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Little Baghdad in Sterling Heights

Ron Current-Sterling Heights Chamber of Commerce  Photo by David Lewinski
Ron Current-Sterling Heights Chamber of Commerce Photo by David Lewinski
For over a century, metro Detroit has been a hub for immigrants to settle (largely because of the work opportunities available to them through the auto industry). But despite the shifts in the economy over the last two decades, southeast Michigan has continued to be a metropolis for ex-pats looking to build families and careers in the States.

Immigrant families from the same countries tend to cluster, forming pockets of cultural heritage, whole neighborhoods that might have been plucked straight from their native countries and dropped into unassuming corners of metro Detroit. To identify these pockets of ethnic diversity, one must simply look for the signs ... the storefront signs, that is. Little Vietnam in Madison Heights is easily identified by the disproportionately large number of Vietnamese restaurants, markets, video stores and salons with signboards written in both English and Vietnamese (if English is used at all).

According to the Arab American Institute, as of 2008 Michigan was second only to California in its population of Middle Eastern Americans. With nearly 300,000 estimated to be living in the state today, Metro Detroit accounts for nearly 80 percent of that demographic (many of whom are Lebanese, but also Palestinian, Yemeni, Egyptian, and Iranian). Dearborn boasts the highest percentage, with nearly a third of its 93,000 residents being Arab American.

Driving down Warren Ave. through East Dearborn, there are countless Arab-owned restaurants, bakeries, pizzerias, clothing stores, doctors' offices, law firms and general services. The signs are almost entirely in Arabic; restaurants and markets announce in bold neon that they are "halal," which means "lawful" in accordance with Islamic law (similar to Jewish "kosher" in that it refers to specific methods of animal slaughtering and the forbidden consumption of certain products). In addition to these businesses, there are also several mosques for community worship as well as cultural institutions upholding Arab and Muslim heritage like the Arab American National Museum.

But Dearborn's Little Beirut isn't the only corner of metro Detroit that has a large Arab American population, even though it certainly gets the most attention. Over in Macomb County, Sterling Heights in particular, a Little Baghdad is forming in sleepy strip malls, and a strong show of Chaldean culture is making itself known. In fact, of cities with populations of 100,000 or more, Sterling Heights tops the list, with nearly 4 percent of its population being of Middle Eastern descent. (Warren follows close behind with nearly 3 percent).

"Every year for the past six or seven years, there are 3-4,000 new refugees from Iraq coming to Michigan, to the Detroit area," explains Hassan Jaber,  executive director of ACCESS, a nonprofit organization which assists the Arab immigrant population in adapting to American life through advocacy and empowerment. "Sterling Heights is one of the communities seeing a tremendous increase of Arab Americans, and specifically Iraqi and Chaldean Americans."

Millions of Iraqi citizens have been displaced as a result of war and sectarian fighting, particularly Iraqi Christians (Chaldean and Armenian) who also face severe religious persecution. Individuals already living here in the states spend years trying to assist other family members in getting the visas required to get into the U.S. (and then applying for a green card), no small task considering the difficulty of tracking down a lifetime's worth of legal documents (everything from birth certificates to income taxes) in a war-torn country.

Former Iraqi citizens are also relocated here as part of the Federal Iraqi Refugee Resettlement program, and they relocate close to relatives. "It would make sense because typically immigrants settle in areas where there's family members and a familiarity with populations," says Mark Vanderpool, city manager of the city of Sterling Heights. Thus ethnic communities form, both residentially, and, out of necessity and demand, commercially.

"Last year we opened a facility in Sterling Heights because of what we noticed was a significant increase in the [Arab American] community there, and a significant increase in the need for it," explains Jaber. He believes that the draw to this specific community, in addition to the presence of other family members, is also higher home values than other areas, proximity to places of worship, and the presence of social organizations (like ACCESS).

"It's not a surprise that immigration continues to occur in our country; we're a country of immigrants," says Vanderpool. He echoes much of what Jaber notes as to why Arab immigrants choose to live in this community. "Immigrants are drawn to this area because Sterling Heights is renowned as a stable community -- we have good services, low taxes, it's safe, there's a good quality of life."  

Sterling Heights is the safest city in Michigan with a population over 100,000 according to the FBI, and is one of the top ten most family-friendly suburban cities in the U.S. according to Population Connection, an environmental organization based in Washington D.C. It was the only large city (100,000+) in Michigan to show a population increase in the 2000-2010 census. The Warren and Utica Consolidated School Districts are among the best in Southeastern Michigan. In national studies, Sterling Heights continues to rank in the top tiers for safety and affordability, being named (among other things) "Best Places to Raise a Family" (Best Life, 2008), "Best Places to Live" (Money, 2008), and one of the least socio-economically stressed large cities in America (American City Business Journals, 2006).

For an Arab immigrant seeking asylum, the city seems like a no-brainer.

But Chaldeans are not the only growing ethnic population in the area; Ron Current, vice president of the Sterling Heights Chamber of Commerce, says, "Sterling Heights is developing a strong diversity of business owners -- Indian, Pakistani, Asian and Arab. There seems to be a heavy concentration of Asian and Middle Eastern businesses along the Dequindre and Mound corridors ... when you drive along Mound the signs are bilingual, in both American and Arabic." In particular, the center of Little Baghdad spills out around the northwest corner of 15 Mile Rd. and Dequindre.

Current notes that "usually what happens is the communities follow each other; one settles in a suburb, then others see it's a good location and settle there too, similar to what they did in Dearborn. There's a very strong community in the residential area that is supporting those stores." They include Iraqi bakeries, Lebanese restaurants, halal Middle Eastern markets, and Arab video stores. Even the verbiage on the Driver's Training car toppers are in both English and Arabic.

"We've championed diversity in our community for a long time," Vanderpool says. "Our city council recognizes the importance of diversity. We are a very welcoming and open community and we wanted to really be proactive in dealing with diversity."

Another way in which they accomplish this is through different nonprofit and philanthropic organizations and community services. Community service groups like ACCESS work very hard to get immigrants acclimated to American life, tending to their basic needs such as healthcare, language learning and employment.

Beyond that organizations such as the Lutheran Social Services also work very closely with area refugees, and the city of Sterling Heights has more formally structured groups like the Ethnic Advisory Commission and the Sterling Heights Outreach Program, a quarterly meeting of community leaders discussing challenges their groups have experienced.

"It can be a challenge for communities to deal with immigration," Vanderpool admits. "But it can be a very beneficial thing as well. Studies have shown that immigrants are very entrepreneurial; they are likely to start businesses and contribute to the local economy, employing others in the community, and sometimes those businesses grow ...there is that economic element as well that can be a benefit."

In 2010 Sterling Heights had over one billion dollars in new business investment, the single largest investment year in their history even during the state's worst economic crisis. And many of these business are ethnic-owned.

"We're very proud of our community here," he states. "We're a diverse community and that has helped enrich our us in many ways. We have a good blend of populations here."
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