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How Metro Detroit Is Helping To Rebuild Iraq

The Iraqi Connection Photo by Dave Lewinski
The Iraqi Connection Photo by Dave Lewinski
The last 40 years have wreaked havoc on the infrastructure in The Republic of Iraq. They haven't, incidentally, been so kind to Metro Detroit either. That's not the only correlation between these two areas of the world: now that the newly democratic nation is ready to rebuild, Iraq is looking to Southeast Michigan to help make it happen.

"There is an Iraq-Detroit connection," says Victor Saroki of Victor Saroki & Associates Architects out of Birmingham. Saroki, an Iraqi American himself, is part of a consortium of Michigan businesses that has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Investment Commission of Iraq to construct a $5.5 billion urban development on the outskirts of Baghdad.

"There are a lot of Iraqis here," Saroki says. "When we tell Iraqis that we're from Detroit, they view it like a sister city. Many of them have been here, or they have family in Detroit."

And it's true. In 2011, the Arab American Institute Foundation estimated that more than 500,000 people of Arabic-speaking ancestry live in Michigan, with 80 percent of that population in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties. Iraqi Americans make up a significant portion of that population.

Cultural ties aside, it turns out Michigan is ideally suited to assist with the rebuilding of this war-ravaged country. As a state with a history of building things, Michigan has the skills and infrastructure to partner with Iraq.

"With the resources we have here in Michigan," says Saroki, "from architecture, engineering, construction and materials, we're suited just right for this. We want to use a lot of Michigan materials and supplies."

Though Saroki and his colleagues have been working to assemble this deal for some time, not all the feedback they've heard stateside has been positive. Doubters will, and have, asked the seemingly obvious question.

"The largest misconception with this project are the people who ask, ‘why isn't this group going into help rebuild Detroit, or help rebuild Flint," says Tremaine Phillips, chief program officer for the Prima Civitas Foundation, the East Lansing-based economic development non-profit that has been instrumental in brokering the deal. "The reason why many of these business are struggling right now is because the lack of demand for housing and infrastructure here."

Iraq is flush with demand. Detroit's needs are very different.

"This provides a great opportunity for Michigan to be part of the rebuilding of a country that has an incredible amount of need for infrastructure so the people can live normal lives," says Sean Kelly of Mannik and Smith Group, an engineering firm involved with the Iraq project. "There is a desperate shortage of housing in the country."

"Most countries like Iraq who would like to do rebuilding," adds Saroki, "they don't have the resources to do it. Iraq does."

As connecting supply with demand is the cornerstone of economic success, it turns out Michigan isn't only key to Iraq's recovery, but the rebuilding of Iraq has the potential to play a significant role in Michigan's economic recovery as well.

"It's a very noble cause, and it's excellent that we're able to assist Iraq," says Phillips. "But if it wasn't about getting jobs back to Michigan, we wouldn't be playing in this space."

That is exactly what the Prima Civitas Foundation does. In late 2009, PCF was approached by Dr. Sami Al-Araji, chair of the Iraq National Investment Commission and Michigan State University alumnus. Because of his ties to the state, he wanted Michigan to benefit from the incredible economic opportunities he was overseeing in Iraq. He and PCF began to build MICH Development, a group of public and private partners with a goal to meet Iraq's redevelopment needs using Michigan talent.

Because of Michigan's deep ties to Iraq, it wasn't surprising for PCF to learn that a group of Southeast Michigan businesses were already circling their wagons around the opportunity to be a part of rebuilding the nation. Iraqi American engineer Jamal Kalabat had already begun to collaborate with Saroki and a number of Michigan firms, including  Detroit-based Albert Kahn Associates, to create ICON Global Architecture Engineering with an eye on redeveloping Iraq. Once ICON and MICH Development began working together, things really started happening.

The team has been in on meetings in Washington D.C. with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and attended a week-long visit to Baghdad with Al-Araji. The consortium now has a signed memorandum of understanding to construct $5.5 billion in housing, schools, commercial, recreational and civic buildings on a 15 to 20-square mile site near Baghdad.

"It's going to create thousands of jobs in the Detroit area and throughout Michigan," says Saroki. "These projects are huge; they're immense. This includes 100,000 housing units, roads and bridges. The fact that a lot of money and resources are coming here is going to help our region and our state."

MICH Development is now working on getting the financing in place to move this incredibly large project forward. According to Saroki, once work begins, the project could continue for up to a decade, creating jobs and opportunities locally for just as long -- possibly even longer.

"There is a lot of work to be done," he says. "We're just at the doorstep of it all. Nothing has been built there in 40 years. They have three to four families living in the same homes. Young people want to start their own families, have their own homes. Everyone wants modern, state of the art, healthy cities that are livable, walkable. They look at our cities in the U.S., and that is what they want."

Though $5.5 billion may seem like a plenty big project to keep Southeast Michigan firms busy in Iraq for the foreseeable future, both ICON and the economic development minds over at PCF view it as a jumping off point. ICON has already begun to work with the Investment Commission of Iraq on a sports stadium project, and PCF is busy reaching out to bring even more Michigan businesses and organizations into the fold.

"We have to have the people ready to work on this project," says PCF's Phillips. "MSU and Lansing Community College have stepped forward to say they want to be involved in training the employees to make it happen."

And, obviously, Michigan's connection to the Middle East is broader than just The Republic of Iraq. Since the advent of the Arab Spring, the need for rebuilding in the region is growing.

"This is a model we can see being replicated in many places around the world," says Phillips. "We continue to establish relationships with a number of countries throughout the region, and we see our focus in the Middle East. There is huge potential for growth there."

Which means, if MICH Development and ICON get their way, there is a huge potential for economic growth in Michigan as well. With partnerships like the one underway it's hard to believe that there could be even more upsides to the deal. But as Kelley points out, with redevelopment comes economic stability, and with economic stability comes peace. Michigan and Iraq may be working together for their own mutual benefit, but the whole world could be impacted by the results.

"A safe and thriving Iraq is good for the world," Kelley says. "We're just engineers and architects, but when you create a stable, thriving society that sees the world through a 21st-century lens, all of a sudden you're helping people who want to contribute to a better world."

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.
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