Refugees share stories at Arab-American summit

Jennifer Chambers, and Mark Hicks

Dearborn — U.S. presidential candidate and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley reminded a crowd of Arab American, refugees and nonprofit leaders of his Irish American roots.

“If all of us went back just a generation or two as Americans, we would all find some experience in our own family that would allow us to see the humanity a little more deeply in what our Syrian American friends are going through in this refugee crisis,” O’Malley said

“We were raised to understand that the beauty of our country is that people facing religious persecution or starved out of their homes or forced out by war and famine, that this is the nation that can alleviate some of the suffering in the world,” he said.

O’Malley spoke to a crowd of 150 gathered at the University of Michigan-Dearborn to discuss the world refugee crisis.

He said not enough leaders are speaking up about the importance of American leadership in the refugee crisis.

“More of us need to speak up, this is a humanitarian crisis. We must lead,” he said.

Just moments before, he met with three refugees who told him that they fled their Arab country after torture, bombs and terrorism compelled them to come to the United States for a better life.

Noor Al Dabbagh, Moustafa Assad and Radhia Fakhrildeen each landed in Michigan in the last year and have attempted to build a life, adjust to a new homeland and find security, jobs and education for their children.

Assad of Syria said he had little choice but to leave because “when the bombing began, there was no life at all.”

After living as a refugee in Turkey since 2012, he, his wife and daughters have spent four months in Michigan.

“I think it’s going to be OK,” Assad said. “My hope is my kids go to school here and have a life and future that is safe.”

The refugees shared their stories Friday during the Arab-American Institute’s three-day summit, which is expected to draw more than 200 participants representing 17 states to the University of Michigan-Dearborn and elsewhere.

The Arab American Institute, which launched in 1985, is also compiling voter guides and information regarding where candidates stand on issues.

Friday afternoon, a panel of Michigan leaders working on immigration and refugee issues spoke about the progress being made in Michigan and the work that needs to be done in the state.

Bing Goei, director of the Michigan Office for New Americans, said Gov. Rick Snyder and the state are serious about bringing more refugees in to Michigan.

Michigan is third in the nation for accepting refugees, behind only California and Texas, with Grand Rapids settling 25 percent of refugees coming in to the state.

“The governor has made it very clear that the state is open to all refugees from all parts of the world,” Goei said.

Hosting the summit in Dearborn made sense since “the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the entire country is in Michigan,” said Maya Berry, executive director of Arab-American Institute.

Institute officials this week said pundits and national media have identified Michigan, whose Arab population represents an estimated 5 percent of its voters, as a key swing state in the 2016 election.

Polling by the group and Zogby Research Services also found that Arab Americans have the highest rates of voter participation among ethnic minorities, with around 88 percent registered to vote and nearly 90 percent likely to.

“Michigan is part of our political power base,” Berry said. “These are conferences all about engaging Arab-American voters in the electoral process generally and more specifically, when you’re running in the middle of a presidential cycle, it’s about elevating our issues of concern. We care deeply about a range of issues.”

To that end, the Friday panels and events — co-sponsored by more than a dozen groups — focused primarily on the refugee situation, including the origins, its impact on the United States and political response.

More is on tap for the weekend. On Saturday, there are panels leading the formation of the “2016 Arab American platform,” examining topics such as the current political landscape, foreign policies, domestic issues and mobilizing voters.

The topics covered throughout the conference culminate Sunday in a community town hall hosted at the Arab American National Museum, when participants start the process of identifying the most significant issues and how to advance them during the election, Berry said.

“We’ve never been a single-issue constituency,” she said. “This is our opportunity to engage on those.”