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Iraqi Refugees in US Struggle To Find Work

A mosque in Dearborn, Michigan
A mosque in Dearborn, Michigan

By the end of next year, the state of Michigan plans to welcome as many as 7,000 new Iraqi refugees. That's in addition to more than 30,000 who already live there. The influx comes at a time when Michigan has more than 14-percent unemployment, among the highest in the country. Life in the U.S. for many refugees is difficult during these tough economic times.

Saheb Shaker was a well known television actor in Iraq.

He starred in dozens of programs. He was also a news anchor on an Iraqi radio and television network.

Shaker says a story he reported in 2005, on difficult living conditions in Iraq, caught the attention of Iraqi officials.

"Somebody [who] worked in the government, don't like this interview with the people," said Saheb Shaker. "Somebody told me you can leave Iraq because somebody will kill you."

Shaker fled Iraq the same day and he has not returned. His family later fled to Syria. He joined them in a refugee camp there and they came to the United States in 2008.

Since then, he has struggled to find steady work in Dearborn, Michigan, the place he now calls home.

"The life is so difficult here for the refugee," he said.

Shaker and his family represent the latest wave of refugees in Michigan.

Since 1990, Iraqis have gravitated towards Dearborn and the Detroit metropolitan area, home to the largest Arab American community in the United States.

With mosques and churches, Middle Eastern restaurants, and community members who often speak the same languages, it was an ideal location for them.

But times have changed.

The major U.S. automakers are headquartered in Michigan, and when sales dropped, production lines closed, and many workers lost their jobs. Michigan now has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

"The state of the economy in Michigan is not the best, and unemployment is a big issue," said Abdallah Boumediene.

Abdallah Boumediene is Director of Operations at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, known as ACCESS. The center provides a range of services to refugees. Boumediene says the economic downturn is especially hard on Iraqis who came to Michigan after the 2003 invasion of their country.

"They are highly professional, educated, with high expectations, and a lot of them get very disappointed," he said. "We have a mental health department that we see people with depression because of how they end up struggling to survive."

Up to 7,000 new refugees could move here by next year, adding to the number of people looking for work. Boumediene says there is also a secondary migration taxing the already slim job market in the state.

"These are Iraqis that were resettled initially in other states, like in Idaho, Oklahoma, what have you, and then they end up coming back to Michigan because they know there are a lot of people they know of or relatives and they know there is a large community in this area so they feel more comfortable," said Boumediene.

Although Michigan's employment outlook is grim, Saheb Shaker has a positive outlook.

"I'm just thinking about my kids future," said Shaker. "My kids now are very happy in the United States."

Shaker says even if he is not well known in the United States and is unemployed, his new life in Dearborn is better than life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.