home, car, and weekend soccer matches, just as the nation headed into one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history.

In Lebanon, the Jazmatis were met with resistance from a country that did not want to take in newcomers. The family swapped out the nicely furnished home for a one-bedroom apartment. He took low-paying, under-the-table construction jobs, and worked for free for his landlord in exchange for a break on the rent. When money from savings ran out, they moved into an even smaller studio where they slept on a mattress on the floor and had to drink bottled water because what came out of the tap tasted of salt. His older son, Mohamed, 13, developed psychological problems that required medical treatment.

When Jazmati was first informed that his family was approved to be relocated to southeast Michigan in 2014 where his sister already lived, he was overcome by fear. Would his family have to continue to endure poverty and discrimination?

Those fears proved unfounded when the family arrived in this past November. In the first weeks he’s been in the U.S., he’s reconnected with his sister, who had immigrated to the U.S. years prior. The children, who had no friends or spent much time outside of that tiny apartment, now have cousins to socialize with. Their two-bedroom second-story apartment is just big enough to give the daughter Alin, 17, the privacy of her own room while Jazmati and the boys share. And Mohamed’s anxieties already seem to have dissipated.

That’s not to say that the family doesn’t have a long process of making a home for themselves. For the first time since 2012, the children were enrolling in school. They will have to learn English and navigate the American education system, not to mention catch up to grade level. Jazmati has also obtained a driver’s license and is applying for jobs, learning his way around town.

“Since we got to this country, we can feel the difference because now I’m feeling more relaxed than before, so when they see me more relaxed then they feel better,” Jazmati says.

‘I can give back’

Nada Akther, who fled Iraq with her family in 1995 at the age of 15 following years of instability in Iraq following the Gulf War, says she would have never found her calling working with other refugees had she not experienced it herself.

While Akther missed out on many of life’s milestones, she’s never married, had children, or gone to college, she is optimistic about her outlook. Her journey started when she and her family fled to Jordan. As tension rose between refugees and native Jordanians, the family was forced out of Jordan. Her parents were resettled
in Europe, but by then Akther was 18. She and
her brother had to seek asylum on their own. She ended up in Nepal, where she learned English.

She was ultimately granted refugee status in Michigan, where she has some relatives. She moved here in late 2007, and in 2008, started working part time as a caseworker at Lutheran Social Services. She also looks forward to attending Macomb Community College.

“For the last year when Syrian refugees started arriving, I wanted to do everything,” Akther says. “I enjoy (the job) so much, because I feel like I can give back. I know what it’s like when you have to leave everything and flee your country.”

From Bosnia to Success

The four Latic brothers can relate to the need to contribute. They fled Bosnia 21 years ago for similar reasons that Akther left Iraq. The Bosnian War ended in 1995, but its citizens found themselves amid instability and deep mistrust that the conflict had actually ended. The four brothers crossed the border into Croatia, where they spent nearly a year sleeping in tents before being taken to an unregistered refugee camp. After a months-long vetting and interview process, the brothers and each of their families were resettled in Michigan. They moved to Hamtramck.

The transition was relatively smooth; Bosnians had already been fleeing to the city for the past few years because of the established Muslim community. Within six months, they bought and shared a two-family house. Finding others who they could communicate with wasn’t a problem. And they found a niche, the trucking industry, in which they could thrive.

“When we got here, first we were looking to find a job because back there we had no job, we lived a poor life,” says Asim Latic, the oldest of the four. “I was very busy and the economy was very good so we could find factories that gave a lot of overtime, sometimes you could work 80 hours a week, which is perfect if you want to work.”

Soon after purchasing their first home, the brothers pitched in and bought a semi-truck. It was their first step in forming what is now called Midwest Freight Systems. Today, the Warren-based firm has a fleet of more than 200 and employs about 250. Other Bosnians make up a vast majority of their workforce.

Rallying the community

It’s January, and the cold of Michigan winter has finally settled in. But at the Al-Rachdans’ home, it’s warm and cozy, as visitors like Emina Ferizovic and other neighbors check in to see that there’s enough food for dinner.

Mother Intesar Al-Rachdan, 53, can usually be found in the kitchen, preparing Turkish coffee for guests. The patriarch, Samir, has found comrades to join him for call to prayer and he practices his English by watching YouTube videos or jotting down phrases in a children’s notebook.

The sense of community here is palpable. Unlike Jazmati, who was hesitant to talk about the atrocities that unfolded in his home country, Samir, 55, feels comfortable discussing his family’s ordeal, a sense of relief apparent in his voice.

His renewed enthusiasm for life has to do with the fact that his children no longer have to do hard labor for the equivalent of roughly $10 U.S. dollars a day in Jordan, or worry about stepping foot outside their house without having to watch out for snipers’ bullets whizzing by in Syria.

Like the more-established refugees who’ve been so helpful thus far, the Al-Rachdan family has become active in the community, volunteering their time in local churches.

“I want my kids to be doctors and engineers, to be something in society; I want them to be a part of American society,” Al-Rachdan says.