Michigan Iraqis in bid to design, build Baghdad neighborhood


With America's military role officially over in Iraq, that country hopes to speed up its transition from "boots to suits." Already, an expanding consortium of Michigan firms is eyeing a potential windfall there. The group 'MICH Development' wants to be the nucleus of a team that would finance and build up to 100,000 housing units near Baghdad; a project valued at $5.5 billion.

The East Lansing-based initiative is interesting for another reason. It includes an array of Iraqi and Arab Americans from Michigan, especially eager to play a role in the country's reconstruction.

For the first 54 years of his life, Victor Saroki could only imagine Iraq. Mostly from stories of his parents' upbringing there and visits by family members. Finally, four weeks ago, the architect from suburban Detroit stepped onto Iraqi soil for the first time.

"It was pretty exciting," he recalls. "I mean it was amazing. It was somewhat historic for me, you know, to go back."

Saroki was part of a Michigan delegation about to sign an important agreement with Iraqi officials. The deal--coordinated by East Lansing economic developer Prima Civitas--could allow Michigan companies to help build a Baghdad neighborhood from scratch. For Saroki, it was like the completion of a circle that took many decades to draw.

"My father came here in 1929 because he was looking for an opportunity and he came halfway across the world for that opportunity," he explains. "And now his son is going back to Iraq for a similar kind of opportunity, 80, 90 years later."

For someone born in Iraq who emigrated here, the connection is more profound. Jamal Kalabat was a 20-year old Baghdad native when he emigrated to Michigan in the late 70's. He didn't return until after the country's liberation by U.S. forces, 25 years later.

"My memories of Baghdad (were of) a pretty city that I grew up in, a very modern city," he says. "So it was very emotional for me to see the city (destroyed) and a lot of barricades around it. And the buildings are all old and have never been updated."

Today, Kalabat is the successful director of ICON Global Engineering and Architecture in Birmingham, Michigan. As a member of the MICH Development' consortium, the engineer is eyeing projects in neighborhoods he knew well as a youngster.

"All this comes as a memory to me," he explains. "I had many friends who lived in those areas. It is really very encouraging and it makes me happy to see that I could be part of rebuilding this beautiful city of Baghdad."

The return of Michiganians from Iraq back to the Middle East is part of a larger pattern of connectivity that's part of the MICH Development effort. Pat McRae oversees international programs for Prima Civitas.

"I've never seen an effort that has so closely or heavily united all parts of the state," he says.

McRae has spent more than 20 years in international business, working in dozens of countries for the U.S. Department of Commerce and the private sector. The west Michigan native says the project is helping accelerate regionalism here.

"There (are) differences from east to west in the state," he says. "And I think for those of us from the central or (western) parts of the state to start working with that community it's a very unique, very tight, very talented part of our Michigan culture."

It's worth noting the catalyst for 'MICH Development' was Michigan State University engineering grad Dr. Sami Al-Araji. Today, Dr. Sami,' as he's known, is in charge of attracting investment to Iraq. 'MICH Development' is one of fewer than a dozen such coalitions who've made it to this phase.

Fay Beydoun, head of the Arab-American Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn says an established link between the Middle East and Michigan's universities is playing a role in advancing that part of the world.

"Numerous ministers and people in high-level positions throughout the Middle East have attended Michigan universities," she says. "And they're more eager to work with us and to help us."

Beydoun makes clear 'MICH Development' is open to all firms in the state that could play a role. For now, its focus is on finance and construction-related firms. She says 'MICH Development' will likely be a template for other international development projects in the future. The consortium will update Iraqi authorities on the tentative list of participants within 60 days.