Detroit area Syrians hope to shake stereotypes
Bashar Imam says he loves America, his home since late 1979, when he left his native Syria for what he deemed a better, prosperous life.
It was the proverbial American Dream that helped Imam, 53, of Troy, become an entrepreneur. He owns 61 properties in Metro Detroit and watched his oldest child become a physician, just like his Syrian-born wife.
That admiration, Imam says, has been challenged by a recent cascade of events, including Donald Trump’s declaration that no more Muslims should be allowed into the U.S., a reported rise in Islamophobia and questions about the expected influx of Syrian refugees to Michigan and elsewhere following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.
“We are law-abiding citizens. We are very well-accomplished. We take advantage of the opportunity provided to us by the United States,” said Imam, as he stood at one of the medical offices he owns. “This is home. I have been here for almost 37 years. I would love for the people who have a concern to come and meet us. Come talk with us.”
The “us” are doctors and dentists, artists, engineers and landlords like Imam. Some have been here for decades, and others sought asylum in recent years. The Syrian Muslims in Metro Detroit are a diverse group but are united in fighting the stereotypes and vitriol they say are aimed at the Syrian refugees — many whom Imam has housed in some of his residential buildings — who have moved to the region in recent months to escape the civil war that has engulfed their country. And they say they detest terrorism.
As for Trump and others who question the motives and sentiments of Muslims living in the United States: “I don’t know these kinds of Americans. Every American that I know is warm at heart.”
While some have asserted that the refugee crisis can be a cover for terrorists to sneak into this country at the behest of the Islamic State group, Syrians living here disagree. And so do the refugees themselves, who seem lost as to why some Americans doubt the veracity of those seeking a better life for their families.
“We are grateful to be here. The people who come here, they are families, not terrorists,” said Louai Alzoubi, 35, a Syrian refugee from the troubled city of Daraa who has been living in Dearborn for the past eight months after three years in Jordan. His four kids — age 11, 9, 8 and 6 — had nightmares due to the living conditions.
“The American people have values,” Alzoubi said through Arabic interpreter Jad Abdulhay. “There is no discrimination in the USA. If anyone has a problem they shouldn’t let them in. But that doesn’t mean the whole community.”
If for some reason America decided to send him back to Syria, Alzoubi, who was a chef in Syria, was resolute that “it would destroy my life. I used to cry tears of blood over there.”
The struggles of his people and the refugee crisis is real to Mulham Alassad, 25, a pharmacist who sought asylum here two years ago. He has been helping the Syrian refugees resettle here through the Syrian American Rescue Network.
Alassad said that although he understands Americans’ angst about the terrorist attacks, the refugees he’s interacted with are “hard-working people and would never harm anyone.” Terrorists are extremists who don’t share the same values as most Muslims and those who contend otherwise are playing politics, he said.
‘No reason to fear’
“I love this country. So for me as a Syrian who came to the United States and all the refugees, I’m sure they have the same point of view that I have. And there’s absolutely no reason to fear these refugees. They would all be a great asset to this country like I am.”
Rasha Basha, one of the lead organizers of the Syrian refuge resettlement network, said nearly 200 Syrians have been resettled since April in cities including Pontiac, Bloomfield Hills, Dearborn and Hamtramck.
At least 70,000 Syrian refugees applied to the United Nations to seek refuge in either the U.S. or Europe, Basha said, quoting statistics from the U.S. State Department. So far at least 2,000, including those in Michigan, have been resettled across the country. More refugees are in the pipeline and they won’t be affected by any decision to slow their immigration, she said.
An estimated 20,000 Syrians, mostly professional and college-educated, live in Metro Detroit, she said.
Among them is Dr. Firas Nashef, who owns a dental practice in West Bloomfield Township. He came to the States more than 20 years ago, and he understands American jitters about terrorists He believes America gave him many opportunities — dental school and business loans, to name a few — things his home country “did not offer” him.
“I can understand why anyone would be so concerned about losing any of those freedoms or privileges to any group of people, terrorist or not,” said Nashef, 43. “Nobody wants to live in an environment of fear. I’m talking about my neighbors, my coworkers. All of us go to the same schools, to the same shopping malls, we watch the same games. Any harm that happens to any of us is a harm for all of us.”
Nashef said he’d like to see Syrian Muslims be “more engaging to the public and to the politicians” to show that they are just like everyone else.
“Politicians are people; they can be extremely enlightened and they can be extremely ignorant,” he said. “Some are sincere servants and some of them are not and are biased with prejudice.”
Nashef said that Americans are rightly concerned about terrorism and risks can’t be eliminated, but “I bank my money on my government doing its job keep us all safe.”
Nada Odeh, 40, of Ann Arbor, a Syrian-born artist who sought asylum status a few years ago, said she has not interacted with Americans who have labeled the Syrian refugees as possible terrorists, but she knows that this viewpoint exists. She “understands but I do not agree with it because I know my country and I know my people.”
“It’s normal that everyone would get scared because something happened in Paris (and San Bernardino), but it should not have a reflection on the refugees,” Odeh said of the attacks in Paris, where a Syrian passport of one of the terrorists was found.
“Americans should understand that Syrians are peaceful people. This is why we’re escaping the country, because we cannot live in a country where everyone is killed.”
Mohamad Almohsen, 45, knows that war all too well. The Syrian refugee from Daraa said he was forced to watch his young children beaten. To escape the violence, he and his family walked to Jordan and spent three years there before coming to Dearborn three months ago.
The truck driver in his home country said he’s thankful for Americans’ generosity but that Syrians coming here want a different life. If they wanted to fight, they would have stayed behind.
“We are escaping death,” Almohsen said through an interpreter. “We came here for life.”