People don’t really make the world go ‘round — it’s something to do with angular momentum. People do put a unique spin on Greater Lansing, though, and City Pulse's annual "People Issue" celebrates that. This is not another “most influential” or “most famous” list, but rather a bright bouquet of interesting people from the Lansing area with various backgrounds and experiences worth sharing. Their stories were coaxed from them by our team of reporters and edited for length; their beautiful selves were captured by master photographer Khalid Ibrahim. Now isn’t that better than a whole issue on angular momentum?
Haimen Al-Sumaidee, Refugee job development coordinator
Haimen Al-Sumaidee, 48, is the point man directing new refugees to jobs in Greater Lansing. Al-Sumaidee went through the refugee program himself after fleeing from Iraq. While living in Baghdad, he was a lawyer and program manager of a contracting company working with the U.S. government to redevelop Iraq during the war. This work was dangerous. He was nearly executed in 2006 when kidnapped by a local militia that held him ransom for two days. When he got back home, he reunited with his family and fled to Northern Iraq — leaving his house and all his possessions behind. In 2013, while driving with his family on a freeway, Al-Sumaidee was followed by a car that swerved toward him while he rounded a cliff, railroading his vehicle off the side. Badly injured, Al-Sumaidee survived with his wife and daughter, but his 13-yearold son died days after the incident.
He had to leave. Coming to Lansing in 2016 on a Special Immigrant Visa, Al-Sumaidee worked three part-time jobs to make ends meet. He was hired as a refugee job development coordinator with St. Vincent Catholic Charities in 2017. Since the ‘70s, St. Vincent Catholic Charities has resettled over 17,000 refugees in Greater Lansing.
— DENNIS BURCK
What was it like to live in Baghdad during the war?
I used to work as a private lawyer with my own office in Baghdad. During the war, everything changed. There were no courts or governmental offices. There was nothing I could do to make a living. At the same time, we were very optimistic that things would change for the best of the country, but things went bad fast. Bad politicians and militias rose up to control the country. They started to eliminate a lot of people: professors, teachers, engineers, lawyers. Two of my best friends had been assassinated. Judges were kidnapped and killed. It was chaotic.
But you still persisted in rebuilding Baghdad. When did your vision of recovery change?
During the times of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the U.S. government left Baghdad and the Iraqi government did not renew our contracts. Our people started quitting jobs. Militias began ruling the cities, and I was forced to leave. In 2013, I received emails and phone calls threatening that this time they will kill me, because I worked with the U.S. forces and I am Sunni. We couldn’t survive this anymore, so I went into the U.S. Special Immigrant Visa program. I honestly had never thought about it. I was thinking about rebuilding my country. Sometimes I talk to my former colleagues and we say ‘How much life, effort, time and money we gave? It’s all gone in the wind. All gone for nothing. Billions of dollars with a lot of our people killed and kidnapped.’
What is going on in refugee resettlement programs?
All the resettlement agencies are suffering financial problems. There is a lot of reduction. We don’t have staff to do all we used to do. Every one of us has a specific job title, but it is really two or three in one. We don’t complain because if you believe in what you are doing with your life and job, it’s OK. I saw what the agency did for me and my family. I consider myself very fortunate: I had language, skills and a degree. Most people don’t speak the language or have any skills or degrees. Some people were living literally in forests. They need help to survive.
A popular counterargument to helping refugees is the U.S. should better focus resources on its own struggling citizens. What do you have to say to this?
It is not right when people say refugees are taking benefits and jobs. I interact with hundreds of employers with thousands of available jobs.
With most jobs, refugees do not even compete with someone for a position. Over 70 million Americans are on benefits and in 2018 only 22,000 refugees were admitted to the country.
Most only have it for several months before working.
What misconceptions are there about refugees?
It is not like immigration where someone wants to come to this country. We have been forced. I left everything: my home, my childhood, my memories. I miss it all. There were no more options for us besides to die or leave. We do not want to beg for help; we prefer to live with our dignity. We were thinking about our children to have safer lives. Work was part of our life. The benefits we get are for three or four months to help us survive. Back home I had a house, a car and property. My kids could go to the best schools. It was hard to accept a new life here, but we appreciated it.