From the Middle East to the Motor City

More than 500,000 people of Middle Eastern descent live in metro Detroit, and, combined, they generated $36.4 billion in economic activity in 2015. While the road to self-reliance can take years due to language and cultural barriers, the influx of refugees has been a boon to the regional economy.


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Martin manna is the president of both the Chaldean Community foundation and the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce in Bingham Farms.

Just east of the new Chaldean Community Foundation building on 15 Mile Road in Sterling Heights, an aging strip mall that was nearly deserted a couple of years ago is undergoing aneconomic and cultural revival that is transforming Sterling Heights and neighboring communities into the Dearborn of metro Detroit’s far northeast side.

As far back as the 1920s, waves of Lebanese immigrants rebuilt East Dearborn into the largest Middle Eastern enclave in America. More recently, refugees fleeing more than a decade of sectarian violence and civil wars in Iraq and Syria are putting an Arabic and Chaldean face on Sterling Heights, neighboring Madison Heights, Warren, and, to a lesser extent, Troy, the Bloomfield communities, Shelby Township, Macomb Township, and other area neighborhoods.    

Since 1980, the number of people from the Middle East coming to metro Detroit has tripled, and those immigrants now total more than 500,000 people — 350,000 Arab-Americans and 150,000 Chaldeans — accounting for 10 percent of the region’s population. The influx has accelerated since 2008, and has served to repopulate neighborhoods, office centers, and retail establishments affected adversely by the global financial crisis.

As additional refugees arrive, President Obama’s commitment to accept more immigrants from war-torn areas of Iraq and Syria will generate additional economic activity. Still, some are concerned that, as the United States seeks to offer assistance to tens of thousands of people fleeing attacks in the Middle East and northern Africa by ISIS, terrorists might be able to infiltrate our borders.  

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In response, the White House has said all refugees that have applied to enter the United States will be subject to intense and lengthy security background checks. While some argue the addition of foreign citizens takes away from economic opportunities for Americans, Arab and Chaldean-American officials point out that the areas where immigrants have chosen to reside and work in metro Detroit were largely abandoned or deteriorating.

“We grew up as Christians in Baghdad, and when Saddam Hussein came to power, our family had to leave,” says Sam Simon, chairman and CEO of Simon Group Holdings in Taylor, which includes Atlas Oil Co., Atlas Transportation, and Fast Track Ventures, among other companies.

“When my parents and us five kids arrived in Michigan, we stayed in the basement of a church, and the priest said he was going to ask the parishioners to help us out. But my dad said he didn’t want the money, he wanted work. He wanted a job. So he worked at the parish, then got a job in a bakery, and then a gas station, and our family took it from there. Hard work and the kind support of metro Detroiters is the reason for our success.”

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