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Listening to Arab American voices in Dearborn, MI

Posted on Sunday, October 7th, 2012.

After spending a wonderful month in downtown Detroit, from July 3 to August 8, 2012, thanks to WDET and the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center, the StoryCorps Mobile Booth headed west to visit the Islamic Center of America in nearby Dearborn, MI. From August 10 to August 11, we partnered with the Islamic Center, the Arab American National Museum and the Yemeni American News to record stories of Dearborn’s diverse Arab American community during the holy month of Ramadan.

StoryCorps’ Mobile Booth outside of the Islamic Center of America

Two of our first participants, Ali Nasrallah (21) and Jaber Saad (21), best friends and college students at the University of Michigan, came to the MobileBooth to discuss their friendship and their identity as both Muslims and Arab Americans in the United States.

Ali Nasrallah (21) & Jaber Saad (21)

Ali and Jaber grew up in Dearborn, where about 40% of the population is Arab American. During their StoryCorps interview, they talked about the turning point that 9/11 was for them. A 5th grader at the time, Ali described one specific memory from that day: “The look on my mother’s face…She knew what was next, she knew it was going to be hard for us as Muslims in America.”

Ali described going on a trip to visit relatives in Lebanon when he was 12 and being stopped while going through airport security by officers looking for someone with a similar name. Though they quickly realized Ali was not who they were looking for, this had an impact on him: “I was scared, I didn’t know what this man wanted from me. No child should have to go through that.”

Thinking about how representations of their community changed since 9/11, Ali offered: “The media used to portray Arabs in an exotic way, with harems, kings, women and gold…now it has shifted to terrorists with planes and bombs.” Jaber also discussed an experience he had in the classroom, where a professor made a remark that assumed that because he was Arab he came from a socially conservative Muslim family. “My identity shouldn’t be put in the spotlight”, he said, “I shouldn’t be assumed to be Muslim or conservative because I’m Arab.”

After these and other experiences, they decided to turn to civic engagement. Ali now leads summer youth dialogues on race and ethnicity for high school students while Jaber has worked as a high school tutor discussing media representation of Latinos, in the predominantly Latino community of Southwest Detroit. In their view, making time to listen to people who are different from you is key to eliminating stereotypes and fostering a just society. They find hope in the work that they do and the young students they work with. “If we all listened to each other’s stories,” Ali concluded, “there would be no hate in this society.”

Many thanks to the Dearborn community for giving us the opportunity to sit down and listen!

The stories we recorded in Dearborn will be archived at Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum.

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