Arab American Service Day volunteers help Detroit schools

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

It’s a sight not normally seen on a Saturday: a small army of volunteers descending on three schools’ grounds in southwest Detroit, loaded with goods and enthusiasm to transform each.

As part of the 13th annual National Arab American Service Day, some 400 people are expected to give back by tackling beautification projects at Neinas Elementary, Academy of the Americas and Covenant House Academy.

The effort led by the National Network for Arab American Communities, associated with Dearborn-based nonprofit ACCESS, aims to gather diverse groups to respond to their community’s needs.

Whether paving the way for a new park or painting over graffiti on abandoned building near where students walk, the Detroit participants are working to boost neighborhoods, coordinators say.

“Everyone is coming together and working together to have safe routes and a positive environment for the youth,” said Rachid Elabed, community engagement manager at ACCESS. “We want the surroundings around them to be more welcoming.”

The volunteers plan to spend hours Saturday tending to the school areas as thousands are expected to pursue projects across the country.

At Neinas, a crew breaks ground on a new park across the street slated to eventually sport a soccer field and other features, Elabed said. Meanwhile, volunteers are revamping a community garden and adjacent playground.

Elsewhere, the participants — including many youths — are planting vegetables and flowers at Covenant House as well as clean up and around Academy of the Americas.

Zeinab Ahmed, a high school student from Dearborn, hopes to join the efforts with more than a dozen friends and relatives.

“I like that it empowers the youth to do bigger and better things,” the teen said. “I like making the area look nicer and better for the children and safer for them. I feel like I’m empowering the community and I’m encouraging more youth to do it.”

For some Arab or Muslim participants, donning gloves to boost the schools could also help shift perceptions of a demographic that activists have described as experiencing more hate crimes or targeting in recent months.

“People don’t necessarily see it as a community that’s giving and wants to help others,” said Nesreen Ezzeddine, a college student from Dearborn Heights. “We’re helping our neighbors.”