Detroit’s Unlikely Saviors

Bobby Ghosh, Time, Nov. 15, 2010

To disprove the charge that Detroit is in terminal decline, Nafa Khalaf offers himself as Exhibit A. In 1999, when he co-founded his business, which builds water systems and other public works, “people were saying the city was dying,” Khalaf recalls. “They said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing business here.'” But since then, his firm, Detroit Contracting, has thrived and expanded. Employing 23 people, the company brings in more than $20 million a year in revenue. “And 90% of my business is in Detroit,” he says triumphantly. “Does that sound like a dying city to you?”

When I remind Khalaf that his optimism flies in the face of the city’s litany of problems–a shrinking population, chronic unemployment and overstretched services–my skepticism only encourages him to press on. What others see as an urban disaster zone, Khalaf views as a land of opportunity. The Motor City, he says, gave him chances that would have been inconceivable in his native Iraq. Khalaf went to Detroit’s Wayne State University in 1986 to study engineering and was so impressed with the city that he never returned to his homeland. “You want to know if Detroit has a future? Ask us Arabs,” Khalaf says. “We believe in this place.”

Remarkably, that sentiment is shared even by those who never saw Detroit in its glory years–people like Sami, an Iraqi refugee who arrived this summer during the height of the nationwide furor over the proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero. (Unsure of how candid he should be in his new home, he gave his first name only.) Although troubled by the controversy, Sami has no doubt he’s picked the right place to start his new life. So what if he hasn’t yet found a job. It’s just a matter of time before one of the restaurants or stores on Warren Avenue, which connects Detroit to the nearby city of Dearborn, needs another busboy or odd-job man. The path from there is already paved in his mind: “I will save up for a couple of years and open a kebab shop . . . then another one, and another one. If McDonald’s can have restaurants all over the Arab world, then why can’t I have kebab shops all over America?” As we walk down the street, he points to the brightly lit stores, many of them run by Arab Americans. “All of them got a chance to start something in this city,” he says. “My turn is next.”

Khalaf and Sami speak for a community that is growing and prospering alongside Detroit’s decay, one of the largest concentrations of Arabs outside the Middle East. The four-county region of southeastern Michigan has a population of at least 200,000 of Middle Eastern origin; some estimates put that number far higher. In Dearborn, home to Ford Motor Co., one-third of the citizens have Middle Eastern ancestry–including Rima Fakih, the first Miss USA of Arab descent.

For Detroit, a city in critical condition, this new blood could make a difference. The impact is twofold: a desperately needed infusion of new citizens at a time when an exodus has drained metro Detroit of its middle class, both white and black; and an economic boost from a culture that likes to start new businesses. The Arab-American community in metro Detroit produces as much as $7.7 billion annually in salaries and earnings, according to a 2007 Wayne State University study. (That amounts to more than twice Detroit’s annual budget.) The controversial question, though, is whether Arab-American prosperity will remain at the edges of the city, at arm’s length from the predominantly poor African-American population, or produce jobs and other benefits for the whole of Detroit. On the street, the question is often put more divisively: Are Arab merchants profiteers or pioneers?

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The influx keeps coming. Any concerns newcomers like Sami may have about the city’s economic straits are outweighed by the comfort and reassurance of living among their own people. According to a 2003 study, 75% of Arabs and Chaldeans in the Detroit area were born outside the U.S., but 80% of them had become U.S. citizens. When they arrive, many quickly set up businesses requiring little capital–gas stations, liquor stores and convenience shops. Ahmad Chebbani, chairman of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, says more than 15,000 businesses in the metro area are owned by Middle Easterners. Surely part of the attraction is that to people from countries ravaged by war and poverty, Detroit can seem like a haven. But Chebbani puts it in less fanciful terms: “There are good deals here, and as a community, we’re risk takers.” What they also have in common is a remarkable faith in a region where confidence has become a rare commodity.

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While there are no authoritative statistics on how many Arab Americans are buying or starting businesses in the heart of Detroit, interviews with government officials and business leaders suggest it’s a rising trend. But relatively few plan to move their families into the city. It’s not easy to give up the sense of community and comfort in Dearborn, where shops stock Middle Eastern products, many schools observe Islamic holidays and there are at least eight mosques.

Another deterrent is the fear of racial conflict with Detroit’s predominantly black population. The two communities have a relationship that is, if not openly hostile, one of mutual suspicion. In private conversations, Arab Americans say their businesses–especially liquor stores and gas stations–are disproportionately the victims of crime and suggest racial resentment is part of the reason. And African Americans complain that Middle Eastern businesses charge high prices and provide few jobs to those outside their community. In Detroit, Arab shopkeepers are sometimes resented, says Stockton, “because there’s a perception that they help only their own people.”

Yet when a new immigrant group invests in a blighted urban neighborhood and takes up residence there too, the display of commitment tends to quell the resentment. The most notable example is southwestern Detroit, which has been transformed by an influx of Hispanic immigrants to the region–from 2000 to 2007, the Hispanic population of the Detroit area grew 28%–spurring an estimated $200 million of investment in homes and retail developments. Once desolate West Vernor Avenue is now the main street of what’s known locally as Mexicantown, a thriving neighborhood of restaurants and shops. (Older ethnic enclaves include Greektown, Poletown and Corktown.)

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Arab Americans might even make Detroit a global crossroads. As Miami has become a link between the Americas and as San Francisco and Seattle have connected the U.S. with Asian countries, so Detroit has become a conduit to the Muslim world, notes the 2007 Wayne State University study of the Detroit community. You can already find that potential in small notices. On the website ArabDetroit.com, a linguistics company posts help-wanted ads to recruit translators from the local population to help the U.S. military in Iraq: “Together,” reads the ad, “we can rebuild a nation, heal communities . . . ”

That sounds a lot like what needs to happen in Detroit too.

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