Detroit state of mind: How refugees are invigorating America’s largest Arab community

Refugees from the Middle East are finding success as business-owners. Stephen Starr meets some pivotal members of this flourishing community

Once renowned in the early 20th century as the global headquarters of the Ford Motor Company, the Detroit suburb of Dearborn is today a very different place. Now, it’s home to the largest mosque in the US and an estimated 45,000-strong Arab community – the biggest anywhere
in America.

Along Michigan Avenue, which runs through the heart of Dearborn, large street signs written in Arabic script advertising eateries such as Mataam Sheeba and Habib’s Cuisine feel right at home. Taking pride of place is the Arab American National Museum at 13624 Michigan Avenue, a tribute to the Arab community’s success and resilience in America.

Nowhere else has the Arab diaspora thrived as they have here in south Detroit. Over the last decade, an estimated 30,000 refugees, the majority from the Middle East, have settled in southeast Michigan. As well as Dearborn, north Detroit suburbs such as Sterling Heights and Troy have welcomed hundreds of new arrivals every year. In 2016 alone, the final year of the Barack Obama ­administration, 4,200 refugees moved to the region.

Inside the Dearborn Fresh Supermarket, a vast food emporium dedicated to Middle Eastern food and products, a Syrian accent can be heard from behind the meat counter, a Lebanese timbre from the coffee stand and ladies speaking with Yemeni accents linger in an aisle stocked with falafel scoops and packets of Argentinian maté.

Here, vendors say the local economy has been booming. Arab families travel here from as far away as southern Ohio and Pennsylvania – a 660-kilometre round trip – to stock up on bulgur cracked wheat, zaatar and variations of coffee labelled ‘Ibn Haziri white’ or ‘Saudi light’, mixed to meet the specific tastes of customers from Aden to Aleppo.

Here, vendors say the local economy has been booming. Arab families travel here from as far away as southern Ohio and Pennsylvania – a 660-kilometre round trip – to stock up on bulgur cracked wheat, zaatar and variations of coffee labelled ‘Ibn Haziri white’ or ‘Saudi light’, mixed to meet the specific tastes of customers from Aden to Aleppo.

“They have different tastes, different ways of cooking and different words for spices,” says Jamal Hashem, whose family runs Hashem’s Roastery & Market from inside the Dearborn Fresh Supermarket, having immigrated from Lebanon in the 1970s. “New customers come to me asking for things I’ve never heard of before. For example, black onion powder for Yemeni customers. They also call cloves ‘screws’ in Arabic because that’s what they look like. I have to learn these new tastes and terms because the same spice mixture in Lebanon and Yemen may have different names and contain different ingredients.”

As Ramadan begins, Detroit’s Arab community is busy holding fundraising iftars, seminars and food events – and Hashem expects his sales to increase. “We sell a lot more spices and fruits, and especially nuts because that’s what people snack on during the night,” he explains. And Dearborn comes alive during the holy month, he adds, as there’s a food festival that goes on every evening between midnight and 4am.

Like Hashem, a number of Syrians who have come to Detroit recently are excelling in their business ventures, especially in the food industry, because, he says, they bring talents – such as methods for barbecuing fish or combining the right amounts of spices to achieve the best flavour – that simply don’t exist in the US. “Anyone who comes to America can make it,” he says. “I’ve seen some of the people who came from Yemen and Syria start with nothing, and now they own their own restaurant chains.” Other start-up business models are popular, too.

Hayal Al Bardan is a carpenter and interior designer from Deraa in southern Syria, who moved to the US through the refugee programme in 2016. He fled Syria, moving to Jordan with his family where they eked out a living for four years. Today, Al Bardan lives in Bloomfield, north of downtown Detroit, and runs a furniture store in Warren, a 30-minute drive from his home where he makes and sells formal Arabian-style sofas, tables and decorations. He says that while he largely avoids news and politics, he's had a very positive experience in America so far, and his wife now enjoys a greater level of freedom than she experienced in Syria or Jordan.

“Life has been better here than I ever expected. Everyone has their homeland, but I feel like this is my country, my second country.”

The roots of Detroit’s Middle Eastern community were planted more than a century ago, when the first Lebanese Maronite and Assyrian immigrants arrived in Dearborn to work in the rapidly expanding motor industry. Migrants, including thousands fleeing the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine, continued to descend on Detroit throughout the 20th century, even as the automotive industry began to slow down in the 1970s.

That’s because, by then, increasing numbers of people were no longer coming for jobs, but were fleeing conflict. From the late 1970s, a new wave of Lebanese migrants landed in Detroit and by the early 21st century, the war in Iraq saw a huge influx of Iraqis arrive. The wars in Yemen and Syria that followed the 2011 ­revolutions have been responsible for the most recent surge in Middle Eastern settlers.

But while the US has proved a welcome source of jobs and a refuge, American military operations in the Middle East have left behind a troubling legacy that trails all the way back to Detroit. “You hear stories of people being stopped at border security – either at the airport or the Canadian border – and being asked an intense amount of questions,” says Rula Aoun, the director of the Dearborn-based Arab-American Civil Rights League (ACRL). For example, two sisters who were returning from Lebanon last year were subject to what they say was “hostile questioning” upon arriving at Detroit’s airport, an experience that left them shaken. “It’s a regular complaint we hear,” Aoun says.

Another major concern for Detroit Arabs, says Aoun, is the fear of being added to the US government’s clandestine ‘no-fly’ and travel watch lists. The no-fly list prevents people suspected of involvement in terrorist-related activities from flying to, from or over US airspace. Maintained by the federal government’s Terrorist Screening Centre, it has been criticised for profiling people of Middle Eastern origin.

“The only way to get off it is to sue the United States government, which our organisation has done,” she says. Nasser Beydoun, the ACRL’s chairman and a US citizen, took out a lawsuit when he was forced to repeatedly miss flights and was humiliated after routinely finding himself subjected to additional security screenings. While Beydoun lost his case in September 2017 when a federal appeals court ruled his constitutional rights were not infringed upon, the businessman claims he has not faced the same level of scrutiny since.

For Al Bardan, he says his biggest issues now are the language barrier and getting access to more capital to grow his business. He’s not personally concerned about the Trump administration’s controversial policies, such as the travel ban, but he has plenty of friends who are. Perspective is everything, he says.

“It’s still too dangerous for me and my family to go back to Syria. Right now, I’m totally happy here. I’m not thinking about going back at all.”