Detroit expects half of Iraqi refugees

Updated: 2007-06-02 03:55
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Immigration aid workers in Detroit expect that as many as half of the nearly 7,000 Iraqi refugees who will be brought into the United States by the end of September will settle in the area.

Lutheran Social Services of Michigan has received government data on numerous refugees recommended for resettlement, said Belmin Pinjic, the service's director of refugee services.

"That's the first sign that someone is in the process and should be coming," he said. "How long that process should take, we don't know."

The agency has already started to contact the prospective refugees' family members who live in the Detroit area, Pinjic said.

The Department of Homeland Security said this week it has approved the refugee applications of 59 Iraqis who should be arriving in the coming weeks. The department provided no details about where they would settle but said it has already completed interviews in refugee cases involving more than 700 men, women and children.

The Bush administration announced in February it would allow up to 7,000 Iraqis into the U.S. by the end of September — up from 202 in 2006. It would be the largest Iraqi influx since the 2003 invasion.

Besides contacting relatives of refugees, immigration groups in the Detroit area have been locating translators, transportation and housing, and fielding donations of furniture, clothing and appliances, Pinjic said.

Southeastern Michigan has about 300,000 people who trace their roots to the Middle East. They are heavily concentrated in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, widely considered the capital of Arab America because of its national Arab-American museum, many mosques and scores of Arabic-signed businesses.

Pinjic and others expect that as many as half of the new refugees will come to the area — either initially or after first resettling elsewhere.

Iraqi community leaders in Los Angeles and Orange County, Calif., which also have large Iraqi populations, said they hadn't yet heard of any refugees being settled in the area. They also complained about the small number of refugees being allowed to enter the U.S. compared with the 2 million who have fled Iraq.

"Fifty-nine people is too little, too late," said Imam Mostafa Al-Qazwini, leader of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County. "What's the big deal about 59 coming here when we have hundreds of thousands of people in Syria, Jordan, Iran and others displaced inside Iraq?"

Mosques in Southern California helped resettle refugees after the 1991 Gulf War, he said. They provided English classes, health services and financial help to new arrivals, he said, and would be ready and willing to do so again.

Tennessee also is bracing for refugees. Nashville is home to the nation's largest community of expatriate Kurds, estimated at 8,000. They were a persecuted minority under Saddam Hussein's rule.

"Frankly, we've got so many Iraqis ... (they'll) be easy," said Holly Johnson, director of refugee and immigration services for Nashville-based Catholic Charities of Tennessee. "They're the least of our worries."

Nashville immigration groups also are preparing for refugee groups from Burma and Burundi, she said.