Michigan's Iraqi Americans worry as insurgents advance in homeland
By Niraj Warikoo | Detroit Free Press | Published: June 15, 2014
DETROIT — Amira Jabir could hear the anxious voices over the telephone Friday as she talked to her relatives in Baghdad, threatened by advancing extremist groups related to al-Qaida.
“They’re destroying everything in Iraq,” Jabir said later that day inside the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn. “They’re dividing Sunnis and Shias. ... My family is really worried.”
Born in Iraq, Jabir now lives in Dearborn, but like thousands of Iraqi Americans in Michigan, she is deeply concerned about the future of her native land.
Census figures show there are about 64,000 Iraqi Americans in Michigan, one of the highest concentrations in the U.S. More than half of them are Christian, and many are Shia, who fled Iraq as refugees in 1991 to escape Saddam Hussein’s persecution. There is also an Iraqi-American Sunni community in metro Detroit, along with a smaller population of Kurds.
“My family is terrified in Iraq,” says Imam Husham Al-Husainy, the religious leader of the Karbalaa Center, which is named after a city in Iraq.
Many members of the Karbalaa Center are Shias who left Iraq after Hussein crushed an uprising by them in 1991. They cheered when Hussein was captured and hanged, but are now worried that the remnants of his regime — along with Sunni extremist groups tied to al-Qaida — are on the move across Iraq.
President Barack Obama said Friday that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is “a vicious organization” that threatens Iraq and “could pose a threat eventually to American interests as well.”
Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, who heads the biggest Shia mosque in Michigan, said he wishes Obama had stronger words on Iraq. His father, Ayatollah Mortada Qazwini, is the leader of the congregation at the shrine in Karbalaa, Iraq, of Imam Hussein, grandson of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed.
“I was hoping to see a more robust response from the president,” Qazwini said. “I really hope the United States will take a stronger position in providing weapons and support to the Iraqi military.”
On Saturday, Qazwini joined about 500 Iraqi-American Shias on the steps of Dearborn City Hall to rally against al-Qaida in Iraq.
In his speech, Obama criticized Iraqi leaders for not doing enough to unite the country and govern effectively. Qazwini said that while he understands Obama’s concerns, “we should not let the Iraqis down at this very critical time when they’re facing the threat of al-Qaida and these brutal terrorists.”
Both Qazwini and Jabir blamed Saudi Arabia and other nearby countries for instigating trouble in Iraq.
“I would like to see the U.S. pressuring countries such as Saudi Arabia, who’s known to be a financier of these terrorists in Iraq,” he said.
Also on Friday, Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq, revered by many Shias in metro Detroit, issued a religious ruling calling upon Iraqis to fight back against al-Qaida.
Iraqi-American Christians are also deeply worried about the situation in Iraq. Even before last week’s attacks, minority Christians were fleeing Iraq in droves. And now, amid reports that Christian women are being told to wear Islamic veils and stay indoors, they’re worried this may be the beginning of the end for their community.
On Saturday, the worldwide head of the Chaldean (Iraqi Catholic) Church, Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako, was to be in Southfield for the installation ceremony of the new head of the Chaldean Church in the eastern half of the U.S. Today, the Iraqi Consulate in metro Detroit will be hosting a lunch with him and local Iraqi-American leaders.
“It’s a very tense situation,” said Martin Manna, head of the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce in Southfield. He and other Chaldean leaders have contacted the U.S. State Department and representatives in Congress asking for help to protect Christians, a vulnerable group because of their small size and lack of militias to protect them.
Nabby Yono of West Bloomfield, a Chaldean immigrant from Iraq, said he’s concerned that Iraq is becoming divided. When he was growing up in Iraq, “we didn’t have all these labels.”
“Today, everybody has a label: This one is Christian, this one is Muslim ...”
Jamila Hassan of Dearborn shared the concerns of others inside the Karbalaa Center.
“We escaped dictatorship and extremism,” only to have al-Qaida-inspired insurgents come back, she said.
“I pray for peace in Iraq, but it seems the days ahead of us will be more dramatic, and not so promising,” Qazwini said.