Chaldean Community Foundation remains hopeful for Middle Eastern refugees

Macomb Daily

Martin Manna of Bloomfield Hills has discussed deportation with the General Consulate of Iraq and has met with the Vice-President of the United States, Mike Pence, to advocate changes to immigration policies in his role as president of the Chaldean Community Foundation of Sterling Heights.

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Chaldean Community Foundation President

Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation, at right, and Dave Nona, a volunteer with the foundation discuss a refugee’s application for a car loan. CCF is a charity that was created by the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce to support the growing population of Iraqi refugees.

By Gina Joseph gjoseph@digitalfirstmedia.com and @ginaljoseph on Twitter

But his work is that of a humanitarian, dedicated to advancing the needs of refugees and members of the Chaldean American community in which they live.

Not unlike his father's work as a journalist in Iraq.

"My dad was the assistant editor for a newspaper in northern Iraq," said Manna, during a tour of the nonprofit organization created by the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce to support the growing population of Iraqi refugees in Sterling Heights.

As an Iraqi journalist and Christian, Manna's father wrote about the atrocities in his country, and openly criticized the actions of Saddam Hussein.

"When his editor was whisked away and eventually killed my dad was assured that he was at risk and fled the country with my mother and siblings," Manna said.

They chose Detroit, as many Chaldeans do because of its proximity to Canada, where generations of Iraqi have settled before and because of the auto industry jobs.

"Seven Mile and Woodward where they lived was known as Chaldean Town," said Manna, who is the youngest of eight children born to Frank and Hana Manna, and one of three were born in the U.S.

After arriving in Detroit, Manna started his own weekly newspaper and continued to write about what was happening in Iraq and in Chaldean Town.

"Part of the reason I've always been active in my community is because of people like my father. He's always been at the forefront of human rights activism, and my mother was always very active in the church," Manna said, after greeting several of the men, women and children who had come to the center.

In 2008, when the group was first established it worked out of a small office but by 2015, expanded into a building with more than 10,000 square-feet of office space and classrooms. Today, Manna proudly talks about plans to bring the Chaldean Community Foundation's footprint to 30,000-square-feet.

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Chaldean Community Foundation Project

Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation holds an artist rendition of the housing unit and business space being planned for Sterling Heights.

By Gina Joseph gjoseph@digitalfirstmedia.com and @ginaljoseph on Twitter

Also in the works is a housing unit that will offer apartment space on one floor and business space on another, for those in the community looking to start a business.

"Think Greek Town only Chaldean," Manna said.

"When we opened our plan was to serve 400, but we ended up serving 4, 000," he added.

Last year, more than 26,000 individuals, 20 percent of whom are Iraqi Christian refugees, were provided with medical, psychological and social services to assist with American acculturation. A special fund to ensure people have the transportation they need to get to work also provided more than $390,000 in low-interest auto loans, funded entirely through community donations.

Over the years the number of refugees coming to Sterling Heights from Iraq has been a roller-coaster ride,of highs and lows with a great number (752) arriving in 2009.

A declining trend

However, tougher policies toward immigration and resettlement have dramatically reduced the number of refugees settling locally and across the country.

Nearly 6,000 refugees from more than 20 countries have settled in Macomb County since 2009 and more than 10,000 in Oakland County.

But so far in 2018, only 5 have made Macomb County their home, a far cry from the peak of 1,178 in 2009 and 860 in 2013.

It's a similar story in other counties around Michigan.

Just 31 refugees settled in Oakland County in fiscal 2018, down from 2,058 in 2013.

Across Michigan, 31,984 refugees have settled in the state since 2009. Statewide, the number was 647 in fiscal 2018, down from a peak of 4,651 in 2013.

Of the largest number of refugees to arrive in the last decade, most have been from Iraq.

But refugees have also settled in Michigan and Oakland County from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Syria, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Burma, Ivory Coast, El Salvador, Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, Congo, Russia, Laos, Azerbaijan, and Eritrea.

The Associated Press is keeping track of refugee numbers through the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Its analysis showed the U.S. had resettled 22,491 refugees nationwide in the 2018 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

That's the smallest annual number of refugees since Congress created the modern resettlement system in 1980.

The 2018 number is also well below the cap of 45,000 set by the administration for 2018, and less than 30 percent of the number granted entry in the final year of Barack Obama's presidency, according to the AP.

It's also significantly below the 30,000 cap for 2019 announced by President Trump's administration.

According to data obtained by the AP from the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration show the mix of refugees also has changed substantially:

• The numbers of Iraqi, Somali and Syrian refugees -- who made up more than a third of all resettlements in the U.S. in the prior five years -- have almost entirely disappeared. Refugees from those three countries comprise about two percent of the 2018 resettlements.

•  This year, Christians have made up more than sixty percent of the refugee population, while the share of Muslims has dropped from roughly 45 percent of refugees in fiscal year 2016 to about 15 percent. (This data is not available at the city or state level.)

•  Of the states that usually average at least 100 resettlements, Maine, Louisiana, Michigan, Florida, California, Oklahoma and Texas have seen the largest percentage decreases in refugees. All have had their refugee caseloads drop more than 75 percent when comparing 2018 to the average over the previous five years (2013-2017).

The past fiscal year marks a dramatic change in the refugee program, with only a fraction as many people entering. That affects refugees currently in the U.S., who may be waiting on relatives to arrive. It affects refugees in other countries, hoping to get to the United States for safety or other reasons.

The fallout

"It's been frustrating," Manna said. "We saw a reduction, even during the Obama administration. They shifted their priorities to the point where we felt there was a bias against Christians."

Manna said there were approximately 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq in 2003.

"Today there are less than 200,000," he said, although his meeting with Pence led him to believe that the government will prioritize ethnic and religious minorities who have been persecuted including Chaldeans.

"It's going to be a very busy year for us in 2019," added the optimistic humanitarian.

Not all of the organizations helping refugees are as hopeful.

As of Sept. 30, 2018, Catholic Charities of Southeastern Michigan officially closed its refugee resettlement program, which has been around for decades.

The Archdiocese of Detroit began providing services to refugees during the Vietnam War era and since then, has helped more than 16,000 refugees.

"The last refugees we actually resettled, was back in January of this year (2018)," said Dave Bartek, chief executive officer for CCSEM in a statement. "We are no longer connected into anything with refugees, unless they are seeking help through one of our other ministries, as we do for anyone. Samaritas (formerly Lutheran Social Services) and USCRI, are the two primary resettlement agencies as of this time, in the southeast Michigan region."

Bartek was unavailable for an interview but he did say the ban and the significant decrease in refugees "played a significant role in the closure."

It's a big loss.

Historically, CCSEM has played a critical role in welcoming refugees to Michigan.

In 1994, Michigan ranked 12th in the country as a destination for 2,600 refugees and 12,700 immigrants. Of those refugees, 73 percent chose to settle in the Detroit metropolitan area.

In 2014, Michigan rose to third among the 50 states, with 4,600 refugees heading to the Great Lakes state.

The groups assisting with this formidable transition effort have included Catholic Charities of Southeastern MichiganACCESSSamaritasWelcoming MichiganWelcome MAT DetroitMichigan Immigrant Rights Center and once settled, the Chaldean Community Foundation.

OneMacomb has also helped its newest citizens adapt to life in Macomb County, an initiative that was created in 2012 by the Macomb County Executive Office to promote multiculturalism and the bilingual programs that address the needs of a population that now speaks more than 100 languages.

Among the groups still working to resettle refugees is Samaritas.

"There is a definite decline, despite the fact that the refugee crisis is the biggest it has been since World War II," said Vicki Thompson-Sandy, President of Samaritas. "We've been working with refugees since the 1970's. In our history there have been peaks and valleys, we saw a significant decrease after 911, but I have not seen the numbers this low, for this long."

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Afghanistan refugees

A young Afghan man carries a baby after their arrival from Turkey to the shores of the Greek island of Chios, on an dinghy overcrowded by refugees and migrants in 2016. 

AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

Thompson-Sandy said prior to the current decrease Samaritas was resettling thousands of refugees, from all over the world. This year they have handled less than 300 refugees.

Almost all but a few were from African countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Ethiopia or Bhutan in South Asia, resettled in Grand Rapids.

"It's been happening for many years," said Minnie Morey, president of the West Michigan Asian American Association referring to the migration of refugees from this part of the world. "Michigan has a lot of job opportunities for people who do not speak English, in agriculture and the auto industry."

Grand Rapids also has many churches and temples that welcome refugees from the African and Asian nations including Bhutan. Bhutanese people are mostly Buddhists but a majority of the refugees arriving in Michigan are originally citizens of Nepal, who have been living in refugee camps in Bhutan.

According to the 2001 census, 80.62 percent of Nepalese are Hindu.

"We also assist refugees who are Burmese and Vietnamese," said Morey, who was born in the Philippines and raised in California.

The decrease in refugees has not been hard on immigrants, wondering if they will ever see the family members who were expected to follow them to America or if they’ll be deported, but on groups such as Samaritas.

"At one time we had five or six offices serving refugees and we have had to close all but two of them," Thompson-Sandy said. "The challenge for us is that the type of person we hired to work in refugee resettlement and reunification is pretty specialized. They have to be able to speak the languages and know the cultures. If something were to happen it would be difficult for us to respond."

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