Syrian refugees' move to US was 'the happiest day'

Nedal and family
Image caption Nedal and wife Raeda with Layal, four, and Tym, one

"The word refugee is painful to hear," says 28-year-old Nedal, through a translator.

In the front room of his house, surrounded by his family, Nedal tells a story about the excitement of a revolution turning to fear, of arrest turning to torture, of hiding and fleeing Syria - and then of a two-year wait in Jordan to receive refugee status in the US.

Nedal says the day he learned he, his wife Raeda and their two children would be allowed to move to the US was "the happiest day".

The family reached Michigan in June 2015.

Nedal has a job as a welder and hopes to finish the final year of his degree in engineering when his English improves. Raeda works at the day care centre her children attend and plans to qualify as a hairdresser, the job she did before the family fled Syria.

Image caption Nedal and Raeda say the community has been very supportive, even donating toys for their children

Seated on their couch in a comfortable home in the suburbs of Detroit the family seems as though it is on its way to living the American dream.

But as Michigan struggles to recover from its economic troubles. Nedal and his family - and others like them - may also be the answer to the state's problems.

'Artificial barriers'

Detroit, Michigan's largest city, has lost an estimated 30,945 residents since 2010. And while Michigan has seen its population rise slightly in the last two years, the loss of skilled talent after the financial crisis has made it hard for the state to fully recover.

Michigan needs immigrants to fill jobs, and it also needs them to start new businesses to help kick-start the economy.

To do that the state has focused on making it easier for immigrants already in Michigan to find work, to start companies and to remain in the country.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Millions of Syrians have been forced to leave their homes and flee the violent civil war

In 2014, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder set up the Michigan Office for New Americans (Mona) to help remove some of the red tape that can make it difficult for immigrants to stay in the state or find work.

Its aim is to help immigrants to get job qualifications, learn English or start new businesses, which in turn helps existing companies to fill highly skilled roles and to grow, as well as adding to the tax base.

Bing Goei, Mona's director says that Mona works to remove "artificial barriers", and that on average immigrants become self-sufficient in one to two years.

"We need to get the population up so we need immigrants to choose Michigan as their new home," he adds.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Many buildings in Detroit remain abandoned two years after the city exited bankruptcy

This has already happened with Iraqi refugees. Michigan had taken in some 19,861 Iraqi refugees by January 2016, according to the US State Department.

Many were attracted from other US states because of the large Arabic-speaking community that had been created and the prospect of highly skilled jobs, mostly in the car industry.

Imad Morad was one of those people.

The Iraqi electrical engineer was resettled with his family in Colorado in 2013, but could only find work washing dishes.

Immigrants attracting immigrants

After an internet search revealed there was a large population of Middle Eastern people in Michigan, Mr Morad decided to travel to the state and look for work.

In an Arabic coffee shop in Dearborn he learned about a local business owner who was looking to sell his electronics shop.

Mr Morad made his way to the store, where he volunteered while he learned about the business. After four months he was able to secure a small business loan and bought the shop, which he now hopes to expand with a second store.

"In Michigan you can find yourself, people speak Arabic and it's easy to find work in a restaurant or auto shop to get started," says Mr Morad.

Given success stories like Mr Morad's, many were surprised when Governor Snyder became one of the first to call for a hold on allowing Syrian refugees into Michigan - suspending his state's Syrian refugee resettlement programme.

The governor said the hold would be temporary while the state consulted the Department of Home Land Security. Governors do not have the authority to prevent the federal government from accepting refugees and placing them in their states, but they can make the process more difficult.

So far, governors in 30 states have called for a ban on Syrian refugees being placed in their states but the federal government - which determines what states refugees will be placed in - has not stopped or slowed its refugee acceptance programme.

Since 2011, Syrian refugees have been resettled in 38 states. Where an individual or family is placed depends on many factors, including assistance being offered by local organisations, typically charities, that help refugees find housing, employment and get settled.

After three months refugees are allowed to move to any US city or state they like, without restrictions.

In a statement Mona said: "Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is supportive of refugee resettlement overall (not just Syrians) and of what contributions all refugees can make when making Michigan their home."

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Image caption Governor Rick Snyder called for a hold on resettling Syrian refugees in Michigan until safety concerns are worked out

Nonetheless, the negative rhetoric could impact the state's appeal for immigrants, says Steve Tobocman, director of the non-profit organisation Global Detroit.

"Making this a welcoming and successful place for immigrants is the best way to attract immigrants from other states and around the globe," says Steve Tobocman, director of the non-profit organisation Global Detroit.

Image caption Imad Morad who came to the US as an Iraqi refugee stands behind the counter of his store in Dearborn

Both Mr Morad and Nedal say they have received support from the community and neighbours of all backgrounds, not just Arabic.

"The state doesn't feel depressed to me, it feels like there is a lot of opportunity and I have had a lot of help from the community," says Nedal.

Nedal hopes after finishing his degree that he will be able to start a bee farm, which was his family's business in Syria before the war.

If he starts his bee farm in Michigan he will be in good company: immigrants own 28% of farms in Michigan.