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Detroit's American Dream

Scenes from the city’s blossoming Arab American food industry

The line that divides Detroit and Dearborn, coterminous cities in the sprawling grid of roads that traverse southeast Michigan, is invisible — but it's almost impossible to miss. On one side, there’s a city that lost a quarter of its residents between 2000 and 2010, is home to tens of thousands of vacant buildings, and is at its smallest population since 1850. On the other, there’s a suburb where the number of businesses on its main commercial corridor has doubled in the last decade, the median income is nearly twice Detroit’s, and housing demand has seen bidding wars for single-family homes end over a hundred thousand dollars above asking prices.

One of the first things you see when you follow Warren Avenue out of Detroit and into Dearborn is a boxy concrete building just across the road from an ominous water treatment facility. Home of the Ford Motor Company, Dearborn has been a factory town for nearly a century, but this houses a different kind of factory: Inside, cardboard boxes spill mounds of pulverized cashews onto stainless steel workstations, each outfitted with a metal tub of clarified butter, bubbling and fragrant, while heavy machinery churns out threaded dough to be entwined around whole nuts, deep fried, and sliced. The final products fill tray after tray destined for Shatila Bakery; the trays are cut, wrapped, and sealed as 90 or so workers, the majority of them women wearing hairnets over hijabs, move around the factory through air that smells like sugar and baking pastry.

A mural by Chilean graffiti artist Dasic Fernández outside of Sheeba, a Yemeni restaurant in Hamtramck, Michigan

Riad Shatila opened his first bakery in 1979 on a very different Warren Avenue in a very different Dearborn. That shop occupied just a thousand square feet, with a glass case up front and a modest bakery operation in the back. At the time, there were virtually no other stores around — the town's Italian and Polish population had largely flocked to homes near shopping malls in the fancier suburbs farther west — and certainly there were none selling Lebanese sweets. Haider Koussan, who in 1993 started Dearborn's Greenland Market grocery chain with his brothers in a small storefront on Warren Avenue, described the area even in the eighties as "a ghost town, all rundown buildings." The city-block-sized space that’s now Super Greenland, the largest of Koussan’s five stores, was an abandoned, asbestos-filled movie theater called Camelot. "It was scary," Koussan remembered. "There was nothing there."

But Dearborn now supports three commercial thoroughfares — Warren, Dix, and Michigan Avenues — each lined almost entirely with businesses owned by Arab Americans. On my first day in town, I met Matt Stifler, a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Michigan and a researcher at the Arab American Museum, in the heart of Dearborn. "Arabs are why Dearborn is prosperous," he told me. "When I started at the museum, there were lots of vacant store fronts. Now there are no vacancies — and that was true even through the recession." According to the museum’s count, there are some 200 Arab-owned businesses on Warren Avenue, and at least half of them are connected to food. Stiffler nodded down the street toward a sign that read Sheeba, a second, swankier location of a nearby Yemeni restaurant. "The community reinvests in Dearborn," he said.

Ali Saad of Saad Wholesale Meats, the largest butcher of halal meats in metro Detroit, which was started by his uncle Aref Saad in 1976.

Sides of halal-slaughtered lamb for sale at Saad Meats in Detroit's Eastern Market.

Roughly half of the employees at Saad Meats are immigrants — mostly from Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon; Moussa Sayed emigrated from Lebanon at the end of 1977, when he was 10 years old, and began working at Saad Meats in 2004.

Ali Saad is one of several family members who work at the company, which is currently run by Samar, one of Aref’s four daughters.

Scenes from one of the Saad family's frequent summer barbecues.

The Arab American Institute estimates that more than half a million Arab Americans live in Michigan, a count that's double the U.S. Census Bureau's estimate (this is in part because the institute includes groups like Assyrians and Chaldeans, whom the bureau counts differently). Concentrated in the metro Detroit area, they form one of the largest populations of Arab Americans in the U.S.; in Dearborn, they comprise more than forty percent of the city’s 98,000 residents, the largest proportional Arab American population of any city in the country.

Many of the Arab Americans in metro Detroit are foreign-born — immigrants account for a quarter of Dearborn’s population — but they nevertheless have deeper roots in the area. Lebanese people, who still make up most of Dearborn's Arab-descended community, arrived as early as the 1870s. Detroit's Middle Eastern population first boomed after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, when thousands of Levantine Christians and Muslims fled amidst the West’s clumsy attempts to piece together a new world order. They came to Detroit for the same reason everybody else did: to build cars for Henry Ford. Initially drawn to the towns of Highland Park (home to Detroit's first mosque, built in 1921) and Hamtramck, as the Ford Rouge Complex expanded, more and more people wound up in Dearborn, part of the transformation that made the South End one of America’s great melting pots. At its peak, it was home to as many as 49 different ethnic communities.

By the early 1960s, many of the shops along Dix Avenue, the South End’s main drag, catered specifically to the Arab community. They doubled as service centers for new arrivals, who found their new anchors in Berri’s Halal Meats, Saad Grocers, a handful of coffee shops, and several small restaurants and five-and-dimes. In the ‘70s, conflict in Palestine, Lebanon, and Yemen led to another great wave of migration (including Riad Shatila and Haider Koussan), and led to the emergence of community organizations like the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), which continues to provide healthcare, job placement, and transportation services for many of the Detroit area’s most underserved communities, Arab American and otherwise.

By 1979, the majority of the South End was of Middle Eastern descent. Suzanne Sareini, who came of age during its transformation, helped lead an initiative to rebrand Dix as the city’s "Arabian Village." The road was relayed and built with kitschy, arcaded facades, like some Rust Belt Epcot that Sareini, wielding a big voice and a powerful hose, kept relentlessly clean. "I’d go up and down the street spraying the windows," she told me. "They’d come and yell at me and I’d say, ‘Well then, clean ‘em, if you want people to come down here…’ Eventually, kind of like in politics, they just figured I wouldn’t go away." They were right on both counts: In 1984, Sareini joined the Dearborn City Council, becoming the first Arab American Muslim woman to be elected into office in the U.S. (Her son, Mike, now occupies the same seat).

More recently, the wars in Iraq and Syria have prompted new influxes of immigrants: Thousands of Iraqis have settled in metro Detroit since 2003, and for a time, Michigan led the country in accepting Syrian refugees (1,404, as of September)

Originally from Yemen, Najmeddine Jabbar ran a bodega on Utica Avenue in Crown Heights for 13 years before moving to Dearborn, where he runs Sheeba Restaurant. "I’m always happy to talk to people about Yemen," he said. "Even Arabs don’t know Yemeni food."

Hashem’s is the Dearborn outpost of a shop opened by Abu Ali Sheik Theeb, the grandfather of the current proprietors, in the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil in 1959. The Michigan store sells some of the same spice blends that were developed at its original location, which still stands, even after being bombed in 2006, according to Wessam Hashem. "Apparently what happened was a missile came through the ceiling and landed in a coffee roaster, but it didn’t explode," he said.

"My Dad came here in 1976 with a pregnant wife and a hundred bucks in his pocket," Wessam Hashem said. "So on his first day he went over to Eastern Market and started tapping people’s shoulders and just saying ‘job.’ It was the only English he knew." He ended up with a job at a coffee shop called Germack Roasting.

Southeast Michigan’s economic woes aren't exactly news. At the height of the auto boom, Detroit was the fourth richest city in America; it’s now one of the poorest. And despite the city’s much-vaunted renaissance, its population continues to shrink, year on year. While the bourgeois trappings of gentrification might make for good media fodder, city officials — including particularly the city’s mayor, Mike Duggan and, until last year, Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder — know that, without immigration, all the quinoa and kale in the world won’t bring Detroit back to life.

There’s some proof for this assumption. Detroit, after all, is hardly the only American city to have experienced periods of decline. New York lost roughly an eighth of its population in the course of the 1970s, reaching a low point of 7 million people in 1980. The city’s population has since rebounded and, according to a report by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the Fiscal Policy Institute titled, "Bringing Vitality to Main Street: How Immigrant Small Businesses Help Local Economies Grow," immigrants accounted for nearly the entirety of that growth.

At Eastern Market on a Saturday morning, it was easy enough to believe the narrative that Detroit had, in fact, made a phoenix-like ascendance from the soot and ashes of all those abandoned factories and burned-out houses. Families strolled past tables heavy with produce and bakers who made use of the Eastern Market Corporation’s community kitchen to start their own small businesses. Anika Grose, who runs the community kitchen program, told me that many of the entrepreneurs she works with started their businesses after losing jobs or taking buyouts in the recession, and that many of them are native Detroiters. "The knowledge that you can reinvent yourself, that can be taught; it’s not intuitive," Grose said, "but immigrants already know that because they’ve already done it."

An employee at Shatila Bakery’s factory prepares one of the many varieties of baklava it produces.

Shatila employs upwards of 200 people, including Ghaba Wahab and Hassan Jomaa, pictured here; many women in Dearborn get their first American jobs here during the holiday rush, working night shifts to help supplement their families' incomes.

Shatila Bakery started in a thousand-square-foot space on Warren Avenue; today, the bakery has two retail branches and a factory where, even during the slow season, it will produce as many as a thousand trays of baklava daily.

Majid Almiki and Mousa Alhraki have both reinvented themselves again and again, though not by choice. Alhraki arrived in Michigan in April with his wife and eight children, three years after fleeing from the south of Syria. Back home, he’d worked as a cook in Damascus, commuting two hours each way by bus from the town of Daraa along a road that, beginning with the war in 2011, suffered regular shelling and sniper attacks. In 2013, he and his family fled to Jordan, where they struggled to make ends meet for years, until he received good news: They’d be coming to America. "When we came to Detroit, there were people waiting to meet us with flowers," he told me, on the morning we met at Shatila, whose baklava he assured me was every bit as good as what he used to eat back home. "They already had the house arranged for us. We were so happy."

Almiki had fled Iraq in 2005. A local soccer star in the ‘70s and ‘80s, by the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003, he had settled peacefully with his wife and children in an affluent, predominantly Sunni corner of Baghdad called Adhamiya. In 2005, his neighbors discovered he was Shia and started slipping him notes, threatening to kill his family. After his son was tortured, Almiki fled for Egypt and built a new life in Alexandria, where he sold falafel and hummus not far from the Mediterranean Sea. Seven years later, when the Egyptian government collapsed, he started the paperwork for resettlement. "I couldn’t risk my family again," he told me. It took four years, but in October of 2015 he finally landed in Michigan and got a job in a Dearborn restaurant. Now, he hopes to start a food truck to sell the same snacks he made back in Alexandria.

Greenland Market started out as a convenience store in 1993; today, it has five locations and employs more than 200 people, more than half of whom are immigrants.

Ameen Assaf, originally from Kuwait, has dreams of moving to California, where the climate is more like home. He's pictured here mixing kibbeh nayyeh, a medley of beef, parsley, bulgur, and spices, which is served raw.

Ibraheem Najeem, who was a butcher in his native Syria, arrived through the UN refugee resettlement program just three weeks before these pictures were taken in early August. He came to Greenland looking for a job on his third day in Dearborn, and started work the following day.

Najeem earned about $4 per day in Syria, while in Dearborn, he makes about $10 per hour. He finds it hard to believe that his good fortune will last: "I’m still afraid they’ll find a way to deport us."

Greenland’s founder, Haider Koussan, goes with his butchers multiple times a week to a farm just outside the city, where they hand-select the cows they want.

Ali Belkas is one of a newer wave of Iraqi immigrants who came to Dearborn after being displaced following the US invasion in 2003.

"Places in the food industry, they always need help," Wafa Bazzi told me, explaining why so many immigrants end up working at bakeries, markets, and butchers. She currently works in the office at Shatila part-time, while progressing toward her PhD in accounting. "You’ll never go into a place in the food industry that doesn’t need help. My mom works in food at the Super Greenland Market. My brother worked there, too. My sister and her husband both work here at Shatila. I have three sisters-in-law who worked at Shatila, too, and one still works here. Many people from Lebanon, they start at Shatila. I can’t tell you how many people walked out of this place with a better future. Before, when people arrived, they went to Ford and Chrysler. Now they come to the community for work."

Michael Snyder is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City whose work has appeared in T Magazine, the Washington Post, Saveur, and Lucky Peach, among others. 
Ali Saloum is a photographer based in Detroit.
Editor: Matt Buchanan
Header photo: Butchers at Greenland Market’s Dearborn Heights location, all recent immigrants. From left to right: Walid Murad, from Lebanon; Ali Belkas and Ameer Mahdi, from Iraq; and Ibraheem Najeem, from Syria.

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