Detroit’s Arab Americans
The Detroit region is the place where the Middle East and the midwest come together. For decades immigrants from the Arab world have made this area their home. They’ve worked, prayed and played here. They’ve felt at home in the community and extended a welcome to others.
How did metro Detroit become the center of the Arab American world? It’s a story that began as it did for many other groups.
Dr. Carl Karoub is third generation Lebanese. His family came to America at the beginning of the 20th century. Dr. Karoub says his grandfather came in April 1912 — the exact time as the Titanic. His family was part of the first wave of Arab immigrants.
The first Arabs to come to America in large numbers were mainly single Lebanese men. Most were Christian.
Many, like Dr. Karoub’s grandfather, came to Highland Park to work at Ford for $5 a day. Hussein Karoub was the first Muslim Imam in the United States, and built the nation’s first mosque just blocks from the Ford plant.
When Ford moved from Highland Park to Dearborn so did many of the Arab immigrants. Newcomers from the middle east also settled near the Dearborn plant.
Kim Schopmeyer, Associate Dean of Social Science at Henry Ford Community College, explained that people coming to the United States usually try to find an area that is hospitable — where the culture is already established, the religious community is established and family networks are already in place.
In 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Quota Act which dramatically cut the number of Arabs, and other immigrants, allowed in the country.
Meanwhile, immigrants like the Karoubs began to assimilate.
Eventually, Dr. Karoub’s father — also a Muslim Imam — married his mother, a Lebanese Christian. Dr. Karoub says that’s what Detroit is all about , “An Arab father, a Christian mother and Jewish in-laws.”
In 1965 there were changes in the immigration laws that made it easier for family unification to take place. The second wave of Arab immigration began. People came from Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Yemen.
The Arab and American communities are incredibly diverse. Arabs come from 22 countries in north Africa and west Asia.
Devon Akmon, Deputy Director of the Arab American National Museum, told us, “Arabs share a common language, which is one of the most common and most important characteristics.” They also have a shared culture in a lot of ways.
The third wave of Arab immigration began in the 1980s when war and political unrest brought more people to the U.S. from Lebanon and Iraq. Those people were much more likely to be Muslim.
For many Arab Americans, particularly in our area, life was good.
Then — September 11, 2001.
According to Nabeel Abraham, Instructor of Middle East anthropology at Henry Ford Community College and editor of Arab Detroit 9/11, “People were on edge and I think it was at that point that it was very hard for Arabs and Arab Americans who had been assimilating.”
There were violent attacks against Arabs across the nation. In some cases people were killed because attackers merely thought they were Arab or Muslim.
Abraham said, “The irony is Dearborn and Detroit, having the largest concentration of Arabs and Muslims had no fatalities.” But he added, “Being an Arab American or Iraqi American or Lebanese American suddenly became a difficult thing. A tightrope to walk. People responded with outward displays of loyalty — wearing flags, putting flags on your businesses, doing things to prove their loyalty to the neighbors, to co-workers, to society at large.
Donations to charities in the middle east were suddenly suspect. So charity was diverted to institutions here. Mosques were built and institutions like the Arab American National Museum were opened.
The museum, with its exhibits and community activities, gives Detroiters an even better glimpse into Arab American life.
“What we’re trying to do is dispel stereotypes about our community, trying to preserve its history and involve the community in telling its story,” Akmon says.
Meanwhile, Dr. Karoub says he never felt any fallout from the 9/11 attacks. “Detroiters are much more exposed and experiences with different cultures and we have that advantage over any other place in the country.”
Sally Howell, one of the editors of “Arab Detroit 9/11 was a guest on Action News At 7 pm.
Click here to learn more about the Arab American National Museum.
Click here for more information on the book Arab Detroit 9/11.
Click here to read about the community group, ACCESS.