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What explains Michigan's large Arab American community?

Sterling Heights, a city northeast of Detroit.
Why has Michigan—and southeast Michigan in particular—continued to draw so many immigrants from the Arab world, creating one of the largest Arab communities outside the Middle East?

Michigan Radio is launching M I Curious - a news experiment where we investigate questions submitted by the public about our state and its people.

Our first installment of M I Curious originated with Jeff Duncan, a firefighter from Sterling Heights. He submitted this question:

Why is there such a large Arab American community in southeast Michigan?

I looked into why the state has drawn so many immigrants from the Arab world—and why they keep coming. You can listen to the broadcast version of my story below.

It turns out a lot of people were also curious about this question, but what sparked Jeff Duncan’s particular curiosity was his work.

He lives and works as a firefighter in Sterling Heights. That’s Michigan’s fourth largest city. For most of its history, it was a pretty typical white, middle-class Detroit suburb.

But it’s changed in recent years--partly because of an influx of immigrants from the Middle East.

Most of those immigrants are Iraqis--and most are Chaldean, a Catholic sub-group within Iraq’s Christian minority. And they’re a growing, visible presence in the community.

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“[At] The fire station where I work, we service a lot of them,” Jeff Duncan says. “And my wife works at a school where a lot of the kids speak English as a second language.”

Joanna Duncan says that when she started teaching 17 years ago, there were just a handful of students from immigrant families in her class.

“Now I would say that well over half of my class is students that speak another language at home--most of them being from an Arab background,” Joanna says.

But Sterling Heights is just one of the many Arab-American enclaves you can find around Metro Detroit and Michigan. Dearborn may be the largest and best-known, but it’s far from the only one.

Why Michigan?

So why has Michigan—and southeast Michigan in particular—continued to draw so many immigrants from the Arab world, creating one of the largest Arab communities outside the Middle East?

Fortunately, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn holds many of the answers.

Its “Coming to America” exhibit tackles the broad history of Arab immigration over many generations—told largely through personal and family stories, along with artifacts like old passports and some small reminders of home migrants carried with them.

That’s because Arab Americans are a diverse group, hailing from the 22 countries that make up the Arab world. And they don’t share a common backstory.

"Some Arab Americans, like my family, came here in the 1890s from Lebanon. Some families came here from Iraq or Yemen or Palestine maybe a week ago."

“Some Arab Americans, like my family, came here in the 1890s from Lebanon,” says Matthew Jaber Stiffler, the museum’s researcher. “Some families came here from Iraq or Yemen or Palestine maybe a week ago.”

A map of the United States shows where Arab immigrants have clustered over the years. The largest cluster, by far, is in southeast Michigan.

How big is that population, exactly? Stiffler says that’s a really tough question to answer accurately, for a number of reasons.

That’s largely because Arabs have never been counted as a single racial group for demographic purposes. In old immigration records, they’re noted variously as white, Asian, Syriac, and Turkic, among other terms. Now, the U.S. Census counts them as white.

Stiffler says the formal data has long undercounted the Arab-American population by as much as half.

“For instance, if you look at the census data from 2010, it’s going to say that in the state of Michigan there are a few hundred thousand Arab-Americans,” Stiffler says. “We know that that’s wrong. We know that there’s a few hundred thousand just living here in metropolitan Detroit.”

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Stiffler says Arabs started coming to Michigan in the late 19th century. The first wave was made up of mostly Lebanese and Syrian Christians, who worked largely as grocers and peddlers throughout the Midwest.

But Arab immigration really took off at the start of the 20th century, as Detroit’s exploding auto industry drew immigrants from all over the world.

Detroit did draw more Arab immigrants than other big industrial cities of that era. It’s not entirely clear why, but we do have some ideas.

A legend about a meeting with Henry Ford

There’s a legend in the local Yemeni community that Henry Ford once met a Yemeni sailor at port, and told him about auto factory jobs that paid five dollars a day. The sailor spread the word, leading to chain migration from Yemen and other parts of the Middle East.

We don’t know if that chance encounter ever really happened.  But we do know that in the early days, Ford was more willing to hire Arabs than some other immigrants—or African-Americans.

And they did seem to follow Ford. A new Arab community, one that now included many Muslims sprung up around his first factory in Highland Park. In fact, the first purpose-built mosque in the US was located in Highland Park.

But that community only lasted for a few years.

“As Henry Ford then moved, and opened a new factory, the Rouge plant, in Dearborn, the Arab Americans followed him there,” Stiffler says.

Plenty of Arab Americans worked outside the auto industry, though. As Detroit’s population boomed, so did a need for grocery stores. In the 1920s, Arab Americans ran hundreds of them.

Stiffler says that created an enduring—and visible—commercial legacy.

"It's not a stereotype that Arabs own most of the gas stations and liquor stores in metropolitan Detroit. It's just an accurate fact. And that goes back decades and decades to the early Syrian and Lebanese immigrations."

“It’s not a stereotype that Arabs own most of the gas stations and liquor stores in metropolitan Detroit. It’s just an accurate fact,” says Stiffler. “And that goes back decades and decades to the early Syrian and Lebanese immigrations.”

As the auto industry declined after the Second World War, immigrants stopped flocking to Detroit.

But it had already become the center of Arab America. As the Middle East suffered ongoing hardship, people kept leaving—and coming to Michigan. Dearborn remained a particular magnet.

Stiffler says that city really began to take on its distinct flavor in 1975, when civil war broke out in Lebanon.

“At that time, you had a lot of Lebanese Muslims coming from southern Lebanon. Entire families--almost entire villages--would come and re-settle here to Dearborn,” he says.

Today, Dearborn is a unique Arab-American community--both nationally and among the smaller Arab communities scattered around Metro Detroit.

The Dearborn community is overwhelmingly Muslim, and majority Shiite Muslim. Shiites are a minority in the Muslim world. It’s also mostly Lebanese, with smaller pockets of Iraqis, Yemenis, and Palestinians.

Nationally, Arab Americans are roughly half Muslims and half Christians. Metro Detroit also has a number of smaller Arab communities, many of them majority Christian—like the growing Chaldean community in Sterling Heights.

The kind of sectarianism that has gripped the Middle East, and some other Arab communities globally, has never really taken hold in Metro Detroit. Rather, clearer divisions in the Arab American community tend to fall more along class lines and degrees of cultural assimilation.

Those communities aren’t just religiously and ethnically diverse. Some are relatively wealthy and professional; others are predominantly poor and working-class.

Immigration into Michigan today

But since the mid-20th century, conflict in the Middle East has been the main immigration driver. And that’s why Iraqis are flocking here now.

Increasingly, they’re heading to Detroit’s Macomb County suburbs—particularly Warren, Sterling Heights, and adjacent cities.

That was evident on a recent Saturday afternoon, when Warren’s Hamlich Park hosted a picnic for World Refugee Day. English mixed fluidly with Arabic and Chaldean as the largely-Iraqi crowd enjoyed the festivities.

The event was put on by a number of non-profit and religious groups who serve new arrivals from the Middle East.  Metro Detroit has a well-established network of such groups, most of them based in Dearborn.

But many, like the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, have expanded to help the area’s other burgeoning Arab communities.

ACCESS now has a Sterling Heights office. That’s where Awsam Alloos works as helping new arrivals, mostly Iraqis, start their lives in the US.

Alloos came to Michigan from Iraq himself in 2009. He got a special immigrant visa after serving the US military for several years as a translator and cultural interpreter.

He’s largely continued that role in reverse here, as a social worker and now employment coach with the Center for Working Families program.

According to Alloos, learning English is the key to a successful transition. “The main thing that helps people to stand up on their own two feet is the language,” he says.

But migrants also need tutoring in how to navigate the basics of American life—things like establishing credit, opening a bank account, and trying to find a job.

Alloos also tries to help refugees get any government benefits they qualify for. Health care is a particularly important one. Unfortunately, it’s also particularly baffling.

“These people are refugees. They come here, they have health problems, and they have to deal with them,” Alloos says. “There’s a lot of confusion.”

Alloos says that with the right kind of assistance and motivation, most refugees make successful transitions to the US. But even those most eager to embrace American life still yearn for some comforts of the old country.

So as the Iraqi community in Sterling Heights, Warren, and other Macomb County suburbs grows, Alloos says it becomes an even more attractive destination for other refugees—even those who initially settled in other, arguably more prosperous parts of the US.

"When you go somewhere, you need people to talk to. You need to socialize, especially if you're new, and you don't speak the language. This is why you have people coming here."

“When you go somewhere, you need people to talk to. You need to socialize,” Alloos says. “Especially if you’re new, and you don’t speak the language. This is why you have people coming here.”

So in some ways, the story of Arab-American emigration is a unique one. But in one key respect, it’s pretty much the same as nearly every other American immigrant group—the larger a community gets, the more it draws others from the same part of the world.

And that’s particularly true in the case of conflict-driven Arab immigration in the current US immigration system. Since so many people come over with refugee status or on special immigrant visas, they’re often put in the position to act as “sponsors” for other family members or people they know from back home.

And so the chain migration phenomenon repeats itself, with whole families and even small towns relocating from the Middle East to Michigan.

The US opened up 25,000 special visas to people from the Middle East in 2010. The vast majority coming over on those visas are Iraqis, and “most of these people are related somehow to each other,” Alloos says.

Like most people from that part of the world, Alloos is pessimistic about the near-term future of the Middle East. So while the number of immigrants is limited by federal policies, the grim situation in places like Iraq and Syria means people will keep leaving—and many of them will come to Michigan.

Back at home in Sterling Heights, Jeff and Joanna Duncan say that’s just fine.

“I’m sure it will turn out to be a positive, as this place is one big melting pot over here,” Jeff Duncan says. “And there will be some growing pains along the way I’m sure, but nothing we can’t overcome.”

Of course, there are always some challenges when any community assimilates a large group of newcomers.

A number of Arab-owned small businesses have popped up. While this is largely a good thing, there have been some issues with Arabic-only signage and un-permitted businesses running out of people’s garages that city government has had to deal with.

As a firefighter, Jeff has struggled with language and cultural barriers in a number of emergency situations. At school, Joanna and her fellow teachers are constantly experimenting with ways to help refugee kids not only to learn English and catch up academically, but adjust to a radically new way of life.

Both Duncans say kids play a crucial role in bridging cultural gaps—whether it’s translating for their parents, or embracing new arrivals in the classroom.

Joanna Duncan says for the most part, her second graders seem completely unfazed straddling different worlds.

“It’s almost like they don’t even notice it,” Joanna says. “Because it’s so, so, so diverse. There’s so many different languages in our school that it doesn’t really seem to be part of their consciousness.”

Like many immigrant groups, Arab Americans continue to face suspicion and even outright discrimination, especially in the post-9/11 era.

But many people say those issues aren’t so pervasive in southeast Michigan as they are elsewhere—and that’s mostly because of the community’s long, deep roots here.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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