Exploring Dearborn, Michigan: Home to a growing Muslim American community

Posted at 4:00 PM, Sep 29, 2016

Dearborn, Michigan is a community highlighted by its rich history, cultural cuisine and diverse population — at its core, Dearborn is just your typical American city.

"You have -- in Dearborn -- colleges, universities, restaurants, nightclubs,” said Wassim Mahfouz, executive director of Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities.

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But with a high concentration of Muslim Americans in a population that exceeds 103,000, the city has found itself shrouded in rumor.

“No, Dearborn does not operate under Sharia law,” said Ron Amen, Dearborn native and former city planner for Dearborn Heights. 

Some of the other misconceptions? "I have heard... Dearborn is not a diverse city, we produce terrorists in this city, we are not Americans in this city — although, we are as American as Americans can be,” said Mahfouz.

Dearborn put its mark on the map in the 1920s, as the lure of high-paying factory jobs started attracting thousands to the area in pursuit of a better life. Henry Ford opened the River Rouge plant in 1921 and offered a wage of $5 an hour.

"When they got a job at Ford Motor Company, one of the things the old man insisted upon was that you learned to speak English,” said Amen. "You came to work in the morning and that first hour of work you went to a class to learn how to speak English and got paid for it, too."

Arabs began embracing America and Dearborn as their new home, a place with better schools for their children and a chance at a more prosperous living.

Now, Amen estimates about 45 percent of the population in Dearborn is comprised of Arab Americans, many of whom are Muslim. As Islam continues to be the fastest growing religion in the world, its rise in Dearborn is no exception. The city is even home to one of the largest mosques in the nation, the Islamic Center of America.

Still, residents boast that their city is one that revels in diversity and understanding.

"My religion is something in my heart, I don't carry [it] over my head. I am an American first of Lebanese roots,” says Mahfouz.

Amen, also a Muslim, shares in the display of patriotism, proud of his service for 32 years with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office. He also served a combat tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967.

“I fought for this country,” said Amen.

At Shatila Bakery, an icon within the city, people of diverse backgrounds and differing religions gather to enjoy tasty desserts.

"We have real ingredients, real everything and the community is also a big reason we are still successful to this day,” said Nada Shatila, owner of Shatila Bakery. "We present a melting pot for people and have a very diverse customer base.”

Nada took over the business after her father, Riad, passed away. She said her father started the popular eatery nearly four decades ago, after he arrived from Lebanon armed with 100-year-old recipes.

“He's the one who made everything from scratch -- and that's why they taste the way they do,” said Hayat, a worker at Shatila.

Over the years, the bakery has cultivated an environment that includes people of all races, religions and customs. A true testament to the message of Dearborn, reflected among the trays of treats and the smiles of neighbors.

"The moment you come to Dearborn you will find yourself welcome, you will find loving, caring people who want to extend a helping hand and be friends,” said Mahfouz.