Iraqi immigrants living their American Dream in Mid-Michigan

Office of Global Michigan celebrates immigrant contributions to state’s success during Welcoming Week, Sept. 13-20

RELEASE DATE: September 21, 2019
CONTACT: Erica Quealy, 517-930-4928

Tarik, Rita and Mary Abbawi

When the Abbawi family left Baghdad, Iraq, they knew their journey to the United States would be a challenge. But their hope for a happier and safer future for their family was worth the risk.

Rita Abbawi’s parents told her and her three siblings they were moving to the United States when she was a teenager.

“As a 15-year-old, I was sad to be leaving my friends and family – I was about to leave my entire life behind,” Rita Abbawi said. “I’m so thankful the school I attended in Baghdad taught English. I wasn’t fluent by any means, but having that background helped me adapt quickly to my new high school in the United States.”

With her parents Tarik and Mary, Rita and her three siblings came to Okemos in 2009 to find stability and build a better future.

“The move here was life-changing,” Tarik Abbawi said. “Our lives completely transformed in good and challenging ways, the ability to live freely and build a hopeful future is beyond incredible.”

Ten years later, the Abbawi family feels they are living the American Dream.

Nearly 3.5 million Americans are of Arab descent live in the United States. While Arab Americans live in all 50 states, two-thirds reside in 10 states – and one-third of them live in California, New York and Michigan, according to the Arab American Chamber of Commerce.

Why Michigan? Rita had family here already. Her grandmother and two aunts had settled in Michigan a few years prior.

Her dad, who was a dentist in Iraq, used that dentistry background to secure a job as a dental technician in East Lansing. But like many skilled professionals who emigrate to the United States, he found it difficult to transfer his experience and credentials from Iraq to Michigan.

Due to credentialing differences in the United States, many immigrants face difficulties transferring their degrees, experiences and skills to continue their careers in this country.

“We support highly-skilled immigrants in Michigan so they can flourish in the professional field they worked so hard to get into,” Office of Global Michigan Director Fayrouz Saad said. “We provide jobseekers with coaching and job search training while also encouraging employers to hire our clients.”

Michigan has more than 705,000 immigrant residents who add social and cultural benefits to our communities and make a strong economic impact statewide – contributing $6.7 billion in taxes and $18.2 billion in spending power.

In the spirit of the Governor’s “home for opportunity” mantra, the newly launched Office of Global Michigan is joining the nation in Welcoming Week, Sept. 13-22, to highlight the contributions immigrant and refugee talent bring to communities across the state.

Michiganders can join the Office of Global Michigan by sharing their personal immigrant and refugee stories and highlight their contributions to their community on social media, adding #WelcomingWeek and #IWelcome.

The site includes downloadable signs and other resources to celebrate the immigrant, refugee and international community.

Visit to learn more about immigrants and the economy.

Learn more about Office of Global Michigan at