Why Many Iraqi Refugees Who Want to Settle in Detroit Are Being Sent Elsewhere

Detroit has a large Arab community. But the recession has hit the city particularly hard.

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Meanwhile, some families seem to have been surprised by their arrival in a city that wasn't Detroit. One family of five that wanted to go to Michigan was sent, instead, to New Haven, Conn. "They were surprised," says Chris George, director of New Haven's Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services. "They told us that they didn't know they were coming to Connecticut. They thought, until the very last minute, that they were coming to Detroit."

If they'd known, they said, they would have asked to go to San Diego, where they had other relatives. And that's where they went. It wasted time and effort for everyone, George says, not least of all the family, which had to pay airfare for five to San Diego.

Not all refugees who want to settle in Detroit and cannot are turned away. One exception made is for followers of small religious minorities like the Sabaean Mandeans, an ancient religious sect that reveres John the Baptist and claims less than 100,000 adherents worldwide, including fewer than 5,000 in Iraq. There is a vibrant Sabaean Mandean community in Detroit.

Resettlement offices emphasize that, although they would like to take in far more refugees than they do, they can't provide adequate services for each one if the amount of resources they have stays the same.

But advocates like Kassab insist that community networks are strong enough to take care of the refugees. "Is it better for you to be with a community and poor services, or better services and no community?" George asks. "That's the issue."

  • Read more about the effect of the recession on Iraqi refugees.
  • Read more about Iraq's ancient sect known as the Sabaean Mandeans.