students at St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic
Church in Troy sing Palm Sunday hymns that
they learned in Aramaic. (Gina
Joseph/Digital First Media)
Sameerah Alqas-Hanna feels fortunate.
She and her husband and their six
children fled their home in Iraq in 2014,
heeding their neighbor’s warning that ISIS
They were among the Iraqi refugees who
made it to Michigan before President Donald
Trump’s executive orders in January of 2017
banned arrivals from several Muslim-majority
countries, including their own.
Not everyone was as lucky.
Her parents left with them but gave up.
As with many of the elderly who fled the
Christian village where they lived, near
Mosul in Iraq, her parents could not endure
the conditions of a refugee. At one point,
while in Jordan, they were all living in one
room, unable to work or go to school.
Her husband’s parents also returned from
their village but they have since learned
that his mother passed away and his father
is gravely ill.
Her brother and his family waited too
long to leave. Like many refugees, they are
now living in limbo in Lebanon, praying that
a country – any country – will accept them.
She’s not alone.
Many of Alqas-Hanna’s new friends in her
Troy community are worse off. They’re also
refugees that she’s met through St. Joseph
Chaldean Catholic Church, which is among the
churches sending aid to Christian refugees.
Some are of them are parents who arrived
without their children, or children who
became separated from their parents. Many
refugees are in limbo.
Still, they have faith.
“It’s the one thing that they can always
be assured of – it’s the one thing they all
have in common,” said Sue Kattula, program
manager of behavioral health for the
Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling
Heights, doing her best to be heard over the
noise created by a steady stream of
catechism students entering a hall next to
the church to prepare for their role in a
Palm Sunday Mass.
More than 600 students from
Kindergartners to eighth grade, along with
their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles
and other family members, were in
For Christians, Palm Sunday commemorates
Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem prior to being
put to death. It is tradition for churches
to hand out palm leaves, which is what was
laid in his path. Palm Sunday, also known as
Passion Sunday, is the last Sunday of Lent
and the first day of Holy Week.
“They’re all very excited,” said
Stephanie Bahoura of Sterling Heights, who
was among the catechism teachers corralling
the students into groups.
“I’m excited for them,” she added as two
children ran up to give her a hug. “Each
group will be singing a Palm Sunday hymn
they learned in Aramaic.”
Among her favorites is “Kullokhun Aamme.”
“When I hear that song I can imagine how
exciting it must have been for everyone, the
men and women and children following behind
Jesus as he walked into Jerusalem,” Bahoura
Candice Enochs of Macomb Township and
choir director at St. Joseph’s agreed.
“It’s so beautiful and so energetic. The
elders know it. The kids know it. Everyone
knows it, and when they hear it they get up,
to clap and sing,” Enochs said.
Both of Enochs’ parents, Salah and Amal
Kima, were born in Iraq. Like many of the
elders who recently arrived, they long for
the Easters they once enjoyed.
“Easter brings all of the generations
together,” Enochs said. “I am celebrating
today with my husband and newborn son, and
they are remembering celebrations of the
past. It’s like all the happiness that our
parents felt back home in Iraq, when they
were free to celebrate openly, before the
war and before the killings return.”
Alqas-Hanna was not able to attend
Saturday night’s festivities, but she did
color Easter eggs with her special-needs
son. It was a first for both of them.
“I am very happy for him,” Katulla said,
translating for Alqas-Hanna, whose son has
Down syndrome and did not have access to any
special needs programs in Iraq.
“We probably should have come to America
sooner,” she said to Katulla, who organizes
the events for special needs children hosted
monthly by the Chaldean Community
Foundation. “He loves school. He is learning
a lot of life skills, and when school is
closed he wants to know why.”
He has also learned to sit calmly at the
dinner table, which will be a blessing
shared by everyone in the family on Easter
Sameerah Alqas-Hanna and her family were
among the refugees from Iraq to be relocated
to Troy and Sterling Heights before the end
The Detroit area has a regional tradition
of welcoming immigrants.
In 1994, Michigan ranked 12th among
states as a destination for 2,600 refugees
and 12,700 immigrants. Of those refugees, 73
percent chose to settle in the Detroit area.
In 2014, Michigan rose to third among the 50
states, with 4,600 refugees heading to the
Great Lakes State.
The number of refugee families coming to
Michigan has steadily declined since the
Trump administration heightened U.S.
security due to the terrorist group ISIS and
turmoil in refugee processing countries of
Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
Between Oct. 1, 2017 and March 15, 2018,
only 318 refugees have come to Michigan. Of
those relocating in the state, just 10 have
been from Iraq and Syria.
The decline has been especially hard on
refugee families in Troy and Sterling
Heights, where many Iraqi refugees traveled
ahead of other family members, who are now
trapped in processing countries because of
the cap on admissions and suspension of the
Before the ban, Troy’s five-year average
of refugees settling in the city by this
time of year was about 225. For Sterling
Heights, the average was 170. This year, the
communities have only seen two each.
Alqas-Hanna is praying for the tide to
turn, and that the next wave of refugees
includes her brother, his wife and their