Chaldean-Americans helping refugees from Iraqi homeland
Detroit - Far from their ancestral Iraqi home, thousands of Chaldeans are using their experience of emigration to help Iraqis and Syrians suffering the effects of war to make new lives in the United States.
Nearly 500,000 Chaldeans and Assyrians have immigrated to the United States since World War I. An estimated 150,000 reside in south-eastern Michigan.
In 2003, Chaldean business owners and community activists created the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce (CACC) to strengthen Chaldean businesses, nurture local employment creation, stimulate economic development and promote the community’s rich history and ancient culture. In addition, the Chaldean chamber seeks to serve and represent other Aramaic-speaking communities, including Assyrians and Syriacs.
The chamber has launched several affiliates, including the Chaldean Chamber Political Action Committee (PAC) in 2004. The PAC seeks to raise the profile and represent the community in local and state government.
Iraq’s war spurred a massive influx of Iraqi Christians to the United States. In 2006, the chamber launched the Chaldean Community Foundation, a charitable organisation focused on meeting the growing community’s needs. The foundation provides assistance to at-risk, disadvantaged, new Iraqi and Syrian immigrants.
Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chambers of Commerce, and the Chaldean Community Foundation, suggests violence in Iraq showed the community in America had a role to play:
“As Iraq continues to crumble, we’re constantly looking to the future. We want to have long-term programs because the reality is, America is our new home and so our focus is on how to help the immigrants and refugees transition to the American way of life.
“We want to help them acculturate instead of assimilate because we don’t want them to lose their culture, heritage and language.”
The Chaldean-Americans’ local and regional political advocacy has expanded into the federal and international levels. The Nineveh Council of America (NCA) raises awareness on the plight of ethno-religious minorities in Iraq and Syria and lobbies the US Congress and administration to preserve and protect them.
In 2011, the Chaldean Community Foundation opened an office in Sterling Heights, Michigan. The foundation operates Refugee Acculturation Sustainability and Training (RAST), which addresses the major issues impacting the refugee and immigrant population, such as English-language learning, immigration services, career services and access to health care.
Project Bismutha — the “act of healing” — in affiliation with the Chaldean American Association for Health Professionals (CAAHP) provides free medical services for uninsured Iraqi Christians.
The Chaldean Community Foundation established Refugee Mental Health Services, a community health initiative that provides mental health services to refugees and low-income community members.
In 2012, the foundation launched the Chaldean Loan Fund, which is designed to provide low-interest loans to the Chaldean refugee community for the purpose of purchasing used vehicles. It is funded entirely through community donations.
That year, the foundation began Breaking Barriers, a programme that provides services and advocacy to those with special needs, such as those with hearing or visual impairments.
Due to the increase in need and support from the community, in November 2015 the foundation opened a large state-of-the-art community centre in Sterling Heights. The office has experienced an increase in user services and clientele. Approximately 15% of clients served are non-Chaldeans. The foundation is on track to provide immigrant and refugee social services to more than 20,000 people in 2016.
Manna says: “We also want to educate the general public about who refugees really are. There are many people who have a phobia of refugees, and throughout history, it’s refugees who have helped build this great nation. Refugees are job creators, not job takers.”
“We are also advocating for a UN processing centre in Erbil, so people applying for refugee status or asylum to come to the United States don’t have to travel outside of Iraq.
“Inside Iraq, we are trying to ensure that the displaced have safe passages to their ancestral lands in Nineveh, and are protected.”
The Chaldean Chamber boasts as one of the largest ethnic chambers in the country with nearly 1,000 active members representing some 3,500 businesses. Overall, Chaldeans own more than 15,000 businesses in Michigan, including a large number in the hospitality, wireless and food and beverage industries.
Chamber members enjoy quarterly networking meetings, an annual business conference, industry outlook events and the annual dinner highlighting the Businessperson of the Year and Humanitarian of the Year.
“The chamber’s success is a clear indication of the impact Chaldean businesses have on the economy in south-east Michigan,” says Manna. “This organisation has given our business community a voice in the region.”