All eyes on the homeland in Detroit's Iraqi community
Hope and anxiety as exiles imagine post-Hussein era
By Elizabeth A. Neuffer and Bryan Bender, Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent, 4/28/03
DEARBORN, Mich. -- The Middle East meets the American Middle West in this city, where evening prayers from the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center echo along Warren Avenue and everyone has an opinion about Iraq's future.
As President Bush arrives in Dearborn today to talk about postwar Iraq, the possibilities offered by the regime change in Baghdad are resounding throughout the Detroit area, where a cross section of Iraqis -- Chaldean Christians, Muslim Arabs, and Kurds -- coexist in a way that many hope will be the norm in their homeland.
For now, demands for democracy and a withdrawal of American troops once Iraq is stabilized are common refrains among Iraqis living here. But many question the kind of democracy that will emerge once Iraqis are on their own and how it will ensure the religious freedom, social justice, and equality that Iraqi-Americans have come to expect.
The Al-Najjar sisters of Dearborn -- Fatima, 16, Zainab, 15, and Anesa, 12 -- already have a lot of experience in protesting United Nations sanctions against Iraq, which they have yet to visit but feel a strong connection.
The girls say Iraq can be a Shi'ite Muslim democracy; they saw media reports last week of the more than 1 million Iraqi Shi'ite pilgrims who honored Shi'ite martyr Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed who was killed in 680 A.D., in the city of Karbala, a harbinger of greater religious freedom. The majority of Iraqis are Shi'ites.
Although the Najjar girls wore nearly identical black robes and head scarves at a memorial service last week for Hussein at the Karbalaa center in Dearborn, each had her own opinion on Iraq's future, with emphasis on equal rights for women.
"More than likely, we're going to become an Islamic country," Fatima said. "More free than Iran, with the right to speak. If you don't want to wear a head scarf, you shouldn't be put in jail."
US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week that the United States would not allow an Iranian-style theocracy to take root in Iraq, a statement that did not sit well with the Najjar girls.
"I don't think anyone is going to back off from Islam just because [former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein] isn't there," said Zainab, adding that Iraqis must have the same freedoms as Americans "but in an Islamic environment."
Anesa added, "Everyone in America will see that Iraq is not a terrorist country."
Iraqi-Americans who are Chaldean Catholics seem more anxious about the future of Iraq. The Rev. Manuel Boji, rector of Our Lady of Chaldeans Cathedral in Southfield, said, "I don't know what the United States means by democracy -- if it means majority rule or if they abide by the constitution that Iraqis have now or if they create a new constitution. According to the Iraqi constitution, the Christians can practice their faith. We hope that's how things will go."
Nouri Sitto, chairman of the Network of Iraqi American Organizations in the United States in Southfield, which represents groups of Iraqi Arabs, Kurds, Chaldean-Assyrians, and other Christians, said democracy can take root only when there is a clear separation of church and state and civil rights are protected by law.
Saad Marouf, president of the Chaldean Federation of America with 120,000 Iraqi-American members in the Detroit area, noted that the Christian presence in Iraq predates Islam but that Christians have been underrepresented in meetings with retired General Jay Garner, Bush's point man on rebuilding Iraq. Marouf has sent letters to Bush and other administration officials demanding greater participation of Iraqi Christians in the interim government.
"We want to remind them again that we are the third largest population in Iraq and we should be dealt with as such in the constitution," said Marouf, 52, who came to the United States 30 years ago from Iraq. "We have to be looked at as equals. We don't want to have another Taliban in Iraq."
The majority of Chaldean families in America hail from the town of Tel Kaif, near Mosul. Chaldeans arrived in Detroit in 1910 and smaller communities have since sprung up in California and Arizona, Marouf says.
The Detroit area has the highest concentration of Christian and Muslim Arab-Americans and Arab immigrants in North America, although many Chaldeans in America do not consider themselves Arabs.
Last week, the Chaldean Federation of America sent two representatives to Iraq to deliver more than 100 letters, with more on the way, that many Detroit-area families wrote to relatives whom they cannot reach because of infrastructure damage in Iraq. The envoys are also checking on the humanitarian needs of the Christian community. Collections on Easter Sunday at the five local Chaldean Catholic churches raised more than $20,000 in aid for Iraqi Christians.
On Warren Avenue, which looks like a main street in a Middle Eastern town with signs in Arabic outside restaurants and shops, many Iraqis -- some of them American citizens, others with permanent resident status -- speak longingly about going home to see relatives and to do their part to create a capitalist economy.
Before the war, several hundred young men volunteered to help with the effort through Iraqi opposition groups that had been recruiting for the Defense Department. While about 60 men were deployed before the fighting began, the war ended too soon for most others, dashing their hopes to be translators or cultural guides and to help topple Hussein's regime.
One family wonders how to return, having lost all they had when they tried in vain to help overthrow Hussein in 1991. About 15,000 Iraqis came to the Detroit area after Hussein crushed their rebellion.
"I'm going to file a complaint with the United Nations in the name of all Iraqis," said Munem Alsaedy of Dearborn, who believes the Shi'a refugees are owed reparations. "We, the Iraqi refugees, how can we return? Everyone has been given reparations except the Iraqis who are left in the street."