x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Cities of rust: Dearborn, unofficial capital of Arab America

Dearborn, Michigan - a once-proud hub of the auto industry, the unofficial capital of Arab America, and ground zero for the United States' economic meltdown.

The Mas Quran Institute in Detroit. Michigan is home to a large community of Arab-Americans.
The Mas Quran Institute in Detroit. Michigan is home to a large community of Arab-Americans.

The awning of Daifalla Asoufy's office overlooking Dix Avenue in Dearborn, Michigan is crammed with text. Upstairs from a halal grocery and a restaurant called Arabian Village, Asoufy's tax-preparation business jostles for space with the Yemeni Community Center, the headquarters of the Yemeni American Association and even the "Honorary Consulate General of the Republic of Yemen", all in a single suite of sagging wood-panelled rooms.

Apart from the snow, the street scene below could be mistaken for any down-on-its-luck Middle Eastern city: sooty signs in Arabic hawk halal meat, import-export services and cut-rate hookahs. The only gleaming thing is a Western Union, whose presence hints at a more prosperous era on Dix Avenue, the south-eastern border of what was once the largest factory in the world, Ford's River Rouge complex. A city unto itself, River Rouge once employed nearly 100,000 workers; today it employs less than a tenth of this force, but the sulphurous odour of steelmaking still hangs in the air.

Yemenis aren't the only immigrants to have settled in Dearborn in the past century of car-making, but they've made this particularly well-worn entry point to the American dream their own. In the 1970s, driven from their homeland by civil war, they came by the tens of thousands to work in the factories of Detroit's Big Three. Those who landed at Ford, whose headquarters have always been in the Detroit suburb, settled along Dix Avenue, where rows of hastily built factory housing provided easy walking commutes for generations of newcomers whose limited English made it hard to get a drivers' licence.

Asoufy was only 15 when he joined this migration in 1975, leaving behind his son from a failed arranged marriage to his older cousin in the green mountains of Ibb and coming to join his brother in Detroit. Although he already had a man's responsibilities, he was too young to legally work in the assembly lines, so his brother advised him to tell the officials making up his passport that he was 18, the minimum age for a factory job.

It was a white lie that would shield him, 30 years later, from the full impact of the auto industry's collapse: his three-year head start on the assembly line qualified him for early retirement when Chrysler started shedding jobs in 2007. "They gave me $70,000 just to leave, with $3,000 a month pension," he said. "If you have less than 30 years, you don't get this package. They pay you $125,000, and they get rid of you."

The pension allows Asoufy to keep his office - where a Yemeni dagger hangs on the wall next to a picture of Asoufy with Yemen's long-serving president, Ali Abdallah Salih - and continue juggling the many roles advertised on his awning, which include serving as president of the Yemeni American Association. But lately there are fewer and fewer Yemeni-Americans to associate in south-east Michigan: Asoufy estimates that about 10,000 of them have left the state in the last two years; membership in the Association has dropped from 800 to 65.

"They moved to states like Louisiana, Virginia, Texas and Missouri, and they bought businesses there," he said. "In Michigan, you cannot find any store that's not already owned by Arabs. If it's not Yemenis, it's Lebanese. If it's not Lebanese, it's Chaldeans." The story of how Arabs, drawn here by the promise of the auto industry's high-paying, low-skilled factory jobs, went on to take over most of the gas stations, liquor stores and bakeries in south-east Michigan is one of the great American immigrant success stories. The area is estimated to be home to about 450,000 Arab-Americans - the highest concentration in the country; Dearborn, with a population just shy of 100,000, is one-third Arab.

The density of settlement in and around Dearborn has given rise to many of America's most important Arab institutions, including the only Arab-American museum, the oldest and largest Arab-American newspaper, the largest Arab-American human services organisation and the largest mosque. If there is such a thing as "Arab America", in other words, Dearborn may be the closest thing it has to a capital.

But now that capital finds itself at the epicentre of an American recession. Unemployment in Detroit is the highest in the country, just under 30 per cent by labour department statistics but likely closer to 50 per cent, according to the mayor. The once-great car capital of 2.2 million people has withered down to what most people agree is probably around 700,000. Large swathes of the metropolitan area look, according to a cliché that is also a completely accurate description, like they have been bombed.

There is some evidence to suggest that Arabs have not joined this exodus to the extent that their neighbours have - that they are leaving, but more slowly than everyone else. Community leaders say that the family ties that created the Arab enclaves of south-east Michigan will hold them together thought this trial. But the American dream is essentially a chase after economic opportunity, which these days is in short supply in Michigan.

The Arab-American National Museum is located directly across Michigan Avenue from Dearborn City Hall, a stately cupola-topped brick edifice. The museum looks edgy by comparison, with curved surfaces and brightly coloured mosaic tiles that evoke both Islamic design and 1960s modernism. Though the museum was built in 2005, the Sixties vibe is an appropriate one: that was the era, amid the stirrings of pan-Arabism in the Middle East and the civil rights struggle in the United States, in which the new and somewhat artificial notion of "Arab-American" identity first emerged.

The organisation that runs the museum, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (Access), was formed in 1971 to fight plans to demolish hundreds of terraced houses near Dix Avenue to expand River Rouge. The defence of the "community's boundaries", as the historian Karen Rignall has noted, "brought a sense of those boundaries into existence" - and Access grew over the years to become the country's largest Arab organisation. Building an "Arab-American" museum in Dearborn, then, was an assertion of the city's symbolic preeminence.

"When we talked about the idea of the museum, people would tell us, 'You can't build a museum in Dearborn. If you are going to build a museum, it should be in New York or DC'," said Hassan Jaber, the executive director of Access. "But I think it's part of the success of this community that it has understood the role of building institutions." The $16m (Dh59m) museum is undeniably a product of the good times, built with donations from the General Motors and Ford Foundations, as well as from the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Al Maktoum Foundation in Dubai. (A one-metre-tall illuminated model of the Burj al Arab is tucked in the museum's library, as if the curators weren't quite sure what to do with this surplus gesture of generosity.) The museum has a double mission: it serves as a kind of Arab-American hall of fame, celebrating Arab-American success stories as if to demonstrate to ordinary Americans that Arabs are just like them; at the same time, it attempts to forge a coherent Arab-American identity in a single narrative that encompasses 150 years of migration from 22 separate countries.

The first recorded Arab immigrants to the United States arrived from Damascus in 1878; most of the migration in the next four decades consisted of Christians from Lebanon and Syria, many seeking economic opportunities after the collapse of the silk and vineyard industries in Lebanon. But the waves of migrants that followed came under less voluntary terms, fleeing a series of bloody conflicts: Palestinians in 1948; Lebanese and Yemenis in the 1970s; and Iraqis in the 1990s and the 2000s. The museum tells an uplifting tale of entrepreneurship and bootstrapping social mobility, which is certainly part of the story, but as Osama Siblani, one of the museum's most outspoken critics, explains, the real story is more about running from than running to.

"We are here because of wars," he said. Siblani, who left Lebanon in 1976 to study engineering in the US, had a different strategy for turning Dearborn's high concentration of Arabs into national political power. After making his fortune in business, he founded the Arab American News in 1984 in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. "That's when I started really exploring that Arab-Americans should have a role in foreign policy and shaping opinions," he said.

Shortly after, he began appearing on national television as a spokesman for the Arab community; he believes Dearborn had no sense of its own importance as a political hub before he started trumpeting it on the networks. "Every time I do an interview, I say that Dearborn has the largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East, so it has really become a Mecca for the Arabs," he said. "Before, it was a community that was in hiding."

The PR campaign has largely worked, for better or for worse. Journalists flocked to Dearborn in the wake of September 11 to gauge Arab public opinion; politicians visit in search of Arab votes. The CIA even used Dearborn as a kind of focus group to test a campaign designed to recruit Arabic-speaking agents. Siblani believes that Dearborn's "special status" as a centre for Arab-Americans may help it weather the economic storm. "We kind of have our own republic," he said. "We have everything - mosques, churches, funeral homes, hospitals, medical centres - all owned by Arabs." He concluded: "The community does not depend on the auto industry."

One graph on display at the museum shows that immigrants continue to come to Michigan: while migration out of the state has risen - from about 20,000 people in 1990 to more than 100,000 in 2007 - the annual influx of immigrants has held steady at about 20,000. But John O'Reilly, Dearborn's plump and affable mayor, admits that the city's population continues to contract under the strain of Detroit's collapse. "We know it's down, simply because there are vacant houses that people have foreclosed on," he said. Property prices have plummeted, driving down the tax revenues, which in turn affects the funding for public schools in Dearborn, whose school-aged population is 70 per cent Arab. And the area's largely Arab-owned small businesses have been hit by a decline in the number of people coming to work in its factories.

"Ford Motor Company has shrunk its base of people who work in Dearborn by 60,000 or more," he said. "That's like 10 plant closings." Organisations like Access, which offer employment and medical services, have been overwhelmed by local Arab-Americans seeking assistance: traffic at the employment department, which helps people find jobs, has tripled in the past year, according to Jaber; numbers at the health clinic are up 20 per cent. "And these are new types of clients for us," he said. "We used to deal mostly with the lowest income. Now we are seeing people who used to be highly qualified engineers, middle class families who are starting to show up and ask for services."

Imam Hassan Qazwini, the Iraq-born, Iran-trained spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, said that more and more people have been approaching him after prayers seeking help finding employment - though he added that the mosque, perhaps uniquely among the area's Arab institutions, has not suffered in the recession. "In Islam, we are told that when you are in financial distress, give, and God will give you more," he said.

The largest mosque in America, the Islamic Center is a white wedding cake of a building purposely placed between two churches along a rambling stretch of highway that still feels like Midwestern farmland. On the last day of Ashura, one of the most important days in the Shia Muslim calendar, its marble-floored, chandelier-lit halls were packed well past their 3,000-person limit with men in workboots and teenaged girls in hijabs, hoodies, skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors.

"Literally we had 4,000, 5,000 people," Imam Qazwini said. "Barely you could find a foot without stepping on someone." With his black cleric's turban, close-cropped beard and open, scholarly style, Imam Qazwini is a master at charming outsiders - also known as interfaith dialogue - and has managed to work out a deal with the churches next door to take the overflow of cars from the mosque's car park on holidays like these. Since coming to lead the mosque in 1997, he has also worked to downplay the difference between Shias and Sunnis, which helps explain how, during the fundraising campaign to build the $15 million (Dh55.5m) mosque, his largest single donation came from the Sunni Al Maktoum family, rulers of Dubai.

"We are Shia, but we don't pose as Shia, rather as Muslims," he said. "There are differences between Shia and Sunni, we can't ignore that, but in the end we believe we are all Muslims and have more in common than different." Qazwini's impatience with sectarianism appeals to the mosque's young, American-born population whom he began cultivating a decade ago by adding English sermons and a youth programme. He estimates that the number of American-born Muslims attending services has risen from 10 to 50 per cent.

"There is more interest in religion among the youth than the old," he said. "What I like about the youth is, they don't have this cultural baggage. They consider themselves Muslim and that's it." Among the families celebrating Ashura at the Islamic Center that week was that of Lydia Habhab, the slim, pale-eyed daughter of Lebanese immigrants. Born and raised in Dearborn by parents who owned a petrol station, she went on to get a Georgetown graduate degree and a job at the World Bank. As such, she embodies the goal most immigrants have when they buy their one-way tickets to the United States.

But to become that, she had to leave Dearborn - which, for her close-knit, conservative family, was a hard sell. Like many young Muslim women from her background, she faced expectations that she not sleep away from home during college, which meant not attending the University of Michigan's main campus in Ann Arbor. "Their mentality is very conservative, which is why I went to U of M Dearborn, instead of the university of my choice after high school," she said. "And it was very hard for me to go away to Georgetown, because that is unheard of in my family. I'm the only person to have left."

She is lucky that she did. The marketing job she had between college and graduate school disappeared. "My brother works for my dad now because he just can't find anything," she said. "We have a bunch of family friends who just have regular hourly paying jobs. They have their degrees and the internship experience to get them in the door of any job, but people just aren't hiring here." James Zogby, who heads the Arab-American Institute in Washington, told me that on a recent trip to Dearborn he heard families complaining that after they had left everything in the Arab world to try to make a better life in the US, their children were now looking back to the Middle East for jobs because of a lack of them at home. "It's the reversal of the American dream," he said. "It's not just the auto industry... it's also small businesses that have closed."

And yet the scene unfolding behind Habhab and I tells a different kind of story. We are sitting at Shatila Bakery and Cafe on Warren Avenue, the most overtly Arabised of all of Dearborn's streets. The demand for baklava and rosewater-flavoured pastries is so intense that people have to take numbers to place their orders. In an atrium filled with fake palm trees decorated with Christmas lights, men cluster around tables, drinking coffee out of paper cups and arguing in Arabic.

Some of the women behind the counter are make-upless in black hijabs. Others have salon-fresh Beiruti highlights and caked mascara. Near the door, a child-sized Santa in Victorian velvet stands beside a three-metre-tall American flag. Mayor O'Reilly believes this is the kind of place that can save Dearborn. He imagines setting up visitors' centres with tour guides who can lead tourists through the shisha cafes and halal butchers. "It's a matter of creating a tourist-friendly model to increase tourism, because we do have something here, and with a little enhancement, it will be something you are not going to get somewhere else," he said.

No one I met had any better ideas for reviving Michigan's economy. Some pointed to recent efforts to entice the film industry to the city's surplus of space. A few talked about the need to fund entrepreneurship programs at local community colleges. There were various murmurs about alternative energy. "There is no plan," Siblani said. "Michigan is no longer the Michigan that we knew before the breakdown of the auto industry. Right now, Detroit and Michigan is dusting off and trying to let things settle so they can see what's going to happen. It's still not clear."

One thing that seems clear is that Arabs are leaving Detroit more slowly than everybody else. The Lydia Habhabs will probably continue their exodus, but Dearborn will continue to attract new immigrants. When the dust settles, Detroit will undoubtedly be a smaller place. It may very well also be a more Arab one.

Keach Hagey is a staff reporter for The National.