Once crisis riven, Dearborn is now a US success story

James Zogby says that the city of Dearborn is a model success story for Arab Americans.

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For those of us who have worked with Michigan’s Arab American community during the past three decades, victories in this past week’s municipal elections in Dearborn were more than just big news. They represent vindication and confirmation of our belief in the strength and vitality of the Arab-American community. After this election, the president of Dearborn’s city council will be an Arab American, Susan Dabaja, and, overall, four of the city’s eleven member city council are now of Arab descent. Serving alongside Ms Dabaja will be Michael Sareini (whose mother had been the first Arab American elected to the Dearborn council in 1989), Robert Abraham and David Bazzy.

Around three decades ago, Dearborn was a different story.

Back in 1985, a group of Arab Americans called me to come to Dearborn to help out. The Arab community, they said, was in shock.

An individual running for mayor in that year’s election had just sent a leaflet to every household in the city that had the -headline “Let’s Talk about ... the Arab Problem” writ large across its front page.

Using inflammatory language, the leaflet decried the large number of Arab Americans who were moving into the city. He described their “foreign ways”, “foreign language”, and “bad habits” saying that the presence of such a large number of Arabs was “threatening our neighbourhoods, the value of our property, and our darned good way of life”. It was pure manipulation, using fear of the “Arab” to scare the rest of Dearborn to support his candidacy.

I travelled to Dearborn in the midst of this crisis to help deal with the hurt, anger and fear that the mayoral candidate had created among Arab Americans.

On my first night there, I spoke to a large gathering at one of the community centres telling the assembled group that “we are not the ‘problem of Dearborn’, we are the promise of its future – and it is our responsibility to transform ourselves into that promise”.

The next day, we secured Dearborn’s voting lists only to find that while Arab Americans numbered almost 19,000 of the city’s 90,000 residents – only 1,100 of these Arab Americans were registered to vote. In a perverse way, it appeared logical that Arabs would become a convenient scapegoat for a crass and calculating politician – they were a huge presence, but because they weren’t voters they couldn’t help or hurt any candidate for elective office.

It was at that point that a collective effort began to empower the community so they would never be so vulnerable again. During the next decade, we organised registered voters and mobilised community participation in politics. And since then, the progress has been substantial.

In 1988, mobilising thousands of newly registered and energised Arab-American voters, Jesse Jackson won the Michigan Democratic presidential caucuses.

In 1989, Dearborn elected Suzanne Sareini – the first Arab American to serve on the City Council. She continued to win reelection, serving for two decades until her recent retirement.

By 1996, when the number of Dearborn’s Arab-American registered voters had increased to 8,000, the city’s mayor (the same individual who had scapegoated the community in 1985) came to a political event sponsored by the Arab American Institute.

He opened his remarks using a bit of Arabic, quoted the Quran and referred to the community as “my dear brothers and sisters”. And a few years later, when Dearborn erupted in celebratory demonstrations following Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon, a leading participant in the demonstration was that same mayor!

Today, Dearborn stands as a model success story for Arab Americans. Not only are they one-third the city’s population of almost 100,000, they are also one-third of its registered voters. Arab-American businesspeople are providing jobs and growth to the region. The Arab community has built massive social service institutions that serve the needs of tens of thousands of families, Arab and non-Arab alike. The city shares two Congressmen, both extraordinarily responsive to the full range of the community’s foreign and domestic policy concerns. And dozens of Arab Americans hold positions of prominence either as elected or appointed officials.

This election was special. With Arab Americans now holding four of the city council’s seven seats and with the president of the council now being a young smart Arab-American woman, the community is well positioned to become the “promise of the city’s future”.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa