Posted on September 08, 1997 in Washington Watch

This is not a story in the headlines. Nor is it one of the usual stories about problems facing the Arab American community.

Rather it is a story about what a group of Arab Americans are doing to improve the quality of life in the U.S. for tens of thousands of their countrymen from the Arab world.


During the past decade more than 200,000 new Arab immigrants came into the U.S. making them one of the country’s ten most rapidly growing immigrant groups.

Unlike the first wave of Arab immigration, who came in the early part of this century, the current wave comes from literally every part of the Arab world (while the first immigrants came primarily from Lebanon and Syria) and they fly into major cities across the U.S. (while the first immigrants arrived mainly in New York City.) Large concentrations of recent Arab immigrants to the U.S. can be found in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Cleveland, and Houston.

In each of these cities many of the new arrivals from the Arab world face a myriad of problems adapting to their new environment. These difficulties of adaptation are not unique to Arab immigrants. All ethnic groups face the same concerns. For immigrants with family members already established in the U.S. or there with advance academic degrees and English language skills, the problems of settling are less severe. But for tens of thousands of other, especially those who are poor, uneducated, and without English language, the problems of getting started in the U.S. can be quite difficult.

Recent Arab immigrants to the Detroit area, especially those with the greatest needs, have an important institution to help them become settled and once settled to help meet their basic physical, educational, and social needs.

ACCESS (the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) is one of the truly great institutions founded by Arab Americans. Begun twenty-seven years ago in Dearborn, Michigan, ACCESS today has become nationally recognized as one of the premier social service centers of its kind in the U.S.

In 1971 ACCESS was started with a few hundred dollars, a one-room office, and a commitment to provide needed services to recent immigrants. Today ACCESS has an annual budget of $3.5 million, five offices throughout the Detroit area, and a record of providing services to over 35,000 individuals each year.

Among these services are:
· Healthcare: including a full range of family medical services to pregnant mothers, newborn children, and the elderly

· Social services: including emergency food and shelter, translation and interpretation, family counseling, summer youth recreation programs, and drug and alcohol prevention programs

· Employment services: including employment counseling, training programs, and daycare

· Education programs: including English language programs and citizenship preparation

· Community advocacy: Including advocacy on behalf of Arab American social and educational needs, and programs educating non-Arabs about the culture and history of the Arab people.

In the process of carrying out these and other services for the Arab American community, ACCESS has become recognized as an important center for Arab American political activity as well. Its annual dinner draws over 2,500 including all of Michigan’s political leadership. Its last dinner featured a videotaped message from President Clinton congratulating ACCESS on its 25 years of service. During the Bush Administration, as well, ACCESS received presidential recognition, receiving President Bush’s “1000 Points of Light” awards – which he awarded to institutions and individuals making unique and significant contributions to the country.

ACCESS’s importance as a center can also be seen in the fact that frequently when national political leaders visit the area, ACCESS is on their itinerary.

In 1991 the Arab American Institute (AAI) and ACCESS worked together in an effort to help launch similar centers around the U.S. We convened a meeting in Washington called “Meeting our people’s needs” and sent a researcher to several major U.S. cities to conduct community needs assessments – to determine what kinds of services were required to meet the needs in each area. Out of this experience ACCESS-like institutions have been started in New York City and Cleveland. Today there are also efforts to launch social service centers for recent Arab immigrants in Chicago, Houston and California as well

The story of ACCESS is important for many reasons. Not only is it a testament to the vision and commitment of its founders and the continuing hard work of its leadership and staff – it is an Arab American success story.

The ACCESS story is the story of what is happening in the U.S. today. The past decades have seen dramatic increases in the size of all immigrant ethnic communities in the U.S. This growth has created new political and social problems, not the least of which is a backlash against many groups and pressure to cut government supported social programs.

ACCESS has shown that through organization and political power, groups can define their rights and win respect. In the past decade, we have worked with ACCESS to increase voter registration and organize effective get-out-the-vote efforts in the Arab American community. Those efforts have benefited the Arab American community by increasing its political clout and protecting its ability tap serve the needs of its most important members.

This organizational and political strength has also provided ACCESS and Arab Americans with the ability to fight against discrimination and fight for increased recognition of Arab culture and values.

ACCESS is, in short, an organization Arabs should know and about which they should be proud.

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