An Iraqi refugee repairs the light as other refugees arrive for a meal provided by volunteers on July 16, 2014 at Mokeeb Anssar Alhseen, an Islamic center in Detroit, Mich. (Salwan Georges) Iraqi men meet daily at the local Alraffedean Cafe house after work, where the conversation always centers on life as it was back home, June 11, 2014, Detroit, Mich. (Salwan Georges)
Many Middle Eastern families have fled their countries in recent years in search of safety, with hopes of rebuilding their lives in the United States. A large portion settled in the Detroit area, Dearborn in particular. The city, the eighth largest in the state, has been dubbed the Arab capital of North America. Home of the Arab-American National Museum, a number of mosques and Islamic schools for children, the city has become a home away from home for people originally from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemeni and Iraq.
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.
Iraqi refugees on a break as they wait for the sun to set, ending a day of fasting during the month of Ramadan at Mokeeb Anssar Alhseen, a local Islamic center. Other refugees arrive for a meal provided by volunteers on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. (Salwan Georges) Local Shiite Iraqi youth participate in Arba’een walk on Sunday, December 14, 2014 in Dearborn, Mich. About 6,000 people marched from the Karbala center in Warrendale to Ford Woods Park to mark the Arba’een, the 40th day after death of Imam Hussain. (Salwan Georges) People are given free food, a cup of chickpea soup, and hot tea after reaching the end of the Arba’een walk at the Ford Woods Park on Sunday, December 14, 2014. (Salwan Georges) Under a dilapidated food stamp sign, the Arabic phrase “Mashallah,” which means “appreciation, joy and praise,” is painted on an Arabic supermarket wall. Dearborn, Mich. 2014. (Salwan Georges) Iraqi refugees enjoy a game of Taolee (Backgammon) while discussing their day at Alraffedean Cafe in Detroit, Mich., June 11, 2014. (Salwan Georges) A young Iraqi boy helps his father grill buffalo fish, one of the most popular fish entrees in Iraq, over a pit of fire on Monday, July 21, 2014. (Salwan Georges) Abo Ahmad rests on his car after volunteering to cook during Ramadan for Iraqi refugees on July 16, 2014 at Mokeeb Anssar Alhseen, Islamic center. (Salwan Georges) Volunteers of all ages help prepare a free meal for all of the Iraqi refugees at Imam Ali Center of Detroit on Monday, July 21, 2014 in Detroit, Mich. (Salwan Georges) A traditional meal is held at Mokeeb Anssar Alhseen, a local Islamic center, during the month of Ramadan on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. (Salwan Georges) Refugees were invited to a free meal at Imam Ali Islamic center. The food was donated by volunteers. (Salwan Georges) As a sign of respect in the House of God, sandals must be taken off at the front door when entering an Islamic center. These sandals are left as donation for people to take home or borrow when using the restroom on Monday, July 21, 2014 at Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn, Mich. (Salwan Georges) During the holy month of Ramadan, daily educational talks are held in mosques and small Islamic centers. “We recommend parents to bring their kids to those talks so they can learn about our history and traditions,” said Imam Jaffer Alharere, of Dearborn, Mich. (Salwan Georges) Karim Makhzom (Abo Rahem), 77, escaped Iraq 26 years ago, and found his way to the U.S. 18 years later. “I was forced to leave my family and the country that I was born in. Since then I have been trying to reach my family back home. I have not lost hope in finding them yet,” said Makhzom on Wednesday, October 1, 2014 in Dearborn, Mich. (Salwan Georges) Iraqi women walking home on Sunday, October 26, 2014 in Dearborn, Mich. Many Iraqi women don’t want to be photographed because of their religious beliefs. (Salwayn Georges)