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Arab Americans: The promise, not the problem, of Dearborn

Dr. James J. Zogby

There are many stories that will be written about the meaning of the 2021 elections, but for me the most important news was Abdullah Hammoud’s victory as the mayor of Dearborn, Michigan. In many ways, that city has played a central role in our work to empower the Arab American community.

Since our entry into politics as an organised constituency in the late 1970s, we have experienced painful instances of rejection and exclusion. In 1983, a candidate for mayor in Philadelphia attended a fundraiser hosted by Arab Americans. After being challenged by his opponent for “taking Arab money,” he returned the donations. Others, when challenged, purged their campaigns of Arab-American staff or outright shunned the community.

Then, in 1984, along came Reverend Jesse Jackson and his history-making campaign for president. His presidential effort was the first national effort to welcome the Arab-American community into his coalition. The response was overwhelming. Excited by Jackson’s recognition and respect, our community turned out in large numbers for his events across the country. And Dearborn was no exception.

After the election, we realised the importance of building on this experience and created the Arab American Institute to continue the momentum created by the 1984 election. We committed ourselves to increasing Arab-American voter registration and getting more Arab Americans to run for office. While we were initially focused on preparing for the 1988 presidential contests, something happened after our founding meeting in early 1985 that caused us to refocus our efforts.

A young Arab-American woman from Dearborn, who had been at that founding event, called our office with the news that a long-shot candidate in that year’s Dearborn mayoral race had sent a tabloid mailer to every home in the city saying: Let’s talk about the “Arab Problem.” The “problem,” as he described it, was that there were too many of them, and they didn’t speak our language, share our values, and were “ruining our darned good way of life.” His racist-speak worked and he won.

Dearborn is a small city adjacent to Detroit. Back in the 1980s, it had a population of around 90,000. It was home to one of Ford Motor Company’s major plants. Designed by Henry Ford early in the 20th century, the city was closely tied to the car industry. Workers and their families lived among and close to the factory and steel plants on the eastern side of the city, while the more upscale west was home to management and white-collar employees. Because Ford was a confirmed racist, in addition to separating his workforce, no Blacks or Jews were allowed in the community.

Over the years, new immigrants would arrive in Dearborn attracted by the prospects of employment at Ford. As they settled, they replaced those who had come before and had since moved up the ladder of social and economic mobility.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Arabs were the new immigrants (many having left Lebanon during its civil war, with especially large numbers from South Lebanon arriving after Israel’s invasion and occupation). Thus, it might not have been unexpected that a candidate would make a racist appeal against the “newcomers.” Expected, but still shocking and painful.

I flew to Dearborn the day after news of the hurtful tabloid and spoke to a large community gathering. I’ll never forget the pained look of rejection on their faces. And so, I told them “You are not the problem of Dearborn—you are its promise and its future.”

We learned that because the community was so new and their voter registration was low, the mayoral candidate had sensed that they were an easy target. Working with several great local community groups, we hired staff and put resources into voter registration and mobilisation efforts.

Four years later, the woman who had called our office to report on the tabloid, Suzanne Sareini, was elected to the city council—the first Arab American elected in the city. Ten years after that, with Arab-American voters numbering over 7,000, that same mayor spoke at one of our events. He began his remarks in Arabic and gave me the symbolic “Key to the City.”

At a Dearborn event we hosted in 2003, every Democrat running for president made an appearance. And by 2013, the president and the majority of the City Council were Arab Americans. And now, Dearborn, with Arab Americans making up the majority of its residents, has its first Arab-American mayor.

Abdullah Hammoud is a classic American story. His parents are immigrants from Lebanon. His father was a truck driver. His mother ran a small business. Abdullah, who holds two master’s degrees, was elected a state representative in 2017 and again in 2019—the first Arab American to represent Dearborn in the Michigan legislature. Although his opponent tried to bait him during the campaign suggesting that Abdullah was running to represent “his community” while he was running to represent all of Dearborn, Abdullah stayed positive and focused on the city’s needs.

In addition to winning the mayor’s race, once again four out of seven councilmembers are Arab American, including Suzanne’s son Michael, who was elected president of the Council.

he police chief is Arab American, as are several judges, and all three principals at Dearborn’s public high schools. And the city’s Arab-American business community continues to bring life to the city, contributing to metro Detroit’s overall renewal. It’s important to note that Dearborn Heights also elected an Arab-American mayor, William Bazzi, as did nearby Hamtramck, which elected Amer Ghalib, a Yemeni immigrant and now the first Arab-American mayor of that city.

The Arab-American community has shown that we truly are the “promise” of our cities and states. Ours is a story we all need to be reminded of at times like these.