Dearborn’s Arab-Americans Break Two Barriers

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Two historic elections happened on Tuesday, but if you are not from Michigan, you might have missed them.

In one, Susan Dabaja became the first Arab-American elected as president of the Dearborn, MI, city council. Dabaja, an Arab-American attorney who is Muslim, ousted Thomas Patrick Tafelski, the Polish Catholic incumbent, for the post. It was her first time running for office, and she won by a mere 32 votes, thanks, she says, to her core campaign team of five Arab-American women, including campaign manager Mallak Beydoun.

In another, Dearborn voters elected a majority of the city council members—four of seven—from the city’s Arab-American community, also a first. Dabaja and her new colleagues Mike Sareini, Robert Alex Abraham, and David Bazzy all share Lebanese heritage.

Both elections are milestones given Dearborn’s complicated racial history. Dearborn is informally known as the Arab and Muslim capital of the United States, but that growth has not been easy. Charges of racism by the NAACP and others have plagued Dearborn’s leadership for decades. Longtime former mayor Orville Hubbard, who ruled the city for 36 years (1942-1978), embraced segregation. In 1985, Michael Guido won his campaign for mayor after he mailed pamphlets to constituents to address the city’s “Arab Problem.”

Today Dearborn is home to the largest mosque in the country, the Islamic Center of America, which has 3,000 members and is one of America’s oldest Islamic institutions. A third of Dearborn’s population of 97,000 identifies as having Arab heritage, a third of Arab-Americans in Michigan are foreign born, and the Arabic-speaking population in the state grew by 26% from 2000 to 2010, according to the Arab American Institute (AAI).

Dearborn’s Irish Catholic mayor John O’Reilly, who easily won his own reelection race Tuesday, supported Dabaja’s campaign and endorsed all incumbents except Tafelski. AAI also worked this election cycle to register and inform Arab-American voters about Arab American candidates in Michigan through its nonpartisan project “Yalla Vote,” which means “Hurry Up and Vote” in Arabic. The group canvassed on the ground during the Muslim holiday of Eid in August.

“These election results are about the Arab American community coming of age politically in Dearborn,” says Maya Berry, executive director of AAI and a Dearborn native. “There is great pride in this victory, not just because of the impressive electoral win, but also because it shows how far we’ve come.”