War Hits Close to Home for Arab-Americans in Detroit-Area Schools
Southfield, Mich--For students in Laura Schiller's 6th-grade class at Birney Middle School here, the war in the Persian Gulf strikes at the heart of who they are and where their families come from.
In addition to a handful of Jews, who have a special concern about the war's impact on Israel, and several students with a family member in the U.S. armed forces in the Gulf region, the class includes several Chaldeans--Iraqi Catholics whose ancestral home is Tel Kaif, a village in northern Iraq.
Add to that mix the fact that some of the Chaldean students in the class in this upper-middle-class Detroit suburb in Oakland County have cousins serving in the Iraqi military.
During one discussion last week, students in Ms. Schiller's class raised questions about everything from the cost of the United States' Patriot missiles to the origin of Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
"We want kids to know there does not need to be a war here in the classroom," the teacher said. "You can be friends and agree to disagree."
Despite the tension of the Middle East conflict, harmony has been maintained at the racially and ethnically diverse middle school.
"We work very hard on the issue of human relations," said the school's principal, Todd Henderson.
Not far away, however, many of the estimated 60,000 to 75,000 Chaldeans in the Detroit area fear the possibility of being swept up in a potential backlash against Arab-Americans as a result of the Persian Gulf war.
"Last weekend, my husband received two bomb threats at our business," said Josephine Sarafa, a Chaldean who is a bilingual-education and English-as-a-second-language coordinator in the nearby Birmingham public schools.
She and her husband own a grocery store in Detroit's inner city, as do hundreds of other Chaldeans.
"We are seeking police protection ourselves out of fear of a backlash," she said.
Events in the Middle East have put residents in the Detroit area on edge in recent weeks. Like residents in other large U.S. cities, many here express a general fear of terrorism, underscored by Mayor Coleman Young's recent request that the National Guard be activated to supplement the city police department's security efforts.
(Gov. John Engler of Michigan last week declined the request, saying that he had received no hint of any terrorist activity aimed at Detroit.)
But to the approximately 250,000 Arab-Americans in the Detroit area, the fears are much more acute. Many worried last week that they will be subject to anti-Arab harassment.
"There is already a growth in small incidents, such as school car pools getting rid of their Arab kids," said Ismael Ahmed, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in nearby Dearborn.
There have also been numerous bomb threats, including several at area high schools.
In a more serious incident last week, a Dairy Queen owned by a Palestinian-American in rural Blissfield, Mich., was burned. In a newspaper report the previous day about earlier minor vandalism at the store, the owner had reiterated his view that the United States should not have entered a war with Iraq.
Incidents designed to harass or discriminate against Arab-American are by no means confined to the Detroit area.
"In the last three weeks, we have had a dramatic rise in incidents,'' said Scott Easton, a spokesman for the national office of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington.
From Aug. 2, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, through the end of last month, 42 instances of bomb threats, physical assault, hate calls, or hate mail were directed at Arab-Americans, according to the committee. This month alone, two dozen incidents have already been reported, Mr. Easton said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's decision to talk to Arab-American community leaders and others about, among other things, whether they know any terrorists in the United States has exacerbated the tensions, he said.
The agency has said it is acting primarily to protect Arab-Americans from hate crimes, he added, but, "by making a suspect class out of us, they are raising the anxiety level and potentially increasing the threats against us."
According to a recent demographic profile prepared by the Arab American Institute in Washington, an estimated 2 million to 2.5 million Arab-Americans live in the United States. Most are concentrated in and around such big cities as Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, as well as in the New York City borough of Brooklyn and several suburbs in northern New Jersey.
Many Arab-Americans have expressed hope that the schools can maintain a sanctuary for their sons and daughters while also promoting an understanding of the issues that will help prevent acts of violence or discrimination.
Educators in districts enrolling Arab-American students, meanwhile, worry that that may be an impossible task.
In Paterson, N.J., tensions between the large Arab-American community and the population at large have been high, said Margaret Mary Dalton, principal of the Charles J. Riley School. Scuffles and verbal abuse have broken out since events in the Persian Gulf began to unfold last August.
But, she said, school officials have been vigilant in trying to make sure that students check their hostilities at the gates of the K-8 school, where about 50 percent of the students are Arab-American.
"We're trying to operate as business as usual," she said. "We decided, as soon as anything moves into name-calling, it would have to be stopped."
In Aurora, Colo., a suburb of Denver, Arab-American students have turned to an Islamic support group run by the Colorado Muslim Society and Islamic Center to vent their fears and frustrations. Students say they have endured a stream of sarcastic and stereotypical comments about their religion, heritage, and homelands.
At Lakewood (Ohio) High School, a Palestinian-American student wearing a "Free Palestine" T-shirt was taunted and accused of supporting President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
In Los Angeles, rumors and abuse toward Arab-American students were enough to prompt the school board last November to approve a measure reiterating support for a81988 anti-slur/no-name-calling resolution.
The new resolution directed "staff to remind all schools that they are expected to have in place a schoolwide code which clearly and emphatically states that acts of harassment or violence or threats motivated by hate or bigotry will not be tolerated."
In Dearborn, a community of 86,000 where approximately one in five residents is of Arabic descent, the concern over students' safety and well-being reached its peak after war broke out on Jan. 16.
The city, which is home to Ford Motor Company's headquarters, has few Iraqi-Americans. But it has attracted Arabs since early this century, when jobs at Ford's massive Rouge plant lured Lebanese immigrants.
Now, most Arabs in the city are either Lebanese, Palestinian, or Yemeni, and each new outbreak of Middle East strife brings more Arab immigrants to the city's south end.
Many children of these new arrivals attend Salina Elementary School, where 96 percent of the enrollment is of Arabic descent.
"This area has been the first stop for many immigrants," the principal, Gary Wolter, said. "This school has always been identified as a community center. I think the parents feel very comfortable with us taking care of their children."
The school has tightened security since the war broke out, he said, but it has not experienced any disruption.
The same cannot be said for Fordson High School, also in Dearborn, where slightly more than 50 percent of the students are of Arab descent.
In the weeks leading up to the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, reporters from Detroit newspapers and television stations, as well as correspondents from national publications, were constant visitors.
Expectations ran high that the heavily Arab school would somehow explode with tension, officials at the school said, adding that district officials finally decided to ban the news media from the premises.
"Otherwise," said the principal, Barbara O'Brien, "we would have turned into a circus."
Also, she said, an in-service training day for teachers scheduled for Jan. 15 was postponed so that students, who would have been off that day, could be kept in school. Officials feared that an antiwar protest planned by a local college for that day could spell trouble for the high-school students if they were free to attend.
When war broke out, Ms. O'Brien said, parents were called in to help monitor the halls and to keep out visitors.
There have been bomb threats, but at least one was traced to a Fordson student.
"It's not really tense in the school, but everyone around us expects something to happen," said Susan Shamseddine, an English teacher who is Lebanese-American.
Students have said that Arab and Anglo students tend to get along well as long as they are at the school, but that the Arab students face discrimiel10lnatory comments when they attend athletic contests at other high schools. At some games, they say, students from opposing schools have mockingly worn Arab headdresses.
This month, the athletic league that includes Fordson considered a proposal to cancel the rest of the league's remaining games for the school year. The proposal was perceived at Fordson as an expression of fear of disturbances during contests with the heavily Arab-American school.
The league voted to proceed with games, but security was increased. No incidents had been reported by late last week.
Unlike Dearborn, where some neighborhoods are still densely populated with Arab-Americans and buffeted by new immigration, the Detroit area's Chaldean community has been steadily migrating from its original base in the city to the northern suburbs.
Also, because exit visas were restricted by the Iraqi government after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1981, no new major immigration of Chaldeans has occurred since then.
Chaldeans first came to the area around 1910, but the majority emigrated here in the 1960's, local church members said. Factory jobs and the presence of other Middle Eastern immigrants drew them to the area, said Mrs. Sarafa of the Birmingham schools.
Many opened small groceries and liquor stores, known as "party stores," in urban Detroit neighborhoods, using family members as a ready source of low-cost workers.
The Sarafas have used their income to put their six children through college and several through graduate school.
"We don't want them to just have limited choices in the family business," Ms. Sarafa said.
On a gritty strip of Seven Mile Road in northern Detroit, Chaldean party stores are interspersed with auto-body repair shops. At the modest brick-and-wood Chaldean Sacred Heart Church there, dozens of elderly Chaldean men and women filed in one day last week to continue a special three days of prayers for peace called for by the local bishop. (The Chaldean church is an Eastern Rite church that has been in union with Rome since 1830.)
Although the Chaldeans' ancestral roots are in Iraq, there is little support for Saddam Hussein. As Catholics, they are a religious minority in a mostly Moslem country.
"We have no quarrel with anyone," Ms. Sarafa said. "The Chaldeans moved here because they did not want to live in dictatorship. They are now dismayed and torn."
"Of course, their higher priority is to the United States, their land of choice," she added. "But some families have a son in the U.S. armed forces, and a son or uncle or nephew in the armed forces of Iraq."
Andy Mansor, a 6th grader at Birney Middle School, where Chaldean students make up less than 15 percent of the student enrollment, has two uncles serving in the Iraqi Army, poised to fight against the allied forces led by the United States.
"I'm worried for them," he said.
Frank Hermiz, an 11-year-old classmate, said he worries for his grandparents, who are still in Tel Kaif.
"Before the [Jan. 15] deadline," he said, "there was a special place at our church where we prayed for peace."
The community is drawing together as the war proceeds, said Amir Denha, editor of the weekly Detroit Chaldean Times. He is using his short-wave radio to get in touch with relatives in Iraq, "to read between the lines on information."
"We have to deal with this crisis smarter than everyone," he added. "We thought when we left Iraq, we wouldn't have to deal with this kind of political problem again."
Information for this story was also gathered by Jonathan Weisman.
Vol. 10, Issue 19, Page 1, 14Published in Print: January 30, 1991, as War Hits Close to Home for Arab-Americans in Detroit-Area Schools