Mohasen flips through an album full of photographs and looks at pictures of young children in delicate yellow ballerina costumes, leaping around a stage. She recites all 20 of their names—students from years ago—calling them her “butterflies,” which was also the name of their ballet troupe. The pictures are reminders of Mohasen’s former life in Baghdad—a life that she knows she will never have again, so long as she is a refugee in the United States.
Mohasen is one of the nearly 59,000 Iraqis who have been officially resettled in the U.S. since 2007, when the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) opened a program to help place the most vulnerable of Iraq’s refugees. Since the program’s inception, 166,249 Iraqi nationals have been referred to USRAP for resettlement; 101,884 applicants have been interviewed by the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services; and over three quarters have been approved for resettlement. Even though the war in Iraq officially ended a year ago, USRAP expects applications to continue: hundreds are still being killed each month in Iraq, with the ongoing violence contributing to an already dire refugee situation.
When the last envoy of U.S. troops crossed the border into Kuwait, it marked the end of America’s war in Iraq. Billions of dollars had been spent and thousands of lives lost. But while the U.S. celebrated and welcomed its troops home, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were left with a far different reality—redefining their lives as refugees in unfamiliar countries. Now they’re facing a battle of a different sort: assimilating into mainstream America. The challenges range from job woes and the prejudice of earlier immigrants to serious psychological wounds sustained in war.
Many of the refugees headed to Dearborn, Michigan, home to the largest concentration of Arabs, as well as Iraqi expats, in the U.S. According to Hassam Abdulkhaleq, program manager of the psychosocial rehabilitation center at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS)—one of the largest Arab activist organizations in the country—the first wave of Iraqis arrived in Michigan during the first Gulf War, with a second influx coming at the start of the occupation of Iraq in 2003. Many of the second-wave refugees are Chaldean Christians, who were persecuted along with other religious minorities after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
With the beginning of the war in 2003, resources for the Detroit-area refugee population focused on Iraqis who were particularly vulnerable because of their religious beliefs. Refugees who had settled in the area in years past were not always so welcoming. “There is a blending-in problem,” says Manuel Tancer, a professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University. “And I think it’s a problem with any immigrant.” Tancer counsels victims of torture in the Detroit metropolitan area. “This is an issue when you have people coming to a particular area because they have relatives there. [They are] not always accepted happily and gladly by the people that have been there for a while.”
The unwelcoming environment only made it more difficult for Iraqis to integrate into their new homes. They were seeking acceptance not only from Americans but from the established refugee community as well. The lack of support they received made it that much more difficult for them to find quality work—even if they’d had prosperous careers back in Iraq.
“People had these changes in status,” says Tancer. “Many of these individuals were professionals or teachers, or had jobs and careers and families—and all of a sudden, they are working in some party store or are unemployed.”
“There is a change in their ability to take care of their families, the ability to translate their professions to the States,” he says. “People who were engineers are now flipping burgers, which is not a way to maintain self-esteem.”
It’s a position in which Mohasen now finds herself. Back in Iraq, she was a ballet teacher, a job she held most dear. “Out of everything that has happened to me in my life, losing ballet was the biggest tragedy,” she says as she finishes flipping through her old photos. Mohasen grew up in Baghdad under Hussein’s rule, the child of a liberal upper-class family that supported participation in the arts. Her parents, and especially her mother, pushed her to pursue ballet as a career. Mohasen traveled around the world and danced in world-renowned companies. But when the Iraq War began in 2003, she moved back home with her family and began to teach ballet. “I wanted to do something to try and help rebuild the country,” she says. “And I think everything starts with a child.”
As the fighting intensified, she gained prominence as one of the best-known female artists in the country for her work with children. But her fame almost killed her—an Islamist militia attacked her while she was walking on the street in Baghdad. “I should have known,” she says. “The same militia had killed her brother the previous year, as well as a young girl from her ballet troupe in 2005. Mohasen sought political asylum in 2008 and has been living in Dearborn ever since.
Though Mohasen has applied to dozens of ballet programs and studios in the Detroit metropolitan area, she’s been unable to find a job in dance. She spends her days working in a textile factory with more than 20 other Iraqis—all of whom work nine-hour days and receive little pay. It’s a far different reality than the one she left behind in Iraq. “I have a tremendous struggle, financially,” she says. “I thought I would come here to the U.S. and have a good life ... but I found something totally different.”
Many of the refugees arrived at the very moment that the U.S. job and housing markets fell into their greatest crisis in decades. Others have lived here for years, but still suffered the effects of the recession. Fatima Hassan left Iraq more than 20 years ago. She lives in Dearborn Heights with her five children and elderly mother, and is studying for her Ph.D. Her former husband no longer lives in the States, so she has to provide for her family on her own. In 2009, at the height of the economic crisis, Hassan almost lost her home to foreclosure. “I lost everything that I had—the husband, the house, and my health at the same time. It wasn’t easy for me psychologically,” she says.
Relief came in the form of Moose Scheib, owner and CEO of LoanMod, an organization offering loan workouts to home-owners in the Dearborn area. Together, they helped save Hassan’s home. “Moose helped me and supported me,” she says. “When you have someone to help you get new self-esteem, you can do it—you are strong again.”
Like many other Iraqi refugees in the U.S., Mohasen and Fatima’s struggles are exacerbated by past traumas. For most, the war they fled is an ever-present reality. Muntaha Fleful left Iraq after being attacked by a Baghdad militia in 2004. She was resettled in the U.S. in 2008, after being treated for her injuries in Jordan. Now, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and receives treatment from ACCESS’s psychosocial rehab center.
According to Abdulkhaleq, the center’s program manager, PTSD tends to cause nightmares, poor concentration, and extreme anger. He thinks that thousands of refugees are suffering from mental illnesses associated with war, but that only a small percentage receive treatment due to limited resources in the area. ACCESS and Wayne State University are among the few organizations in Dearborn that provide services for refugees, particularly for victims of torture and those suffering from PTSD. Each organization sees just over 300 clients during each three-year grant cycle because of funding limitations.
Both programs receive funding from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which provides refugees with the services needed to integrate into their new communities. ORR disseminates funding to the state, providing various services for the refugee population. During the 2011–12 fiscal year, it funded five organizations with grants for Michigan, totaling $1.32 million. Three of those organizations received grants aimed at mental-health services, specifically for survivors of torture. Each grant lasts three years. ACCESS just recently received another three years of funding from the group, but Abdulkhaleq says the money is significantly less than what it received in previous years.
The Iraqi population in Dearborn has been the focal point for refugee aid over the past 10 years. But now that the Iraq War has ended, that focus seems to be dropping off in favor of newer conflicts, such as the one in Syria. Although the civil war there continues to spiral, the U.S. has yet to aid Syrian refugees. But officials in Dearborn think it is only a matter of time before they see an influx of Syrians in the area, and worry that the spike may overwhelm already strained resources.