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.”

 

Tania and Batoul Shatila, owners of Shatila, above, along with their sister, Nada, and mother, Zinat, own and operate the bakery, a mainstay in the city for decades. The bakery was founded by their late father, Riad Shatila, in 1979. 

As a small case study of what Middle Eastern Americans have accomplished on a much broader scale, consider that the once-forlorn shopping center at the corner of 15 Mile and Ryan is now vibrant with Chaldean-owned businesses. There are signs with Arabic script on a driving school, a hair salon, a restaurant, a bakery and coffee shop, and a national insurance company’s branch office. 

A brightly lit supermarket with a brick oven baking  fresh Middle Eastern bread and pastries opened late last year. On the outside, another store next to the supermarket resembles any other store in metro Detroit. The interior, however, would be unremarkable in a Damascus suburb. Shelf after shelf along one wall is stacked with displays of Persian rugs and fine fabric window treatments, among many other offerings. As in the other businesses in the shopping center, prices are posted in English and Arabic.

Although the migration of Arabs and Chaldeans to this country dates back to the end of World War I, the recent wars and violence that are wracking the Middle East has added an urgent impetus to the flow of refugees.   

“Of the 500,000 Chaldeans in the United States, 150,000 are now living here in southeast Michigan,” says Martin Manna, president of both the Chaldean Community Foundation and the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce in Bingham Farms. “Since 2007, we have had 30,000 people come from Iraq, Syria, Iran, and parts of Turkey. A majority of those newcomers  are here in Sterling Heights, Warren, and Madison Heights.” 

Although they are from the Middle East, Chaldeans are not Muslim. “Obviously we speak Arabic, too, because we are from the Arab world, but we are indigenous to Iraq and Syria (originally Mesopotamia), and we speak the language of Christ, which is Aramaic,” he says.

Since the chaotic civil war in Syria and the rise of  ISIS, more than 1 million Chaldeans have been displaced from their homes in Iraq and in Syria. Very few of that number have reached this country — approximately 1,500 Syrian refugees have made their way to the United States, with 120 of them coming to Michigan. 

 

 

The recently expanded Chaldean community foundation building in sterling heights offered assistance to nearly 18,000 people last year seeking assimilation essentials including health care, career and immigration services, and housing guidance. 

To meet the demands of an influx of 30,000 Chaldeans, the community center in Sterling Heights that opened last November was expanded to 11,500 square feet from 2,500 square feet. The original facility, which debuted in 2011, was projected to serve 400 people per year. But by 2014, the number of people it served surged to 16,000, while last year, more than 18,000 newcomers came through the doors seeking assimilation essentials including health care, career and immigration services, interpretation of landlord-tenant documents, or insurance forms. In addition, English  language classes are taught four times weekly.

Staff members working out of the center include physicians, lawyers, social workers, counselors, and instructors from Macomb Community College in Warren who teach English and computer skills to the newcomers. “We assist them in every way we can to help them become acculturated and transition them into American life,” Manna says.

Manna proudly points out that the support from the established Chaldean community has the foundation halfway to its goal of raising the $5 million needed to pay off the cost of building the center, and to being able to establish a fund to help find long-term housing solutions for refugees.

That campaign also supports the Chaldean Loan Fund, set up to provide low-interest loans for refugees to purchase motor vehicles, a vital necessity in an area where public transportation is scarce.

While Chaldeans tend to cluster and live near relatives, or close to their churches, it is difficult to establish an official count of the number of residents. “School data, however, shows in some Catholic schools the number of Chaldean students ranges from 30 percent at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Township to 70 percent at Our Lady of Refuge in Orchard Lake Village,” Manna says.

A recent report in The Detroit News, based on U.S. Census Bureau data showed a corridor from Clawson to Troy to Sterling Heights and Shelby Township was the region’s fastest-growing area for foreign-born residents, outpacing perennial leaders Dearborn and Hamtramck. Troy now ranks second to Hamtramck with the highest percentage of foreign-born residents, while Dearborn ranks third, according to the census data.

Still, no city in the region has undergone the population shift that Hamtramck has experienced in recent years. Its early settlers were Polish workers attracted to the area by jobs in the Dodge Main motor vehicle assembly plant, run by John and Horace Dodge, that began operations in the 1920s. Later arrivals were mostly from Eastern Europe.

Today, 43.6 percent of the 22,256 people who reside in Hamtramck are foreign-born, and migrants from Bangladesh have replaced the city’s Polish identity. They make up nearly 40 percent of the foreign population, followed by another 30 percent from Yemen.

 

Fadiya Sarafa, center, and her daughter, Christa Sarafa, and son, Craig Sarafa, own and operate Public Lumber and Millwork Co. in Detroit, established in 1927, and later bought by Fadiya’s late husband and brother-in-law. It is one of the few lumber companies in Detroit, and the only Chaldean-owned lumber company in Detroit.

Along Conant Avenue, where Polish and Eastern European storefronts once flourished, Bangladeshis now operate multiple businesses. Last November, the city dedicated a new honorary name for that stretch, renaming it Bangladesh Avenue.

Another distinction for Hamtramck: It is the first city in America with a Muslim majority city council. In elections held last November, four of the six new council members were Muslim, and three of them drew the most votes.

In the earlier days of migration, the attraction to the region, especially for those coming from the Middle East, was automotive jobs and a close proximity to Canada, as many new arrivals had relatives or family friends living in Windsor. In tandem with the influx, Henry Ford recruited workers from Iraq and Yemen with the lure of his $5-per-day jobs on his assembly line, says Fay Beydoun, executive director of the Arab American Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn.

When Ford opened his Highland Park Assembly Plant in 1910, where millions of Model Ts were produced, workers arriving from faraway lands settled around the manufacturing complex. When the Ford River Rouge Complex was completed in 1928, many workers moved with the plant and settled in Dearborn. The Highland Park facility was eventually closed, and today it serves as a storage complex, with plans for a future museum and tourist attraction.

For the majority of Arab-Americans, the assembly line was a first step on their way to owning their own business. Work on the assembly line was particularly appealing because anyone with basic skills could get a job, even though they couldn’t speak English.

“Their plan was to build the business up and flip it,” Sarafa says. His father, however, bought out his brother, and kept the lumber company. Sarafa says his dad’s decision to switch from working for a boss to owning his own business is a move that most Chaldeans make as they, like other Middle Easterners, tap into a strong entrepreneurial trait. “You have to be born with it; I call it the merchant gene,” he says.Craig Sarafa, who, with his family, owns Public Lumber and Millwork Co. on East Seven Mile Road in Detroit, says his father, Hani Sarafa, followed that route to get into the lumber business. The elder Sarafa was on a fast-track career as an engineer at Ford when he quit the car company in 1976 and, with his brother, Zuhair, bought the lumber yard from the original owners.

While Hani Sarafa earned a master’s in engineering, many of his peers at the Ford plant couldn’t speak English. 

“I asked an old family friend who was well established in business, why did Chaldeans come to Detroit instead of Texas or California or someplace else?” Sarafa says. “He said it was the same reason a lot of other non-English-speaking people came here. They were offering jobs in the auto industry to people who couldn’t speak English. They could work and make a decent salary while learning to speak English. Soon the word got around, and one family member would tell another, and they all came here.” Sarafa, 38, who graduated from the University of Michigan, is now running the company with his mother. His father died in 2012. “It was only natural,” he says. “I’ve been working here since I was 12. I worked on the weekends and during the summer, so it seems like I’ve been here forever.”

While a Chaldean-owned lumber business is unique in Detroit, they are joined in the city by many of their native countrymen. According to data provided by the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce, Chaldean-Americans own 90 percent of the liquor and convenience stores in Detroit, and 75 of 80 supermarkets. Almost as prevalent are Chaldean-owned gas stations in the suburbs.

 

Over time, many Arab and Chaldean-Americans have entered professional services, including the medical and legal industries as well as hospitality (hotels and restaurants), insurance firms, and financial agencies. 

Manna says while more second-generation Chaldeans are more educated than their parents, they still share an entrepreneurial spirit. “It’s no longer a corner grocery store; it’s Plum Market. Instead of a corner gas station, it’s USA 2 Go with a Tim Horton’s or a Subway connected to it, and with multiple locations. It’s not one Sprint store or Metro PCS store, but 230 T-Mobile stores across the country,” he says.

Plum Market, an emerging collection of gourmet markets with locations in Bloomfield Township, West Bloomfield Township, Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Ann Arbor (two stores), and now Chicago, was co-founded by Matt Jonna. Kevin and Mark Denha, along with Saber Ammori, own 230 Wireless Vision stores spread across 13 states, while Akram Namou, president and CEO of A&M Hospitality in Southfield, owns more than 100 hotels and has 10 more projects under development.  

Arkan Jonna, meanwhile — principal of A.F. Jonna Development in Bloomfield Hills — recently acquired the Palladium Building in downtown Birmingham, which is part of some 50 mostly retail developments he oversees in the region. Frank Jonna and his family are leaders in commercial and residential development and construction projects, while Joseph Jonna owns Jonna Luxury Homes in Birmingham and Jonna Facility Services, which provides building maintenance at more than 500 locations in 31 states nationwide.

Syrian refugee Refaai Hamo, left, speaks with case manager/job developer Usama Batarseh at the Arab American and Chaldean Council’s Oakland PATH (Partnership. Accountability. Training. Hope.) Refugee Employment and Training Program in Troy. Hamo fled war-torn Syria where his wife and one daughter were killed in a missile attack. He resettled in Troy with his three surviving daughters and a son in December. He was a guest of first lady Michelle Obama at the 2016 State of the Union address in January. 

For most metro Detroit Middle Eastern refugees, the transition from new arrivals to productive residents and eventual citizenship is still an arduous journey. 

When Gov. Rick Snyder pulled out Michigan’s welcome mat for Syrian refugees late last year following the terrorist attacks in Paris, it touched off a national backlash against Syrians. Local activist immigration leaders like  Haifa Fakhouri, president and CEO of the Arab American and Chaldean Council in Troy, were dismayed by the reaction. She saw the plight of refugees up close during a recent trip to Jordan, where 1.6 million displaced Syrians fled and some 600,000 — mostly women and children — live in primitive conditions in camps. Jordan, she points out, is the same size as Indiana, but is a relatively poor country without the resources or infrastructure to support such an influx of people.

“There are 4,000 children between the ages of 7 and 16, which is a very vulnerable age, who don’t have any parents. They have no names. They (the Jordanians) don’t know who they are, they have no documentation, and their department of social development, which is equal to the Department of Social Services here, is trying to help them,” she says.

 

Teacher Ikhlas Kerma leads a level one English speaking class at the Oakland PATH Refugee Employment and Training Program, where immigrants and refugees learn English for job placement. She has taught at the PATH program for three years. 

The Arab American and Chaldean Council has been settling immigrants and refugees since 1979, and is the area’s  largest such support group. Fakhouri’s 160 employees, many of whom are bilingual or trilingual, include doctors and psychologists who operate 40 outreach centers in the region, including a collection of five buildings along Seven Mile, near John R. Last year, Fakhouri says ACC serviced more than 70,000 people. During an interview on a recent afternoon, three ACC clients talked about their experiences. One was a 50-year-old Iraqi who fled the country after his wife was killed in 2013, leaving him to raise three boys, aged 16, 15, and 11. All would have been prime targets for ISIS recruitment.

The man doesn’t speak English, and with relatives still in Iraq, he didn’t want his name used. He left all his possessions there, and together with his sons he made his way to Turkey, then flew to the U.S. and applied for asylum.

Ghessan Younan, who oversees the ACC’s Pathway program and is assisting the family, says he is trying to get the 50-year-old a job as a cook while working with him on his English lessons. The man’s three sons are enrolled in schools in Sterling Heights. “He is in bad shape, but getting an education for his kids is the most important thing to him,” Younan says.

Another Syrian, a 32-year-old man, holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Damascus. He received a visa to visit the country two years ago, and finally left last year at the insistence of his parents and his sister. Because kidnappings of men his age are a daily threat, he made his way to Dearborn Heights and applied for asylum.

He says the immigration lawyers he spoke to wanted $5,000 to fill out the application, so he did it himself. He believes he may have to wait two to three years for an interview. Without authorization to work, he cannot get a Social Security card or a driver’s license. After the interview with immigration officials, it could take as much as nine months for a decision on his case, he says.

The third ACC client, Dr. Mohammad Adajani, is a Palestinian who earned a doctorate degree in chemistry in Iraq. He moved from Iraq to Malaysia, where he met his American wife. They moved here in 2012. 

Adajani, who speaks English and gained U.S. citizenship last year, says he had a six-month assignment doing cancer research at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, but has been without a job since that program ended. Since then, he has been working on a project aimed at fighting cancer, but he needs grant money or a foundation to sponsor his work.

He continues to seek employment, but is often told he is overqualified. “I have a degree, I have the language, but nothing seems to change,” he says. In Dearborn, Beydoun, executive director of the American Arab Chamber since 2008, says she came to America when she was 6 years old and has played a leadership role in the growth and influence of the Arab population in Dearborn for nearly two decades.

“Back in the ’80s, Warren Avenue was like a ghost town. Most of the buildings were empty,” she says. “Then you saw the influx of Lebanese immigration. As the Italians moved out, the Lebanese moved in, and they revived Warren Avenue and East Dearborn.”

Not only is she involved with the Arab chamber, she also serves as COO at Tejara, a global business development center, and is executive co-chair of the Council of Ethnic Chambers, whose membership includes nine other area chambers representing different nationalities.

“Tejara is an incubator and accelerator that focuses on the ethnic and immigrant communities,” she says. “It works with startups, and works with some of the existing businesses, and it has a strong track of exporting. It allows us to work more with the various ethnic and immigrant communities that still have ties to their respective countries. They already know how business is done in their countries, and they will succeed because of that.”

An example of the work they do is the sale of used cars overseas from Michigan. “The largest numbers of used cars that are shipped overseas come out of the Dearborn area, and they get shipped all over the Middle East, as well as to Africa and Asia,” she says.

Yousif Ghafari, who grew up in a small town in Lebanon with no running water, electricity, or a phone, moved to metro Detroit in 1972 and, soon after, was enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit. Over the course of a decade, the Maronite Catholic earned master’s degrees in applied mathematics and computer applications and chemical engineering. In 1982, he launched an architectural, engineering, consulting, and construction services company which today employs more than 400 people and operates 10 global offices. 

“The Lebanese people started to come to Detroit in the late 1800s, and we opened stores and became doctors, lawyers, and engineers,” Ghafari says. “When I came here, I followed my uncle who had moved to Detroit in 1951. I attended college, and like many Lebanese, I grew up in an entrepreneurial environment. After college, I put together a business plan, opened my business, and never looked back. Everyone I know from the Middle East wanted to pursue the American Dream.” 

 

By the Numbers

The economic and cultural impact of Arab and Chaldean-Americans in metro Detroit
» Michigan is home to the largest concentration of Arab and Chaldean Americans in the U.S.; about 350,000 Arab-Americans and 150,000 Chaldeans.
» More than 80 percent of Michigan’s Arab and Chaldean-Americans reside in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.

» Following metro Detroit, other large cities with sizeable concentrations of Arab and Chaldean-Americans are San Diego, Chicago, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.
» According to the most recent estimate, 25 percent of Sterling Heights’ population is of Iraqi/Chaldean descent.

» More than 60 percent of Chaldean- Americans own at least one business, and nearly 40 percent own two or more. Chaldean Americans own an estimated 15,000 businesses in Michigan.
» Arab-Americans earn more than $7.7 billion in wages and salaries in southeastern Michigan.

» In metro Detroit, 72 percent of Arab and Chaldean-Americans were born outside the U.S., and 79 percent are U.S. citizens.

» Arabs and Chaldeans have been in southeast Michigan for more than 120 years.

Sources: Arab American Institute, Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce, Detroit Arab American Study, Arab American and Chaldean Council, Arab American Chamber of Commerce.

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