Arab-Americans: Detroit's Unlikely Saviors

White flight, black flight, no matter: Arab Americans are betting big on the Motor City's future

  • Roy Ritchie for TIME

    Nawal Hamadeh's charter schools seek to fill a gaping hole in the city's education system.

    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. But since then, his firm, Detroit Contracting, has thrived and expanded. "You want to know if Detroit has a future? Ask us Arabs," Khalaf says. "We believe in this place."

    Khalaf speaks 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?

    The story of Arab Detroit is more complex than the caricatures. Middle Eastern immigrants didn't arrive just yesterday, or from just one place. Henry Ford recruited thousands of Lebanese, Yemenis and others from the splinters of the Ottoman empire to Dearborn to work in his giant River Rouge complex, giving Middle Easterners their first foothold in the area. Not all were Arab. And in contrast to the stereotype, the majority of local Middle Easterners are not Muslim but Christian, led by an early wave of Iraqi Catholics known as Chaldeans, some of whom fled Muslim persecution. More recent times have brought an increase in Muslim immigrants displaced by war and seeking education and economic opportunity.

    The influx keeps coming. Any concerns newcomers may have about the city's economic straits are outweighed by the comfort and reassurance of living among their own people. 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.

    This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the Nov. 8, 2010, print and iPad editions of TIME magazine.