November 15, 2010

THE OTHER PATH:

Arab-Americans: Detroit's Unlikely Saviors (Bobby Ghosh, 11/13/10, TIME)

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.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 15, 2010 5:07 AM
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