Few if any places in the United States have collectively borne the blunt trauma of Trump’s “Muslim ban” more acutely than Dearborn, Michigan, the community that is home to the highest concentration of Arabs and Muslims in the country, as well as the second highest Syrian refugee population in the U.S.
Just days after Trump issued his January 27th travel ban barring refugees and visa holders from seven countries, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services’s “Take on Hate” campaign organized a town hall to address the concerns of Dearborn’s many immigrant Americans.
The response to Donald Trump’s travel ban within east Dearborn has been one of urgent fear and confusion, as evidenced by the overwhelming turnout of town halls and community panels.
Abed Ayoub, legal policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the largest grassroots Arab American advocacy organization, reported receiving over 1500 calls to the organization in 48 hours.
“The impact it had on the community’s psyche was worse than 9/11,” the attorney said.
The Dearborn event, originally scheduled for the Arab American National Museum, warranted a last minute relocation to the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center to accommodate the 1,200 person turnout.
Haider Koussan, owner of Dearborn’s Greenland produce markets where Bill Clinton visited prior to the election, characterized Dearborn as a “home for immigrants.” Koussan came to the U.S. after having fled the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon.
“This is the land of immigrants and it’s stopping immigrants,” he said. “What breaks my heart is that there are people supporting him [Trump]. What they don’t know is that it’s going to fire back at everybody.”
Zeinab Chami, a teacher from Dearborn, was “surprised” upon seeing “so many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans justifying his [Trump’s] actions because they feel betrayed by the Democratic party. Their obvious reaction to that is to jump to the defense of the other side.”
Hillary Clinton’s ardent Zionism and foreign policy track record in Syria and Libya prompted many Arabs unhappy with the U.S.’s involvement in the middle east to be hesitant about voting for or even to vote against the candidate whose expertise [was a regarded as a] prelude to more instability.
Many of these Arab Americans supported Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the primary election cycle. Over 60 percent of Democratic primary votes in Dearborn were cast for Sanders, with support most heavily concentrated in east Dearborn precincts.
Chami, who similarly felt disillusioned with the Democratic party, cast a “protest vote” for Jill Stein in November.
She said Trump and the racism he embodies is “repugnant.”
“These 60 million people that decided to vote for Donald Trump indicated that they’re either bigots or okay with bigotry,” said Chami.
David Serio, a museum educator and curator, was appalled by Trump’s immature and inflammatory rhetoric. “From the time he stepped onto the scene, and mentioned many Latinos are rapists, that automatically disqualified him for me.”
In June 2015, soon after Trump announced his run for presidency, he alleged Mexico was “not sending their best.” Trump went on, “They’re rapists,” adding, “And some, I assume, are good people.”
Serio said, “To have somebody who is making an insult on an entire group of people is deeply disturbing.”
An Arab American Institute survey revealed that up to 26% of Arab Americans supported Trump in the 2016 election.
‘Unfortunately I would probably say a good amount of individuals in my church and a lot of family members voted for Trump,” said Nicole Khamis, a University of Michigan student from Northville, Michigan, who works extensively with refugees through the organization Samaritas. “And they didn’t like Hillary.”
As with other American counterparts, the economy and jobs were cited as their top reasons for the Arab-Americans’ votes.
Khamis pointed out the prevalence of small business ownership in the Arab American community. She said this segment of the community tends to favor fiscal conservatism, and religious conservatism was also a factor in Trump’s support from the Orthodox Christian community.
“A huge amount of support is due to the abortion debate,” she said, “Orthodox individuals are extremely conservative and will not be pro-choice at all.”
Nabeel Abraham, a retired professor and Palestinian-American who had voted third party in the election, said his [worst] expectations for Trump were met and exceeded, both in domestic and foreign policy.
Trump’s appointments, Abraham said, designate the president as an “unmitigated disaster and category five hurricane.”
Abraham identified Trump’s plan for Syrian safe zones, his negative attitude against Iran, and his appointments of extremist ideologues, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was the director of a family foundation that bankrolled Israeli settlements, as evidence of grim prospects for the Middle East.
“We have little daylight between him and Hillary,” Abraham said.
By day, Nidhal Garmmo, an Iraqi-American pharmacist from Farmington Hills. and Dr. Houssam Attal, a Syrian-American physician from Grand Rapids, are neighborhood health professionals.
The lion’s share of their spare time, however, is spent as humanitarians tirelessly servicing global communities in need, as volunteers helping refugees.
Garmmo has made 27 trips to Iraq and Jordan to help refugees in need of medical care with an organization she runs. She was appalled by Trump’s lack of humanity.
“Of course I am not going to be with this guy,” Garmmo said. On the Muslim ban, she added, “You are encouraging terrorists when you close the door in [the refugees’] faces.”
Dr. Attal, also known as “el doktor,” recalls an aura of deep surprise that ensued after the election. “He was not taken very seriously from the beginning,” he recalls of Trump. “I remember the night when he became president everyone was shocked.”
That shock, said the physician, translated to disbelief that Trump would put outrageous word into practice. “[We thought] the rhetoric of the campaign would be a lot different than what he would actually do.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Attal, softspoken and humanistic, attempts to allay the fears of the frazzled refugee families he assists, telling them that the will of a nebulous, diverse, and widely outraged national community cannot be undone by the fickle demands of one man. “Again we’re here in a democracy and we’re working within a system,” he said.
Yet the vitriolic and divisive campaign partially succeeded in fragmenting the heterogeneity of the Arab American community.
Koussan says his three hardworking immigrant employees who trained as a doctor, lawyer, and businessman in their native Syria, all “come on time, [are] respectful, and have strong family values.”
He admits that Arabs in Dearborn are far more sectarian than the Syrian immigrants he deals with. “Sunni, Shia? They don’t know the difference. We’re more racist than them, and they went through hell.”
Hopefully, as many Michigan Arab-Americans have pointed out, the political awareness proliferating out of the post-campaign displays of discrimination and incrimination of minorities will engender solidarity amongst groups divided by rhetoric.
Dr. Attal, characteristically optimistic, recommends activism and mobilization as a response to Trump’s presidency, and approves the millions of dollars raised by the ACLU and the renewed concern for civil liberties recognized en masse by Americans. “This is not the best thing that I would love to have happened,” says Dr. Attal, “but this order has raised awareness amongst the american public.”
With Donald Trump we hit rock bottom,” says Chami, the teacher from Dearborn. “It’s time we faced the ugliness that’s been simmering below the surface.”
In an age of “alternative facts” and false narratives, Serio the curator is a staunch advocate of knowledge and education that breaks barriers and walls, metaphorical and literal, placed between cultures and communities. “There needs to be a lot more research and understanding,” he said.
Serio then offered advice to those unaccustomed to Muslim and Arab culture: “Talk to an imam, go to a mosque, pick up a book.”