Sterling Heights

Automotive company and Iraqi refugees join forces to fill workplace gaps

When AGS Automotive Systems built a major manufacturing plant in Sterling Heights, they needed to recruit more workers, and fast.


So they took a non-traditional approach to hiring.


In 2013, the company had just purchased and restored a 360,000-square-foot vacant manufacturing facility, leading to the creation of 90 new jobs over a two-year period. So AGS teamed up with local agency Michigan Staffing to recruit Iraqi refugees to fill their rapidly growing workforce. Many of those workers have gone on to become an integral part of the business.


While refugee numbers in Michigan have dramatically dropped this year, at the time the automotive company was hiring in 2013, the number of Iraqi refugees arriving in Michigan was at its highest.


With the help of resettlement organizations like Samaritas (formerly Lutheran Social Services) many refugees have found homes in Sterling Heights and Troy. But finding long-term employment can be a challenge.


In the seven years that they have partnered with AGS through Michigan Staffing, Samaritas vice president Lena Wilson estimates that hundreds of refugees have found employment with the company. Wilson says the major challenges refugees face when seeking work are language barriers and transportation limitations.


In manufacturing, the flexibility of multiple work shifts (so employees might carpool), translation support, competitive wages and the ability to place husband-and-wife teams together creates opportunities for refugees.


Wilson says the Iraqi refugee employees are some of the most dedicated workers a business could hope for.


“Refugees want to succeed, and they will do all it takes to ensure that they are successful and they provide a better life for their families,” Wilson says. “Employers give Samaritas positive feedback on the refugees placed in jobs, and often they come back to hire more because of the good experience and outcomes.”

Jennifer Rizk, human resource manager at AGS, agrees.


“We feel very fortunate that the needs of our organization and the needs of so many people in the community came together at the same time.”

Jennifer Rizk, human resource manager at AGS.


At AGS there were some initial challenges to overcome, not only due to the pace of the automotive business but also from the perspective of bringing different cultures and languages together. Fortunately, several employees are bilingual, and the company offered English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.


Rizk says it took teamwork and cooperation to understand each other’s needs and perspectives, but it was worth it.


“Their success is our success, and we are a better company for their being here.”


Metromode spoke with three AGS employees who found a new home in the company to find out what they faced to get here and how they feel about their work a few years into their new role.

Raad Hakeem, 27, Supervisor


Hakeem remembers learning English from US Army personnel when they came into his family's small grocery store in his hometown in Alqosh, Iraq.


"I would ask them 'hey mister, what is this?', pointing at everything," Hakeem says.


His grandfather used to travel to the US and would tell him stories when he was growing up, but the country was always a far-off dream. “Most of the people in my town were simple farmers,” he says.


Hakeem graduated from high school and was studying at a local college when his family had to flee. He moved to Michigan with his parents and siblings in 2013, after two years in Lebanon, and with his grandfather’s stories fresh in his mind his primary ambition was to own a house. It was a goal he was able to achieve after a few years of permanent employment. He works as a supervisor at AGS’ facility in Sterling Heights and says his team is family to him.


"We all share our food and learn about each other's culture," he says.


Hakeem says language was one of the most significant barriers to moving, explaining that the British English they studied was different from the American English they experienced.

“My co-workers helped me a lot.”

Sally Gomhor Khames, 25, Quality Technician


Khames was in her first year of college when she and her family fled Baghdad. Khames moved with three of her younger siblings and says the language barrier was a huge hurdle.


“I spoke a little bit of English, but I was the only one in my family,” she says.


When she couldn't afford to continue her education here in Michigan, she took a job at McDonald's to help support her family. She joined AGS as a quality technician, working two jobs for several years while her family settled.


“It was a really good start,” she says. “I had a chance to prove myself.”


Khames enjoys the respect for women in the workplace here, and the way she’s been able to make choices for herself and her family. “Now, I trust myself,” she says.


She says AGS is “like family” and talks about the kindness she was shown when she moved.

“I hope all refugees experience the welcome I was given.”

Hayder Al Hadi, 30, Manufacturing Engineer

Al Hadi graduated college and was working in Baghdad before he was forced to leave Iraq. He and his parents, younger brother and his wife spent two years as refugees in Turkey before coming to the U.S.


Hadi says starting all over again in a new country was difficult.


“I was aware of some things,” Hadi says, “but everything here is different.”

He took classes on culture, work life and language to assimilate, but even so, re-establishing himself was a challenge. It was hard finding accommodation in a new country, and wishes there were temporary dwellings available for refugees while they acclimatize to life in Michigan.


"I had my name, but no bank account, no credit score," he says. "I stayed in a motel for 40 days before I could find somewhere to rent."


Through Samaritas he found a job with AGS, starting as a machine operator and working his way up to a role as a manufacturing engineer. Hadi is proud of his accomplishments here in the U.S. and says, as the first job here, he counts his workplace as his home.


“And there’s nothing better than being home.”

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Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at