Since 2003 when the Iraq War began, more than 4,000 Iraqi refugees have settled in the metropolitan Detroit area, adjusting to a new environment in a city that is already facing its own economic challenges. While many have been placed in already-existing Arab communities by the State Department, they often face challenges in learning a new language and finding work. The language barrier has made it difficult to find employment for many who had hoped to send funds to family members still in Iraq. But according to the U.S Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, about 60-70 percent of refugees who come through the USCRI Detroit do find a job within three to six months.
Iraqi photojournalist Salwan Georges began photographing the community in May 2014, documenting the lives, worship and struggles of a people facing new challenges and opportunities, and gaining access to their most intimate gatherings and ceremonies. For some of the refugees Georges spoke with, starting over in a America has meant adapting to their new surroundings while simultaneously trying to retain their cultural customs and language.
“My son is studying in a University in Michigan,” says refugee Abo Sadd. He escaped Iraq in 1979 with his family and in 1999 moved to the U.S. with his family. “I’m happy that this country, America, have given my family the opportunity, but we still have the issue where our kids want to be fully American and forget about our traditions. They started to speak less Arabic and more English, which leads us to miscommunication.”
Many extend their hands to incoming refugees even while hoping to someday return to their homeland.
“I always try to volunteer to cook for Iraqi refugees whenever I can,” says Mosahen Alhelfe, 33. “There are many people in need here in the United States, especially in Michigan, and I chose to help just like how people helped me when I first came here.”
“I wish to go back one day to my country, Iraq, when safety is assured. I try to teach my kids our traditions everyday, but it is difficult when living in a different country,” said Imad Alshimary (Abo Alee), 52.
But as Iraqi forces now fight Islamic State militants who have taken over much of the country, a return to a safe Iraq still seems out of reach to many.