Detroit Free Press

Posted by Detroit Free Press on October 23, 2015 in News Clips

Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley to address Arab-American gathering in Dearborn for a national conference to mobilize their community for 2016 

Thirty years ago, Dearborn city councilman Michael Guido mailed a 12-page campaign flier to every home in his city that was headlined: "Let's talk about...the Arab problem."

Running for mayor in 1985, Guido railed in the brochure against Arab-Americans, saying they weren't assimilating and using tax payer money to teach Arab culture and get free food. It played a key role in boosting Guido from third in the polls to victory, getting him elected mayor that fall.

In response, Arab-Americans mobilized by reaching out to religious and political leaders, and launching a voter registration drive with the help of the Arab American Institute, founded that same year. Now, as the Institute kicks off Friday a 3-day national conference on politics, it finds itself facing alarming signs of the same problems it encountered in the 1980s.

Earlier this month in Michigan, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said bringing in thousands of Syrian Muslims to the U.S. "is nothing short of crazy." And last last month, Detroit native Dr. Ben Carson said that an observant Muslim should not be president.

Closer to home, in Sterling Heights and Hamtramck this fall, there have been anti-Muslim fliers and rhetoric by some amid intense campaigns for elected office.

"Bigotry against Arabs and Muslims is part of our public discourse from certain elected officials," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute.

Held every four years in Dearborn, the national conference aims to mobilize Arab-Americans from across the U.S. the year before the presidential election. Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland and a Democratic presidential candidate, will speak at the conference today and then meet with Syrian refugees in Dearborn. Other presidential candidate will address the gathering via Skype or in video messages, Berry said.

There will also be panels on Syrian and Iraqi refugees, Palestinians, and empowering Arab-Americans in politics. Michigan and Dearborn have the highest percentage of residents of Arab descent among states and cities in the U.S.

"It's our political power base," Berry said of Michigan. "We want to introduce the potential candidates to our community's issues."

Friday night, several local activists based in Dearborn will he honored for their work, including Suzanne Sareini, the first Arab-American Muslim to serve on Dearborn's City Council and Joseph Barrajo, an Arab-American activist who has been advocating for Arab-Americans since the late 1960s.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Barrajo, 74, started in 1968 the Southeast Dearborn Community Council, a social services group for Arab-Americans that was like a forerunner to the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, known today as ACCESS. The oil embargo and Arab-Israeli conflict in the early 1970s led to negative stereotypes of Arabs, he remembers. Barrajo, whose father immigrated from Yemen, fought locally for Arab-Americans in the city's south end, which dealt with pollution problems from neighboring factories.

Barrajo, 74, helped to mobilize the community after Guido's anti-Arab flier.

"I'll never forget that," Barrajo said, calling the campaign brochure a "race-baiting piece of crap."

Barrajo reached out to religious and community leaders of all backgrounds to speak out against the campaign rhetoric. The key, then and now, is to establish relations across ethnic, faith and racial lines, he said.

It was also difficult on the national level in the 1980s, with Democratic candidates such as Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis returning contributions from Arab-American leaders or not wanting their endorsements, said Arab-American advocates.

"Anytime we knocked on doors, they would get slammed on us, figuratively speaking," Barrajo said. "We couldn't get responses from our phone calls."

But relationships improved and in 2000, then-Gov. George W. Bush met with Arab-Americans and Muslims in Dearborn to seek their endorsement. In the second presidential debate with then-Vice President Al Gore in Oct. 2000, Bush expressed sympathy with their concerns of being profiled and targeted with the use of secret evidence in court cases.

Now, Barrajo and others are worried about the anti-Islam rhetoric they're hearing from some GOP candidates, though they add that those viewpoints appear to more in the minority rather than mainstream.

Another challenge is divisions within the Arab-American community over religion, nationality, and sect. There is a great deal of diversity under the term "Arab-American," with many disparate viewpoints.

A dispute this summer over a proposed mosque in Sterling Heights led to tensions and insults between Christians and Muslims of Middle Eastern descent. The Institute's conference will include some Chaldean (Iraqi Catholic) leaders as they try to work together.

Amid tensions in recent weeks in Israel, the issue of Palestinians will discussed on Saturday. And on Sunday, there will be a townhall meeting where Arab-Americans can discuss what their agenda should be this election year. Arab-Americans from 17 states are expected at the conference.

Berry said: "We want to try to hear as many as plot our strategy for 2016."

Contact Niraj Warikoo: or 313-223-4792. Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo

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