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Forging a New Detroit

Where Ford founded an industry, Arab-Americans have formed a cohesive community

text by Lori Quatro with photographs by Fabrizio Costantini

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On a sunny afternoon in Dearborn, Michigan, the New Yasmeen Bakery is serving its usual fare: sweet and savory pastries, an array of breads and a selection of colorful cakes and cookies. Named after the sweet scent and dazzling beauty of the jasmine flower, New Yasmeen is a family-owned establishment that has become a fixture in Dearborn, the headquarters of the Ford Motor Company and hub of Metro Detroit’s huge Arab-American community.

“It brings everybody together,” says Tarek Seblini, 39, whose Sunni Muslim grandfather first opened a bakery in western Beirut in 1939. “Like the jasmine flower, the aroma attracts people to the food.”

Mr. Seblini and his family came to the United States in 1985, bringing the family business with them.

“Like everybody else, we came here for a better life,” he says. “Back in 1985, Dearborn was just a little town, but now it is a big city.”

The bakery’s success and its subsequent expansion — it is now 20 times its original size — mirror Metro Detroit’s Arab-American community as a whole.

Drawn by the city’s nascent automobile industry, Arabs first settled in the Detroit area in large numbers in the first decades of the 20th century. A steady stream of Arabs continued to arrive, but the most significant wave has occurred in recent decades. Since 1980, the Arab population of metropolitan Detroit has swelled. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 403,445 people in the area identified themselves as Arab or Arab-American, making it the largest concentration of Arabs and Arab-Americans in North America.

In this region, there are four major groups,” explains Warren David, founder and publisher of ArabDetroit.com, an influential online community resource.

“There are Lebanese-Syrian, Iraqi-Chaldean, Palestinian-Jordanian and Yemeni.”

According to the 57-year-old, an Antiochene Orthodox Christian of Syrian and Lebanese heritage, Arab-Americans arrived in three distinct waves, settling in a number of neighborhoods in the Detroit metropolitan area.

“At the turn of the century, it was mostly all Syrian and Lebanese. Henry Ford was offering an unheard of $5 a day to work on the assembly line — that was the attraction,” continues Mr. David, whose grandfather belonged to this first wave, changing the family name when U.S. immigration officials on Ellis Island were unable to transliterate “Daoud Salloum” properly.

“The second wave was the ‘brain drain’ in the 1940’s through the 1960’s — academics who came after World War II seeking an education. They came here to study and many of them stayed.

“The last was the ‘new wave,’ from the late 1960’s until now — those were the people who came here for political reasons: the Lebanese civil war, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Iraqi wars. Either they were displaced by war or they were refugees, victims of political unrest.”

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Tags: Emigration Assimilation Religious Diversity Arab-Americans Detroit