As a home to one of the nation’s largest populations of Middle Eastern immigrants, the Detroit area is a natural destination for refugees fleeing violence in places like Syria. But the leader of the largely suburban county that neighbors the city has called for a stop to these refugee resettlements.
That has become a hot issue in the race for that county’s executive.
Longtime Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson typically wins re-election by big margins. He’s one of Michigan’s best-known Republican officeholders.
More than a million people live in the county, which is made up largely of sprawling suburbs and exburbs that surround Detroit. It’s also the No. 1 destination in the state for Syrian refugees, but Patterson says it’s time for that to stop.
“They have no intention of inculcating themselves into the American way,” Patterson told Detroit TV station WDIV.
Patterson says he doesn’t trust the government’s vetting process. His office did not respond to an interview request, but this is what he said to WJBK, a Detroit TV station:
“You’ve got to vet ’em,” Patterson said. “What do you know about them? Do they have any criminal records? What about public health? Do they have [tuberculosis]? Do they have any other kind of communicable disease?”
Vicki Barnett is the Democrat running against Patterson in the executive race, and she doesn’t agree with her opponent’s view of those who have sought refuge and are still seeking it in her county.
“It was women and children fleeing for their lives. That’s what we’re talking about here,” Barnett says. “And the fact that Syrian refugees have been settled in Oakland County for the last few years and crime has not escalated should be proof enough that this is not an issue when they are vetted — and they are being vetted.”
Nedal Al Hayek slips between English and Arabic as he describes his family’s journey from Syria.
“Before I come here, I live in Jordan three years,” Al Hayek says.
He spent three years in a refugee camp in Jordan before coming to an apartment in Oakland County. A friend, Mohammed Aboushaar, who is also a Syrian refugee, interprets.
“It took me around a year of having appointments, medical reports, government check, going to the embassy, come back and having a bunch of appointments to confirm that I can come to the United States,” Al Hayek says.
Al Hayek says his family fled Syria because it was no longer a safe place for his daughter and son, now five and two.
In Michigan, Al Hayek works in a sign shop, and he’s taking English classes at a community college. He says his ambition is to get an agricultural degree from Michigan State University. Before they left Syria, Al Hayek and his family worked as fruit farmers.
“I would like a big farm here in Michigan,” Al Hayek says. “I work in bees, honey, vegetables, fruit.”
Mihaela Mitrofan heads the refugee resettlement services for Samaritas. She says the local controversy has been a distraction.
“Oftentimes, we find ourselves pulled from the core of our mission, which is helping refugees integrate in our community, and addressing all the misinformation circling around,” Mitrofan says.
But Mitrofan says the controversy has also resulted in a surprising windfall — an increase in donations as well as families and churches willing to sponsor refugees.