AAI to Honor 4 Community Leaders in Dearborn

Posted by Arab American Institute on October 22, 2015 in Blog

Ismael Ahmed, Ali Baleed Almaklani, Joseph Borrajo, and Suzanne Sareini might not be names that you are entirely familiar with, but their stories and their dedication to organizing our community are a major reason behind the successes the Arab American community has had over the past 30 years. As part of AAI's National Leadership Conference, hosted a dinner gala to celebrate their sometimes overlooked work.

Ahmed300.jpgIsmael Ahmed, who is now the Associate Provost at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, was a founding member of ACCESS in 1971, which under his leader became a cornerstone of the Arab American community—in Michigan and nationally. Ismael, who I have always known as “Ish,” went on to serve in the state’s cabinet as the Director of the Michigan Department of Human Services. All the while, he remained rooted in one of his first organizing experiences. In the 1970s he worked hard to save the initial enclave of Arab Americans from city efforts that sought to destroy their ethnically diverse and vibrant neighborhood to make room for an industrial park for the auto industry. From those days on, Ish set a course many of us have followed with great pride.

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Ali Baleed Almaklani
was among the group of activists who found their way to ACCESS and community organizing. As an autoworker on the line, Ali was a labor activist who helped lead the Arab American Caucus of the United Auto Workers (UAW). And for the longest time, Ali was practically the only (and definitely the most effective) advocate for bringing the Yemini American community into electoral politics; he founded the Yemen American Benevolent Society as well as the Yemen American Political Action Committee. His leadership has proved invaluable over the past three decades of community challenges.

borrajo_image300.jpgJoseph Borrajo is a true Dearbornite. After graduating from Fordson High School, then the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and returning from military service, Joe worked for Local 1299 Steelworkers Union before going on to private business. While managing a successful career, Joe was tirelessly committed to voter registration and community empowerment – which oftentimes meant walking neighborhoods and manning registration tables in his spare time. The reality is before we had Yalla Vote, there was Joe at a table registering people with his Arab-American Voter Registration and Education Committee. Joe’s work pushing the Dearborn community to be politically active is a part of the reason our voice is heard nationally today—and part of the reason Michigan is the electoral powerhouse it is for Arab Americans.

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Suzanne Sareini credits her eventual choice to open small businesses and enter public service to the lessons she learned and the passion she found spending time in her parents’ Dearborn restaurant, which was a community watering hole throughout her childhood. The voices, stories, and passion she got to overhear propelled Suzanne to start more than one small business before she ran for office and became the first Arab American elected to the Dearborn City Council in 1989—just a few years after the infamous mayoral campaign that disparaged our community. Suzanne went on to serve six straight terms, only to be succeeded by her son Michael after she retired in 2013. Her legacy for the city of Dearborn and our community remains an inspiration for many, including Arab American women who remember with pride that the first electoral victory for our community in Dearborn came with a woman on the ballot.

Collectively, Ismael, Ali, Joe, and Suzanne were among the very first community members to organize. Their efforts paved the way for a once hesitant community to not only become registered voters with one of the highest voting rates across the nation, but to engage local politicians and play an active role in the political process.

We are pleased to be joined by Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, additional members of the Michigan congressional delegation, and Dearborn City Council members to recognize Ismael, Ali, Joe, and Suzanne and celebrate 30 years of community empowerment. And we can’t have a hafli without a great dabke troupe, so Layalina Folk Dance Troupe will be part of the festivities.

This important – and fun – celebration is a part of our three-day National Leadership Conference.  We hope you can be with us to celebrate and help create the Arab American platform for the 2016 election cycle and hear from the 2016 presidential candidates.

 If you are interested in attending, or for more information about our awardees, please contact Yasmin Hussein (yhussein@aaiusa.org).