Cycling into Dearborn, MI on a late spring afternoon is like riding into the opening credits of a John Hughes movie: rows of solid houses with trim lawns and mature trees, parents sitting on their front porches, children playing ball in the yard and riding their bicycles along the wide sidewalks. It’s a bucolic vision of security and harmony; the epitome of the American dream. Except for one detail: white people populate John Hughes’ movies, while Northeast Dearborn is almost 100% Arab Muslim. The children playing soccer are dark, the women carrying bags from the local grocer all wear hijab. I wind my way along the streets until I find my friend Bob Basse standing in his front yard, chatting with his brother Bill and their Muslim neighbor.
“Hello, call me Bob.” Housalla lets go of the handlebar of the child’s bike he’s straddling to shake hands. Bob’s a staff nurse at a children’s hospital. His wife teaches second grade, although this year she’s home with their newest child, so he’s picking up extra shifts. He came to Dearborn from Lebanon in 1989, and somewhere along the line the name ‘Bob’ stuck, but I’ll call him Housalla since there’s another Bob in this story as well.
Housalla lives a few doors away from Bob Basse’s family home. Their father bought the two-family house on Middlepointe Street in 1951; he worked for Ford, whose headquarters are in Dearborn. Bob’s father died there in 1995, his mother died last year. Now the Basse children, scattered to distant Detroit suburbs and Colorado, are liquidating their family home.
Housalla’s brother lives across the street, where Housalla lived during nursing school. His brother helped with the down payment for Housalla’s own house in 2000. Now, they also each own an investment property on the street.
According to Housalla, Lebanese are at the top of the Arab hierarchy. They value education and family. “Lebanon has always had a mix of Christian and Muslim influence. We can fit in either way.” The first wave of Arab immigrants to Dearborn, in the 1980’s, were from Lebanon. “We like the houses on this street, but they are too small. They don’t have big enough spaces for family, not just children, but extended family. Most of us fix up the basements to entertain.” Recently, Muslims from other Arab countries have been coming to Dearborn. An Iraqi bought the house next to Housalla. “It makes me want to move. He doesn’t keep his place nice. He had a broken window and stuck a towel in it; he doesn’t cut his grass. He doesn’t realize that it’s important to keep the place up, not just for him, but for everyone. Yemeni’s are different too. They are polite but they live in big groups – up to twenty people in a one house. It’s cultural.”
Bill Basse interjects, “It’s the same migration we saw 30 years ago. When we grew up here, 80% of the people were Polish, everyone’s last name ended in –ski. Dearborn has always been a place to move into the middle class.”
Housalla says, “The Middle class is the worst class. We are stepped on. People on welfare get WIC and free preschool. My kids can’t go to preschool because I can’t afford it and we don’t get subsidies.”
“And yet,” Bill says, “one interesting aspect of Dearborn is that 90% of the kids in the public school are on the lunch program.”
Housalla continues, “We work so hard while they sit on their butt and live as well.”
At this point in the conversation I am perplexed by the recurrent theme that so many people in the United States believe they are getting a raw deal. It is one sensibility that cuts across race, class, economic strata, and ethnic origin. It’s not a positive unifying characteristic, yet it is consistent.
“I am very Americanized. I work in an American environment. There’s good, bad, positive, and negative in every culture. When we first came here, people were laborers, cooks, and gas station attendants. Then we bought those businesses. Now, I have two nieces who are nurses and four who are pharmacists, two are even doctors.”
Housalla’s description of rising up the immigrant ladder mirrors perfectly the evolution that Malcolm Gladwell chronicles of New York Jews in Outliers. First generation immigrants are laborers, second generation are merchants, third generation professionals. Gladwell goes on to show how fourth and fifth generation immigrants, fully assimilated, lose much of their immigrant drive. Will that be the case with Arab immigrants in Dearborn as well?
Bill and Bob explain that there are only three houses left on the street that belong to ‘original’, i.e. non-Muslim owners. When the Basses are ready to sell their family home, they won’t list it with a realtor; there will be a variety of families right on the block that will want to buy it, for their extended family or as an investment.
Housalla nods in agreement, and adds, “But we miss Mrs. Basse. She was a great neighbor.”
Bill says, “Our mom made friends with all of our Arab neighbors.
Housella says, “That’s true. She didn’t know Lebanese from Iraqi from Yemeni. So she made introductions unaware of different Arab backgrounds.”
How will we live tomorrow?
Housella’s response illustrates both a typical American immigrant yearning and the reality that Muslim’s face in this country:
“I was raised that we can walk to the church and the mosque. I tell you ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, any more than the Ku Klux Klan has to do with Christianity.
“I’m thinking of moving out of Dearborn. My insurance is so high because of where I live. My brother in Livonia pays less than half of what I do in Dearborn. I want more space for my family. And there’s the Iraqi. That makes me want to move too.”