Oakland County Clashes Over Embrace Of Refugees

Nov 4, 2016

Nedal Al Hayek and his family fled Syria and spent three years in a refugee camp in Jordan before finding a home in Bloomfield Hills in Oakland County.
Credit Rick Pluta / MPRN

As 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 refugee resettlements and has threatened to go court.  That has become a hot issue in the race for Oakland County executive. 


Long-time Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson typically wins re-election by big margins.  He’s one of Michigan’s best-known Republican officeholders.  (One year, Democrats didn’t even bother to put up an opponent.) 

More than a million people live in the county, which is made up largely of sprawling suburbs and exurbs 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,” he told Detroit TV station WDIV.

Patterson says he does not trust the government’s vetting process.

Patterson’s office did not respond to our request for an interview, but this what he said to Detroit TV station WJBK.

“You’ve got to vet ‘em.  What do we know about them?  Do they have any criminal records?  What about public health?  Do they have TB?  Do they have another kind of communicable disease?” 

Vicki Barnett is the Democrat running against Patterson in the executive race, and she doesn’t share 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.” 

The federal Office of Refugee Services says refugees from Syria and other countries are the most thoroughly vetted travelers to the US and the background checks can take as long as two years.  

“Before I come here, I live in Jordan three years,” says Nedal Al Hayek before he slips into Arabic as he describes his family’s journey from Syria to a refugee camp in Jordan to an apartment in Oakland County.  A friend, Mahomed Abushar, 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 I can come to the United States,” he says.  

Hayek says the 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 at a sign shop.  He’s taking English classes at a community college, and 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 big farm here in Michigan,” Al Hayek says. “I work in bees, honey, vegetables, fruit.” 

Mihaela Mitrofan heads 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.

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— Rick Pluta is the Managing Editor and Reporter for the Michigan Public Radio network.  Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org