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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Forging a New Detroit

Christian and Muslim Arab-Americans form a community

On a sunny afternoon in Dearborn, Michigan, the New Yasmeen Bakery is serving its usual fare: sweet and savory pastries, an array of breads and a selection of colorful cakes and cookies. Named after the sweet scent and dazzling beauty of the jasmine flower, New Yasmeen is a family-owned establishment that has become a fixture in Dearborn, the headquarters of the Ford Motor Company and hub of Metro Detroit’s huge Arab-American community.

“It brings everybody together,” says Tarek Seblini, 39, whose Sunni Muslim grandfather first opened a bakery in western Beirut in 1939. “Like the jasmine flower, the aroma attracts people to the food.”

Mr. Seblini and his family came to the United States in 1985, bringing the family business with them.

“Like everybody else, we came here for a better life,” he says. “Back in 1985, Dearborn was just a little town, but now it is a big city.”

The bakery’s success and its subsequent expansion — it is now 20 times its original size — mirror Metro Detroit’s Arab-American community as a whole.

Drawn by the city’s nascent automobile industry, Arabs first settled in the Detroit area in large numbers in the first decades of the 20th century. A steady stream of Arabs continued to arrive, but the most significant wave has occurred in recent decades. Since 1980, the Arab population of metropolitan Detroit has swelled. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 403,445 people in the area identified themselves as Arab or Arab-American, making it the largest concentration of Arabs and Arab-Americans in North America.

In this region, there are four major groups,” explains Warren David, founder and publisher of ArabDetroit.com, an influential online community resource.

“There are Lebanese-Syrian, Iraqi-Chaldean, Palestinian-Jordanian and Yemeni.”

According to the 57-year-old, an Antiochene Orthodox Christian of Syrian and Lebanese heritage, Arab-Americans arrived in three distinct waves, settling in a number of neighborhoods in the Detroit metropolitan area.

“At the turn of the century, it was mostly all Syrian and Lebanese. Henry Ford was offering an unheard of $5 a day to work on the assembly line — that was the attraction,” continues Mr. David, whose grandfather belonged to this first wave, changing the family name when U.S. immigration officials on Ellis Island were unable to transliterate “Daoud Salloum” properly.

“The second wave was the ‘brain drain’ in the 1940’s through the 1960’s — academics who came after World War II seeking an education. They came here to study and many of them stayed.

“The last was the ‘new wave,’ from the late 1960’s until now — those were the people who came here for political reasons: the Lebanese civil war, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Iraqi wars. Either they were displaced by war or they were refugees, victims of political unrest.”

Mr. David’s web site acts as a unifying force among Detroit’s diverse Arab-American population, maintaining an extensive events calendar of upcoming cultural, political and religious gatherings, celebrations, association meetings and festivals. ArabDetroit.com also sponsors events and organizations, such as the Arab American National Museum.

The first museum of its kind in the country, it opened its doors in 2005 and quickly gained international acclaim. Located in the heart of downtown Dearborn, the spacious structure displays a wide variety of artifacts that narrate the Arab and the Arab-American experience and highlights traditions old and new.

Among the museum’s exhibits is a sizable collection of objects associated with distinguished Arab-Americans and their accomplishments. Everything can be found here from the tape recorder used by Dr. Alixa Naff, the first to archive the histories of Arab immigrants in the United States now housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to the script of the last episode of the popular American television series “M*A*S*H*,” which starred Arab-American actor Jamie Farr. The exhibit also includes histories of lesser-known immigrants who braved incredible odds to build new lives for themselves and their families.

The museum is a program of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). Established in Dearborn in 1971, ACCESS provides Arabs and Arab-Americans a host of social services — including health care, employment assistance, job training, immigration and legal services and educational and cultural programs.

Religious diversity is among the most striking features of Detroit’s Arab-American community (and Arab-Americans in general). Christians and Muslims of all stripes have settled in the metropolitan area. And despite their obvious differences, which so often impact their way of life in the Middle East, the region’s Arab-Americans have forged a culturally cohesive community.

Area Christians include Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite Greek, Roman and Syriac Catholics; Antiochene, Coptic and Syriac Orthodox; and Protestants. Muslims include Sunnis, Shiites and Druze, the latter a syncretistic sect drawn from Shiite Islam.

Though a minority in their native Iraq, Chaldeans represent the largest religious group among Detroit’s Arab-Americans. The city is home to 150,000 Chaldeans, perhaps now the largest concentration anywhere in the world. Six Chaldean churches operate in the city’s suburbs of Oak Park, Southfield, Troy and West Bloomfield.

“We consider ourselves a bridge between the old and new culture,” says the Chaldean Catholic bishop, Mar Ibrahim Ibrahim of the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle.

“Every day we receive new immigrants, as well as new generations being born in the United States.”

While the bishop personally believes Chaldeans are not Arabs, but descend from Iraq’s ancient Babylonians, he concedes that the Chaldeans “are very open people. We accept all cultures, faiths and mentalities and maintain good relations with our neighbors and all of the churches, Eastern and Latin.”

Livonia resident Basima Farhat echoes the bishop’s sentiments: “We don’t believe in discrimination against any faith.”

The 57-year-old grandmother and entrepreneur also hosts a radio program in Metro Detroit and attends St. Mary’s Church, a large affluent Antiochene Orthodox parish that draws immigrants from Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.

“We are Christians, and our priest, Father George Shalhoub, is a friend to all,” she adds. “He integrates all of the communities through prayer and interfaith associations. He knows that, as human beings, we have to work together not just in faith, but in all areas of life.”

As have many Middle East Christian communities in Detroit, the Antiochene Orthodox Church has also expanded.

“The church and the community have grown up together,” Mrs. Farhat continues.

“The church started in a garage more than two decades ago. But now it is a basilica and the community is as grand as the basilica. It has come together, not only in faith, but in service.

“It was worrisome when we first started — our children were growing apart. Growing up in America is a good thing,” she adds, “but at the same time, it’s important for our children to remember who they are and where they come from.”

Metro Detroit has numerous mosques, including the prominent Islamic Center of America, located in Dearborn. Built in 1963, the mosque is the largest in North America. Its massive golden dome, visible for miles, crowns a sanctuary capable of accommodating some 1,000 people. The center hosts prayer services several times each day. And while its congregation is largely Shiite, the center serves the entire Muslim community. It uses its facilities for weddings, funerals and other major family events.

Among Metro Detroit’s observant Muslim Arab-Americans, traditions run deep. In a number of neighborhoods, boys haul knapsacks over their traditional ankle-length robes (or thobe) while girls adjust their headscarves (or hijab).

Not all members of the region’s Muslim Arab-American community, however, strictly adhere to Islamic traditions.

“The people who were born here are more westernized,” says 42-year-old Ilhan Hussein, an employee at the Mecah Islamic Superstore in downtown Dearborn. The shop specializes in religious items, such as traditional Islamic clothing as well as artwork, furniture and literature reflecting Quranic teachings.

“Some are more traditional and some are not. But they still like to visit the Middle East and know their families — even though their lives are here,” continues Mrs. Hussein, a Shiite who wears a mandil (the Iraqi term for the headscarf).

Mrs. Hussein immigrated to the United States with her husband and daughter in 1997. They settled in Dearborn, where she gave birth to a son. Proud of her heritage and her faith, she believes it is important to dispel stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims all too common in the United States since the attacks on 11 September 2001.

“It’s important to share our culture so we can have peace,” she says. “I want people to know that everything in my culture is good. It’s an old, old culture.”

She loves Dearborn and feels safe practicing her faith without fear of discrimination.

“I feel very strong in my religion and, because my heart is clean, everything is clear. It is very safe and there is peace here, especially in Dearborn.”

Amid the worst recession the state of Michigan has experienced in decades, Dearborn is thriving. According to Warren David, the unity among its Arab-Americans has created a surprisingly stable local economy.

“In 1979, there was nothing here,” explains Mr. David, “and then, in about 10 or 12 years, it became very vital. You come down Warren Avenue [a major thoroughfare] today and you can’t even lease a place. It’s the opposite of what Michigan is right now. Dearborn has its own little isolated economy. People drive here from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois because it is a shopping metropolis for anything Arabic.”

Downtown Dearborn begins at the eastern extreme of Michigan Avenue, which also serves as a line of demarcation from inner-city Detroit. Since the 1960’s, plant closures, racial tensions and subsequent “white flight” have desolated much of Detroit’s center. Extreme poverty, chronic unemployment, political corruption and drug-related crimes beleaguer most of the city’s neighborhoods.

A few minutes’ drive into Dearborn, however, reveals a very different world — one of relative economic stability and affluence. Though parts of downtown Dearborn near Michigan Avenue are not without its share of vacant storefronts, the city as a whole is alive with bustling shops, markets, restaurants, medical offices and other businesses, especially to the north along Schaffer and west along Warren avenues.

Many of the businesses cater to Dearborn’s predominantly Arab community, with signs displaying Arabic script and traditional motifs. While a kabob cafe or Middle Eastern restaurant is almost always within sight, pizzerias, Chinese and Thai restaurants and Irish pubs mingle with them — reminders that Dearborn belongs to the larger, multicultural and yet distinctly American metropolitan area of Detroit.

One individual who has witnessed Dearborn’s extraordinary growth is Osama Siblani, founder and publisher of The Arab American News. For the past 25 years, the Dearborn-based newspaper has served as a local and international news source for Arab-Americans, linking them to one another and the entire Arab world. Under Mr. Siblani’s leadership, The Arab American News has also established itself as a leader in reliable and trustworthy news about the Arab world and the issues affecting them.

The 54-year-old Shiite left his native Lebanon and followed his brother to the United States in 1976. After earning a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Detroit Mercy, Mr. Siblani worked in international trade, rising to the position of vice president of a major international energy company. He decided to leave the business world and launch the newspaper after returning to Lebanon for a visit and narrowly escaping the Israeli bombing of Beirut in 1982.

“My plane was the last one to leave the airport,” says Mr. Siblani. “I could see the Israeli planes bombing the city as I left. When I got home, I kept waiting for someone in the United States to bring the Arab perspective on what was going on, but it never happened. The [Arab-American] community was going into hiding. They were changing their names and assimilating. I wanted to bring them out of hiding; I wanted to bring them together.”

Mr. Siblani is a pillar of the Arab-American community and a distinguished spokesperson and advocate of its “culture, causes and religions.” He has been featured in Time and Newsweek and has appeared as a guest on some of the major television networks’ most popular news programs, such as “Larry King Live” and “The O’Reilly Factor.’

When the attacks of 11 September happened, Mr. Siblani’s role as community leader took on a completely unanticipated dimension.

“As Americans, we were shocked by what happened on 9/11,” he says. “Then, while we were trying to mourn — and being scared by what happened — we were hit again by association. Our women were harassed, our children were spit on. It was not an easy situation for us as Americans or as Arab-Americans. Our community became more and more skeptical. I am an American, but suddenly, people had to distinguish between Osama Siblani and Osama Bin Laden.”

Mr. Siblani and other Arab-American leaders pressed other Arab-Americans to unite and make their voices heard. “I had to address my fellow Arab-Americans and say: ‘Either you can pack it in or you can come forward and claim your place in this community. If you decide to stay, you cannot hide.’

“Today we see our community coming back to life — back to political life and back to life socially. Even though the mistrust and lack of understanding continues it’s not at the level that it was. When we get knocked down, we get up, dust ourselves off and fight back with all of our love and conviction that this is a great country. Like everyone, we love life and we don’t want to live in fear.”

Proud of his U.S. citizenship, Mr. Siblani also urged his fellow Arab-Americans to affirm their love for the United States and to share their rich cultural heritage with their non-Arab compatriots.

“We would like people to know about our great food, our great culture and our generous people,” he continued. “Arab-Americans really love this country. They have invested their lives here. I can tell you right now that, after all of this, I can’t think of a place I would rather be.”

Perhaps, there is no better way to experience the “dream” of so many Arab-American families in Metro Detroit than to stroll through Northville’s annual Lebanese Festival with 22-year-old Liz Kaadou, her sister, Jessica, 26, and their friend Dena McCloud, 24. All Michigan-born Arab-Americans of Lebanese descent, the three young women report that their lives are relatively conventional and on par with their non-Arab peers.

Dressed fashionably, they look as though they could star in any U.S. television series without a hint of their ethnic or religious identities. For these young women, who love shopping, dining out and socializing at clubs, life holds as much promise as it does for any other American young adult. Still, they are undoubtedly very proud of their Arab roots.

“We are very lucky,” says Jessica Kaadou, a Maronite who hails from West Bloomfield — an affluent northern suburb. “We live in an area where the Middle Eastern cultures are so prevalent that we’ve never felt any discrimination anywhere — even when 9/11 occurred.”

Dena McCloud, a Sunni Muslim, believes her family does not experience discrimination because she and her mother “don’t wrap,” meaning they do not wear the hijab.

“There are so many different sects, but in Metro Detroit, we don’t feel the division,” says Liz Kaadou, who is studying journalism.

“We are all one. We’re proud to be Lebanese and to celebrate the culture together.”

Not far away, Mustafa Dakroub is cooking lamb kafta and chicken tawook on a large grill for the festival crowd. Mr. Dakroub, who left Lebanon for the United States at the age of 14, stresses the importance for Arab-Americans to preserve their heritage.

“It is important to bring awareness of our culture and our people to America,” he says. “We want to break down stereotypes. In our culture, respect is number one.”

Basima Farhat agrees: “I believe ‘tolerance’ is a poor word these days. ‘Respect’ is more accurate. Even if I can’t tolerate your differences, I must respect you as a child of God and a citizen of this world.”

Lori Quatro is a Detroit-based writer. Fabrizio Costantini’s work appear in many publications, including The New York Times.

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