September 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

Reforms follow controversy

Arab group's Mich. leader is face of change

Fatina Abdrabboh became regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Michigan chapter in January. (Jose Juarez / Special to The Detroit News)

As a teen, Fatina Abdrabboh delivered a keynote address at a gala for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Michigan chapter.

Discussing how discrimination had affected her, a Muslim of Palestinian descent, “it was a very powerful moment for me ... to be represented by an organization that protected people like me,” the Dearborn native said.

Nearly two decades later, Abdrabboh is leading the local arm of what is touted as the nation’s largest grassroots Arab-American civil rights organization. Founded in 1980, the ADC is dedicated to defending those of Middle Eastern descent against discrimination, promoting mutual understanding and preserving their cultural heritage.

Since officially starting her role as its Michigan regional director in January, the attorney has sought a fresh direction for the office after the controversial handling of sexual harassment allegations against her predecessor. She has relocated the headquarters, replaced staff and renewed a focus on education, empowerment and advocacy.

“To be the director of the largest civil rights grassroots organization in the state with the largest concentration of Arab-Americans I consider completely an honor, and I also consider it an obligation to the community that needs a group to advocate on its behalf in the area of civil rights,” Abdrabboh said.

The married mother of two replaces Imad Hamad, the former longtime regional director at what is considered ADC’s largest and most active office outside Washington, D.C. The group has chapters in 23 states.

Last year, state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, sent a letter to ADC’s national board accusing Hamad of sexually harassing her and other women. In the letter, Tlaib said the committee’s national office had not taken seriously complaints in 2007 against Hamad from several women, including employees and interns.

The ADC board placed Hamad on leave and launched an investigation. Though it found “inconclusive evidence of sexual harassment,” officials said, Hamad was removed from his post and remained as an adviser until announcing his retirement in November.

Since then, the ADC has pursued reform. Samer Khalaf, the ADC’s national president, has said the group would begin a “zero-tolerance” sexual harassment policy, review its bylaws and assess staff roles.

The harassment policy now in place in Michigan is “a more improved and complete one,” Abdrabboh said, stressing “there will be a healthy safe place for all of my interns and all of my volunteers and all of my staffers. ... I think it’s crucial we learn from our mistakes in all areas of development.”

Turnaround for group

Transparency is key and the changes “represent substantial progress in a relatively short period of time,” said Michael Smith, a communication professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia who specializes in media relations, communication planning and crisis management.

“An organization faces dual challenges in the wake of a crisis: first, to show substantive progress on correcting the problems that led to the crisis in the first place; second, to continue to do quality work on its core mission, thus reminding key stakeholders why they supported the organization in the first place and reassuring them that it’s back to business as usual. It seems the ADC has done good work on both fronts.”

Many days, Abdrabboh faces a busy schedule that can include fielding complaints of alleged discrimination; meeting with educators and law enforcement to ensure their policies are welcoming; lecturing at a mosque; or addressing the importance of cultural sensitivity.

She has made inroads with initiatives. In June her group launched the Cyber Civil Rights Monitor program, which supports victims of online harassment through measures such as lobbying for legislation criminalizing “cyber-bullying.” Commemorating the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s 50th anniversary, ADC Michigan this spring released its Civil Rights Action App for cellphones. It allows users to instantly report discrimination, ethnic harassment and other issues.

Each measure has garnered hundreds of responses, which suggests persistent bias and targeting, Abdrabboh said. “Our community really has been victimized.”

Among other efforts, Abdrabboh has started a scholarship and internship program named after Medgar Evers, the slain black civil rights activist, and asked authorities to investigate allegations that Dearborn Heights officials prevented Arab-Americans from obtaining absentee ballots.

“ADC is a service organization in the sense that the people we represent can and should hold us accountable advancing the issues most near and dear to their hearts: cultural diversity and cultural training, keeping their work life and their public life free from discriminatory practices by government and other entities … and also just ensuring that the Arab American experience is a healthy and safe one for the community and its children,” she said.

That mission is personal to Abdrabboh, who has deep local roots and a long history of public service. Born and raised in Dearborn, she attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University.

Fluent in Arabic and published in academic journals, Abdrabboh has worked with the U.S. Department of State, traveling overseas to speak about issues affecting minority communities, she said. She also interned at the U.S. District Court and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit, then worked in private practice — often taking family-based cases, including those involving domestic violence, she said.

“She’s obviously very passionate about the causes that she takes on,” said U.S. District Judge George Steeh, who warmly recalls when she interned in his office, researching cases and networking with officials. “She’s very dialed in to the issues of the day.”

Building bridges

Supporters consider Abdrabboh “a shot in the arm” in ADC Michigan’s progress, said Brian Mosallam, a Michigan State University trustee and financial adviser from Dearborn. “She’s very intelligent, very articulate, extremely driven, well-spoken — someone who has done a tremendous job of building bridges in the community. We need more women in leadership in this community. She’s definitely what this community needs.”

Ned Fawaz, a business owner who has been involved with an ADC Michigan advisory board, acknowledged the Hamad scandal was “a stumbling block,” but the internal changes and Abdrabboh’s efforts are a “good step forward.”

“She’s a good attorney, she’s well-spoken and she really means well. I think now things are clear, and most supporters came back.”

mhicks@detroitnews.com