From Mosul to Motor City
The thousands of Christians from Syria and Iraq who made new lives in America's rust belt mourn the fate of their homeland from afar.
DETROIT — It’s easy to miss Tigris Restaurant in Detroit’s Chaldean Town, a tiny stretch of businesses and residences on Seven Mile Road just off Woodward Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. Chaldean Town is like many parts of Detroit: a mix of still-operational community centers and businesses with an increasing number of blighted vacant storefronts. Tigris’s exterior — nondescript, with foggy windows — could be mistaken for either.
Tigris is no doubt a restaurant, however, offering lamb, chicken, and even quail dishes, with most menu items under $5. But it’s also a gathering place for the city’s Chaldean population. Most Chaldeans these days live in the city’s suburbs, but Tigris is a haven for older men who come to play cards and dominoes, keeping score on sheets torn from Newport cartons. The lingering smell of cigarette smoke overpowers the meat spinning on a rotisserie in the back, and occasionally some of the younger patrons play music from the home country on their cell phones.
The only TV in the joint, sitting near vintage wood-paneled video slot machines, is tuned to an Arabic-language news channel. And aside from the occasional African-American customer who comes in for a takeout dish, the only languages spoken here are Arabic and Aramaic, the historic language of Chaldeans. A ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary sits on a shelf above the main entrance. The mood is solemn, with men shuffling from table to table sharing quiet conversation throughout the afternoon.
Since the early 20th century, the Detroit area has been a refuge for Middle Eastern immigrants of all religious sects, a group that includes Chaldeans and Assyrian Christians. From the worn east-side neighborhoods off Seven Mile Road and Woodward Avenue, hard hit by economic losses, to wealthier, far-flung suburbs like West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills, to Dearborn on Detroit’s southern border — known worldwide as the largest concentration of Middle Easterners outside the region itself — about 150,000 Chaldeans and Assyrian Christians are spread out across southeast Michigan, all connected by a tight network of religious and commercial organizations.
Now, with the Islamic State on a murderous rampage in Syria and Iraq, ripples are being felt in this part of the American heartland. The sense of concern only grew when, last week, Islamic State militants kidnapped some 220 Assyrian Christians in northern Syria.
Assyrians trace their origins to ancient Mesopotamia, which is now divided between parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They do not consider themselves Arab, and they practice Christianity. Chaldeans, who make up the majority of metro Detroit’s Assyrians, are Assyrians who are members of the Chaldean Catholic Church and are mostly based in Iraq. All are regular targets of Islamic State attacks.
Christian leaders here say they have been in constant contact with the U.S. State Department and the United Nations, calling for swift action in the Middle East and also keeping them apprised of fears of backlash in the United States. “I think we need an international force to intervene and wipe out ISIS,” said Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, based in suburban Detroit. “That’s the only thing that’s going to work.”
In late February, three leading bishops of the Holy Synod of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging action in the Middle East. “What we are witnessing before our very eyes, Mr. Kerry, is genocide … and indeed it is already being termed ‘another holocaust’.… The credibility of our nation and its administration will be compromised if nothing is done and the Assyrian Christians in this region are left at the mercy of the merciless forces of [the Islamic State].”
Middle Eastern Christian leaders from Detroit also are lobbying for passage of HR5430, known as the Nineveh Plain Refugee Act, which would allow special protection for refugees from some Middle Eastern countries, specifically aiding those impacted by the Islamic State. The bill would grant them refugee status in the United States and expedite the refugee resettlement process.
Chaldeans and Assyrian Christians began trickling into Detroit after 1900, but the major migration began in the late 1960s as Saddam Hussein rose to power in Iraq. Most Chaldeans sought work in Detroit’s automotive factories, but the city’s 1967 riots, during which worsening black-white relations boiled over into violence, proved to be another turning point for the growing community, as Chaldeans took up operating grocery stores abandoned by white business owners during the city’s infamous “white flight.” Today, there are hundreds of grocery stores, gas stations, and other retail outlets nationwide owned and operated by Chaldeans. The Chaldean Community Foundation estimates that 90 percent of convenience stores in the Detroit area are Chaldean-owned. Chaldeans now own a number of businesses and operate in a wide variety of industries in the region beyond supermarkets, from car-repair shops to engineering firms. And as a result of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq, the population is increasing faster than ever before.
Sterling Heights, a Detroit suburb, is home to an independent welcoming center for Chaldean and Assyrian refugees, as well as other new arrivals who might be slightly more established but still need assistance. Lately, the center has seen up to 150 walk-in cases daily, according to Manna. Community leaders estimate that as many as 400 refugees arrive in metro Detroit each month, seeking U.S. citizenship and taking shelter with friends, relatives, and anyone else able to offer a room.
Chaldeans and other Christians often frequently live in the same neighborhoods as other Middle Easterners, and shop at the same markets, visit the same restaurants, and send their kids to the same schools. But as in Syria or Iraq, they maintain their identities. Christians “always wear the cross,” said Auday Arabo, a Chaldean community leader. Arabo was born in Baghdad and came to the States as a boy.
The network of businesses and churches — there are eight Chaldean churches in the region — helps new residents find stability through housing and employment. Navigating the application for U.S. citizenship is an especially tricky process, Manna says, though community leaders are optimistic. Both Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder have spoken out in favor of embracing immigrants. For Snyder, immigration sends the message that the state is open to new industry, while Duggan seeks to repopulate Detroit’s more desolate neighborhoods.
When refugees arrive, they are guided toward finding employment in the Chaldean network. Manna’s Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, for example, has an employment site. Still, there is constant concern for those left behind in the home country. Community organizers have rallied, educating doctors traveling to work with Iraqi and Syrian refugees about health concerns specific to Middle Easterners, training teachers in Middle Eastern education, and sending coats and school supplies to families.
Relocated Middle Easterners can always find a slice of home at places like Tigris Restaurant in Chaldean Town, or medical care at the clinic down the street on Seven Mile Road. “The community is going to do whatever they can to support,” Manna said.
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