> Building an Arab-American Community in Dearborn

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Building an Arab-American Community in Dearborn

In April of 1997, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) held its 26th annual dinner at Cobo Hall, in downtown Detroit. In many ways the dinner was like any other fundraising event for a community organization: speeches from prominent figures about the importance of community activism, expressions of appreciation from ACCESS leadership about the consistent support of the corporate community, and testimonials about the positive impact of ACCESS programs on the low income populations of southeast Michigan. In an important way, however, the dinner also represented a landmark for the Arab American community: over 3,000 people were in attendance, with both of Michigan’s U.S. senators, Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, representatives of the governor, and top executives of the "Big Three" auto companies lending political prominence to the event. This kind of political recognition of Arab Americans represents for many in the community one of the hardest-won achievements of decades of activism. From a largely invisible minority that at the turn of this century sought to assimilate by Americanizing its names, language and traditions, Arab Americans have moved towards a more public affirmation of cultural difference as a way of combating the kind of discrimination and economic hardship that has marked immigration to the United States.

There are an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Arabs and Chaldeans (a Christian ethnic group from Iraq) in southeast Michigan. Virtually all nationalities and ethnicities from the Middle East are represented — Lebanese, Yemenis, Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians, and since the Gulf War, an increasing number of Iraqis. There has been a steady stream of immigrants to the Detroit area for over a hundred years, and each wave of arrivals adds another layer to the rich history of this heterogeneous community. Arab immigrants hope Dearborn will offer chances of finding work. They also look to Dearborn for the social networks, mosques and churches where they may pray in a familiar manner, stores where they may buy the clothes they prefer and the foods they grew up with: in sum, a cultural milieu that dulls the edges of the experience of dislocation and adjustment.

Traditionally, however, this concentration of Arabs in southeast Michigan has not translated into either political power or a cohesive social community. Here I will focus on the organization ACCESS and its efforts to provide a structure in which the Arab population in Dearborn can find solidarity and economic security amid the challenges of immigration. ACCESS offers an entree to the story of Arab American political and community organizing.

At the same time, setting the history of ACCESS against the broader social and historical background of immigrant experiences in the U.S. during a period of backlash against immigrants and the poor offers a fuller understanding of the shifting landscape of contemporary immigrant communities in Dearborn. In the past two years, major legislative initiatives have drawn attention to a rising cultural nationalism that finds expression in increased hostility to immigrants; Proposition 187 in California, the Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996, and the Immigration Reform Law of 1997 are the primary examples of a deepening tendency towards exclusion in American society. The experience of the Arab American community in Dearborn demonstrates how this increased hostility towards immigrants intersects with exclusionary policies against the poor and disadvantaged in American society as a whole.

Considering issues of immigration and poverty together also furthers understanding of how social exclusion develops spatially, and how cultural nationalism establishes boundaries that attempt selectively to exclude ethnic and religious others from crossing U.S. borders. This process of exclusion complements the increasing economic and social isolation of low-income Americans. Boundaries that keep immigrants out of the U.S. are reproduced within the urban landscape, cutting off the poor's access to social services, education, and long-term employment.

Genesis of a Community

Dearborn rests on the southwest edge of Detroit, an industrial zone that once served as the centerpiece of Henry Ford's empire. The Ford Rouge Plant, immortalized in the imposing mural by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts, dominates the landscape of Dearborn's South End. It is a huge complex; there were once over 90,000 workers here, managing each stage of the production process of a car, from the steelworks to the final paint finish. Now only 11,000 workers remain at the Rouge plant, though the expansive factory grounds still serve as a reminder of an earlier period when automobile production was concentrated in large complexes rather than dispersed all over the country and the world. Ford’s world headquarters are still in Dearborn but the company, like its competitors GM and Chrysler, moved factories out into the suburbs, across the nation, and overseas. The presence of the Rouge Plant on the landscape of Dearborn does not fully explain the growth of the Arab population there. In many ways the two are linked, but the history of the Arab American community extends prior to the history of Ford Motor Company: Arabs began to come to southeast Michigan well before the consolidation of the auto industry.

Arabs first arrived in the United States in the 1870s. They were mainly Lebanese, or more precisely from the area of Mount Lebanon in the Ottoman province of Syria which would become independent Lebanon at the close of World War II. The Lebanese diaspora in West Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Australia tended to focus on commerce, enlisting extended families as the labor necessary for shops and trading concerns. In the U.S. the Arab experience was a bit different: the first Lebanese were single men who traveled around the Midwest with suitcases of notions, dry goods, and other small commodities, moving from farm to farm, town to town, selling their wares. Those who succeeded tended to move into metropolitan areas like Detroit and Chicago and sponsor the immigration of others from their families or villages back in Lebanon. As more and more Lebanese were able to earn enough money to establish general stores, they began to send for their families. This is a familiar immigrant narrative in the U.S., a story of an ethnic group’s establishment in a particular city and neighborhood.

Just as the auto industry transformed the economic landscape of Michigan, it restructured the burgeoning Arab-American community. Since Ford's racist hiring policies generally excluded African-Americans from employment in the auto plants, the marked growth in the industry meant plentiful jobs for new immigrants. Though they received work with Ford and others they still suffered the effects of discrimination in the daily operations of the plants: even today, a disproportionately high percentage of dangerous jobs go to Arab immigrants who do not have the kind of support from the union or informal factory networks that would allow them to demand better positions on the production line.

The development of the auto industry throughout the 20th century also largely explains the spatial makeup of the Dearborn area. The Arab American community gradually concentrated in the Dearborn row houses constructed by Henry Ford, literally in the shadows of the Rouge plant. But it was not only the Arab American community that found relative economic security in the high salaries paid by Henry Ford: up until the 1950s over fifty languages were spoken in the working-class neighborhoods of south and east Dearborn.

Dearborn's South End still looks like a company town, with many of the same houses standing in carefully laid-out grids. But the neighborhood is much smaller, and the air of prosperity has given way to the visible strains of the social and economic problems of Metro Detroit. Now Dearborn's communities are spatially contained, divided between those whose foothold in the middle class enabled them to weather the downturn in the Michigan economy of the late 1970s and 1980s and those who struggle to navigate the complexities of a segmented labor market and a shrinking social-services bureaucracy.

The Arab American community, along with other minorities, has been affected by these changes. Nonetheless, Dearborn has assumed a cultural importance independent of the auto industry. With increasing waves of Lebanese arriving with the onset of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Dearborn emerged as a center for Lebanese and Arab migration. Family histories and genealogies placed Dearborn alongside Jerusalem or Beirut, as the Arabs that followed the initial influx of merchant Lebanese faced the harsh realities of diaspora. Most of the post-World War II immigrants from the Middle East fled war and severe economic deprivation; this was the case of Palestinians arriving after the creation of Israel in 1948, and a new surge of Lebanese in the wake of the 1970s civil war and the 1981 Israeli invasion.

Class and Suburbia in the Arab American Community

The social life of Arab Dearborn shifts with both the vagaries of the southeast Michigan labor market and the political and economic landscape of natal towns in the Middle East. Rifts within the heterogeneous Arab American community also shape life in Dearborn, though these divisions are not those of Middle East antagonisms rewritten in concentrated form on the geography of Dearborn. For example, Lebanon has been one of the most troubled sites for sectarian divisions in the Arab world, but sectarianism never really took hold in southeast Michigan with the same virulence it did in Lebanon during the civil war. Though relations between Christians and Muslims ebbed and flowed with the various stages of the war in Lebanon, most of those who escaped the war tried actively to leave behind the political and communal differences that had caused so much turmoil. Rather, clearer divisions in the Arab American community exist along class lines and degrees of cultural assimilation.

The earliest immigrants placed great emphasis on blending into what they perceived as mainstream American culture. Generally few in number, they tended to establish roots in Anglo-American communities, often through door-to-door sales. As the community congregated in Dearborn in the post-World War II period, a more cohesive cultural identity developed and more public assertions of Arab heritage were seen in storefronts, social gatherings and religious practice. Store signs, for instance, displayed Arab names rather than anglicized versions and families took religious observance from the home into public places of worship. Gradually, the social stigma felt by many Arab Americans of "being different" gave way to more public and political assertions of a specifically Arab American identity in the 1970s.

As the Michigan Arab population, still mostly Lebanese until World War II, became established economically, the more prosperous joined the stream of Detroit and Dearborn residents moving to the growing suburbs. Dearborn became progressively more important as a staging area where new immigrants could learn English, assimilate to an Arabized American culture, and if they succeeded, follow their predecessors into wealthier communities. But a fair number of Dearborn’s old Arab families remained, and provided the basis for a developing sense of community among new immigrants and old residents.

Arab American Political Organization in Dearborn

In the 1970s, a challenge to the very existence of the Arab American community in Dearborn resulted in heightened political activism over the course of the next three decades. This challenge arose during the oil crisis of that decade and U.S. foreign-policy reactions to it (especially in the Middle East), the shift in automobile production away from Michigan, and the changing spatial politics of Detroit in the aftermath of the uprising of 1967.

In the early part of the decade Dearborn mayor Orville Hubbard, then near the end of his 35-year tenure, embarked on an ‘urban renewal’ project that promised to turn Dearborn’s south end into an industrial zone, extending the already expansive perimeters of the steel and auto plants into the very neighborhoods that supplied their labor. Over 250 homes were destroyed, along with stores, clubs, and churches, before activists in the community were able to organize a defense of the community’s boundaries.

The economic situation of most of the affected families was precarious, with few options for affordable housing near their places of work. A court case ensued, and an injunction halted the bulldozing and the industrial-park project. The effects were long-lasting, both instilling fear of future neighborhood destruction and compelling stronger political organization to preempt such threats to the community.

The Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) was the outcome of this early struggle. The mobilization that took place around the industrial-park project also raised awareness among local activists of the long-term needs of newly arrived Arab-Americans. In the absence of social services that met these needs, ACCESS initially offered English classes and drop-in services aimed at helping with essential tasks for establishing a life in Dearborn, including social security forms, welfare assistance, and dealing with employers. From this modest beginning, ACCESS grew to become a comprehensive social-services agency, with over 100 employees and 42 programs ranging from English classes, health care, and counseling to employment services amd cultural programming.

In contrast to its predecessors in the Arab American community organized along lines of religion or geography, ACCESS offered non-sectarian social services that proved a catalyst for bringing the specific needs of the Arab American population to the forefront of local and regional politics. ACCESS now stands alongside the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Arab-American Institute as one of the nation’s premier advocacy groups. Though ACCESS social services programming is focused exclusively on Southeast Michigan, Ismail Ahmed — the director — and other ACCESS leaders have been heavily involved in lobbying at the national level for immigrant rights and the maintenance of federally-funded social programs. Important multiethnic coalitions have grown up around such advocacy efforts. These developments have not erased differences that cut across this heterogeneous population — no one would assert that they were intended to do that — but they have managed to give Arab-Americans a more public political presence. This has helped Dearborn residents begin to challenge the structural problems affecting the most disadvantaged and marginalized in the community.

Nonetheless, the forces shaping the economic and social geography of Dearborn are often overwhelming. The downturn of the auto industry in the 1980s rippled through Dearborn with a strength far outstripping the resources of a community organization. Currently, with a shift in the demography of recent immigrants, ACCESS faces urgent new challenges from unemployment rates that can run as high as 40 percent in the Arab American community, even amid the upturn in Michigan’s economy. There are few job prospects for those who are largely poor and unskilled, have limited English proficiency, are often illiterate even in Arabic. In addition, a large percentage of women are not in the work force and face acute barriers to entering it: among recent immigrants, even fewer women speak English or are able to read or write. Cultural concerns regarding jobs that would require a public presence close off many options for Arab-American women.

This population of hard-to-employ Arab Americans, composed of largely Iraqi refugees with a short history of immigration to the U.S. and little access to the networks that aided earlier Lebanese immigrants, has become increasingly isolated. Organizations such as ACCESS bring these separate groups together through community-provided social services, but this cannot stem increasing impoverishment when the job market places Dearborn on the margins of the regional economy.

When the immigration and welfare ‘reform’ programs were announced in 1996, people seeking ACCESS assistance reached record numbers. They were worried, understanding only the broad outlines of a complicated set of policies hazy even to lawmakers. Broadcasts on Arabic radio attempted to explain the new regulations, but each individual’s case is different and many are simply overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness against these hostile moves by a government that has, ironically enough, allowed them to migrate to the U.S.

New Challenges

Since the Gulf War the Detroit area has served as the point of entry into the U.S. for over 3,000 Iraqis a year. They are largely refugees from the violence and fraught politics of the region; many have spent the last five years moving from one camp to another, from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to the U.S. At the same time, the number of English classes offered at ACCESS, the only such provider for Arab Americans, have been cutback in half. Combined with the elimination of public assistance for non-citizens, and the unlikelihood that they find a job soon after arriving in the area, the Iraqis’ invitation into the U.S. may not provide the relief they hope it will. Promised state and federal funds for job training are not adequate for people with limited mobility, little English, and few skills.

Unlike the period of crisis faced by the community in the 1970s, the current situation is marked by some key ironies. As Arab Americans becomes progressively more vocal in local and state politics and prominent politicians begin to pay greater attention to this growing constituency, the newest and most marginalized additions to the Arab American population are further isolated by policies directed primarily by the federal government.

by Karen Rignall

Karen Rignall is a graduate student in the interdepartmental program in Anthropology and History. She will do her field research on urbanization and urban planning in colonial Morocco. For the past year she has been working for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, Michigan.

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