Arab Americans in Detroit through the initiatives of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS)

Arab American Service Day 2016 at Cody High School in Detroit
Arab American Service Day 2016 at Cody High School in Detroit courtesy ACCESS

ABSTRACT - Like other immigrants across the globe, Detroit’s Automotive industry was a huge magnet in bringing Arab American immigration to Detroit. Many Arabs who immigrated to the United States faced linguistic, cultural, and social barriers. Beginning as a small store front connecting Arab immigrants with resources in the United States, today the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, has expanded to offer nearly 100 programs with a budget of $23 million. ACCESS shares the story of Arab American political and community organizing through efforts in many different programs. It created an opportunity where the Arab population in Metro Detroit can come together amid the challenges of immigration, and build a strong sense of community. Some of those projects include Arab American Service day and the Arab American National Museum along with its annual concert of colors. What makes it stand out more than its capacity as a social services organization is that it bridges communities; from the smiles of a new citizen, a new immigrant learning English, a volunteer’s dirty hands, to cultural festivities. “Through assisting, improving, and empowering,” they are building not only the Arab American community, but the whole community.

Arab Americans in Detroit through the initiatives of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS)

The Arab American community began with a small group of Syrian and Lebanese who immigrated in the late 1800s. Like other immigrants from countries across the globe, Detroit’s automotive industry was a huge magnet in bringing Arab American immigration to Detroit. Arab American immigrants were among the thousands of newcomers that more than tripled Detroit’s population from 1910-1930. Many Arabs who immigrated to the United States faced linguistic, cultural, and social barriers.

Beginning as a small store front connecting Arab immigrants with resources in the United States, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services has expanded to offer nearly 100 regional and national programs with an operating budget of $23 million. ACCESS shares the story of Arab American political and community organizing through efforts in many different programs, including three national institutions. It created an opportunity where the Arab population in Metro Detroit can come together amid the challenges of immigration and build a sense of community. Along the way, ACCESS transformed from a social services organization to a political voice and social organizer in the Metro Detroit community. Projects including Arab American Service Day, youth initiatives, the Arab American National Museum, and the annual concert of colors are vital in showing the impact ACCESS has had on the Detroit community.


Terrorists, towelheads, extremists, barbaric: never fully human and always foreign. When a room is completely dark, it’s not the actual darkness that’s scary, it’s what the mind imagines is inside. The piles of clothes on the dresser suddenly turns into a monster, the ordinary house creaks turn into a ghostly figure. Once the lights are turned on, the realization that the “monster” was just a pile of clothes in one’s very messy room kicks in. All the fears go away and things appear as they should, no illusions. People are living in the dark when it comes to understanding and respecting people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Media outlets, TV shows and social media only present the shadows of the Arab American story. The Arab Community Center for Economic Social Services: the clients that they serve, the employees that work there, volunteers, panelists and speakers for events, and visitors all play an integral role in exposing that story. If one grew up in Dearborn, the chances are that one also grew up around ACCESS, whether volunteering, working, or receiving services. “ACCESS offers an entrance to the story of Arab American community formation in Detroit” and is crucial is sharing the story of Arab Americans in Detroit (Arab Detroit). The role of ACCESS will be explored through its history and through different initiatives in building community.

History of ACCESS and the founder

Ismael Ahmed came to Detroit when he was 6. After high school, he was a soldier in Vietnam and Korea. After he came back, he worked on the line and was active in the United Auto Workers union. Furthermore, he went to college. There were numerous wars, including the Lebanese civil war in 1958, and the Israeli 6-day war in 1967 that created a challenging time for Arabs politically and the instability deeply affected the Arab-American community. As more immigrants were coming to the U.S., Ish Ahmed started to recognize the barriers new immigrants were facing, including language and cultural barriers and became interested in helping his neighborhood and his community.

Thus, he was one of the main people who helped found the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in 1971. ACCESS began operating out of a storefront in Dearborn’s south end in 1971, and assisted the Arab immigrant population adapt to life in the United States through offering language classes and wrap around social services in health, and employment/training services. Today, ACCESS has expanded to over 120 programs.

Arab American Service Day

One of the projects of ACCESS was to initiate a day of service once a year around May where the Arab American community can come together and give back to their community. This will be explored through the Arab American Service Day project of 2016.

“It is hard to focus when you are worried about getting knocked out by ceiling tiles,” said student Keith Ogua.

“It’s like playing dodgeball,” said Phillip Bryant, a senior at the school, talking about what it is like to sit in a classroom where ceiling tiles randomly fall.

These are student comments from Cody High-school, a school located in Metro Detroit that was in a news article by WXYZ. Unfortunately, this is a common situation among the Detroit Public School System. Ironically, this school might be one of the luckiest because it received individual news coverage. ACCCESS chose to help through Arab American Service Day and partnered with The Greening of Detroit to put in new drop ceilings at the school. A group of 400 community volunteers and students from five Dearborn and Detroit high schools took part in major renovation of Detroit Public Schools’ Cody Rouge High School and a nearby park for National Arab American Service Day on May 14, 2016. This project improved the schools condition but it also opened the volunteers’ eyes to the dismay of some of the abandoned Detroit Public Schools. Detroit was once one of the most prosperous cities in America, and now it is considered one of the most dangerous cities with a failing public school system. To help fix Detroit, the students can’t be thought of as the “other.” If Detroit’s schools are in bad shape, it shouldn’t be okay for us to allow others to live this way. It is not okay for ceiling tiles to fall on students’ heads. Once people start to become involved, people start to realize that stuck between layers of structural racism there are people who want better, who are more alike than they are different.

Arab American National Museum History

The Arab American National Museum is another project of ACCCESS. Once an abandoned furniture store, the Arab American National Museum highlights Arab American art, and stores through their exhibits. Before the museum was built, Ish Ashmed, founder of ACCESS said, “At present, the building is a dusty space littered with cabinets, woodpiles and a few fluorescent lights casting long pockets of shadow.” Now looking back, current director Ameri also said, “It was a boarded-up furniture store,” but in this moment, that old furniture store has been replaced with a sprawling, three-floor museum designed to tell the story of the Arab-American culture. The empty walls are now covered in famous art and mosaics. The once empty space is a rich environment filled with history, tradition, and lively exhibits. Ameri said, “In the past five years, we’ve been nationally acknowledged.” Ameri went to say, “I really think in five years, we’ve done a lot.” To Ameri, doing a lot means touching the community, and spreading the mission of the museum. Simply put, that mission is to tell the story of the Arab American because the Arab-American story is the American story. Ameri feels the shared stories of different cultures immigrating to America need to be told. She feels these stories are the American story. While reading the stories of inspiring Arab American including Ralph Nader, it revitalizes the concept of the American dream. On Dec. 15, 2007, WXYZ-Channel 7 aired an hour-long documentary on the Detroit Arab American community. “I think what struck me, and what would strike anybody, is the impact the Arab American Community has had on the world - not just Detroit - the world,” said Famie. “They’ve made an impact in so many different arenas - medicine, art, music, right down to the alphabet. Not only does the museum capture the essence of the local story but it tells the much bigger story as well.” Famie, one of the directors of the documentary, used the museum as a backdrop. “The museum basically was telling a story of its walls,” said Famie.

Arab American National Museum Exhibits

One of the first things that catches the eye is the complex design of the dome ceiling, intrigued by all the little details in the architecture. The first floor of the Arab American Museum highlights some of the Arab civilization contributions to science, medicine, mathematics, architecture, and the decorative arts. One of the exhibits shows the story of Ralph Nader. He started to gain popularity when he released his first book in 1965, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which exploited the auto industry for producing unsafe vehicles. He was the main reason that in 1966, a series of automobile safety laws were passed, including requiring safety belts for all passengers. Ralph Nader also helped found the Green Party, and was a candidate for U.S. president in 2000. The museum hosted a book signing and Q&A event for Ralph Nader at the AANM. At the event, there was mix of people who were inspired by what Ralph Nader accomplished in his life. How many thousands of Americans are alive today because of Ralph Nader and his tenacious battle for safer cars (seat belts, air bags, sturdier chassis, etc.)? The museum exposes people to many different stories of Arab Americans. Ralph Nader is one out of many cultivating stories shared in the Arab American Museum.

The “Coming to America” exhibit, explores the story of Zammouri. Captured in Morocco around 1511 by invaders from Portugal, he was one of the first recorded Arabic speakers in North America. Often people think of Arab Americans of being the “new” immigrants, and the more you go in depth in the exhibits, the more complex and intriguing the history of Arab Americans become. As described in the museum, Zammouri was “An Arab-speaking man lands in North America almost 100 years ahead of the Pilgrims, leads explorers deep into the wilderness 275 years before Lewis and Clark.” This got me questioning about how and why the history textbooks don’t speak of him. The Arab American museum does an impressive job of sharing the Arab stories of the past, but it also helps mold the story of the future as well through many events.

Arab American National Museum Events

Without a doubt, this past presidential election was filled with lots of emotion and uncertainty, especially for the Arab American population. Considering this, various community organizers choose the Arab American National museum as a place for a presidential election result viewing party. On Nov. 11, 2016, during the viewing party, all kinds of different people and ages came together to watch who will become president. While it was a non-partisan event, the majority who showed up at the event weren’t fans of Trump’s rhetoric against immigrants and minorities. During this event, the museum was used as a place for everyone to come together after a long election as a lot of people who attended the event have spent the last couple months organizing and volunteering for voter registration drives and issue advocacy campaigns. At the end of the night, the next president was announced and aggravation and disappointment filled the entire room. Moments later, a couple of different speakers from the community went up to the stage and said final remarks and thanked everyone for coming. One speaker said something that stuck with me. His name is Amer Zaher, and he is a famous comedian who tours around the world. He was explaining the significance of that exact moment in time, because in that room, there was a mix of different backgrounds: Arab, Mexican, Black, and LGBTQ, and we were all gathered at the national Arab American Museum, a museum created to share the story of Arabs. This is Trump’s and many Americans worst nightmare. Although everyone in that room knew full well it wasn’t going to be an easy battle, and we were all still in shock by the results, we left the space a little bit energized, and ready to fight what’s coming next. In that moment, I recognized what the museum has done for the community, and this was affirmed to me even more when ACCESS held a community discussion to talk about all the emotions people were feeling two weeks after the election. This event helped people deal with all the emotions that were building up inside them, and communicate and meet with others who were feeling the same way. A safe space was created to talk, and this helped build unity and initiate the healing process between people and different communities affected by racial/religious discrimination.

Alongside hosting community conversations and book signings, the museum also hosted the annual 1001 Arab comedy show. This show puts the truth to the saying that laughter is the best medicine. As Madeleine L’Engle once said, “A good laugh heals a lot of hurts.” During this event, there were performers from all different backgrounds, including Indian, Iranian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi, African American, and Mexican. The comedian’s material varied from cultural stereotypes to political rhetoric to jokes about love and marriage.

Concert of Colors

The Concert of Colors is a free music festival to help fight injustice and inequality every year with music. The concert being free is an accomplishment in itself. Many Detroit festivals turn to high ticket price sales to stay afloat. “There’s never been a fight in 25 years at the Concert of Colors. That’s why when you go there you get that big peace and love vibe,” said Ismael Ahmed, founder of ACCESS and the Concert of Colors.

Black, white, brown, Arab people together… and that is the true power of the Concert of Colors. At the 50th anniversary of the Detroit 1967 riots, the Concert of Colors adopted “rebellion” as its theme. The 2017 concert began with a forum on race and rebellion at the Arab American National Museum. Panelist Professor Kimberle Crenshaw conducted an activity with the group where she would read the names of unarmed black people killed by police. As soon as one heard a name they are unfamiliar with, they were told to sit down. She then read the names of unarmed black males: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamer Rice, Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin. The audience were familiar with these names, so almost no one sat down. Then she said the names of Natasha McKenna, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, Aura Rosser, Maya Hall. By the time, she said the third name, almost everyone had sat down. The diverse audience in attendance was very engaged in the conversation that followed.

ACCESS fostering youth leadership

ACCESS is invested in fostering young leadership in the Metro Detroit area through participating in the Public Allies program. Public Allies Metro Detroit is a program that believes in the motto “everyone leads.” Through this program, young leaders in the community are chosen, and placed at non-profits across the metro Detroit area and serve full time positions for 5 or 10 months. ACCESS had four public allies in the summer, and some of the projects that they worked on included Arab American Service Day and Concert of Colors. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Public Allies is that their families used to receive services from ACCESS to help them when they first immigrated to America. Now, the next generation of youth is giving back to their community.

MOVE 2017: a summit to advance social change

ACCESS recently hosted a conference called MOVE 2017. Combining all three national institutions, MOVE 2017 was a national conference to advance social change. It occurred over three days in November at the Dearborn Inn and surrounding locations. This conference brought together over 500 activists, philanthropists, and youth from all over the country to advance social change.

This conference allowed people to network with key speakers, such as Linda Sarsour, co-founder of the Women’s March on Washington and Alvin Herring, the director of racial equity and community engagement of the Kellogg Foundation. The conference concluded with a special tribute to Jack Shaheen and Russel Ebeid who passed away earlier this year. Jack Shaheen was known for his role in challenging Arab American representation through his book and film, “Reel Bad Arabs.” A scholarship fund was established in his name through the Center for Arab American Philanthropy to help kids pursue their education. Russel Ebeid was a well-known philanthropist, and opened up another scholarship fund. These elements helped bring people to the conference; but what truly topped MOVE 2017 was the keynote address from Alvin Herring, who stated, “Whatever notions there are about a better tomorrow, they will only be notions until the Arab community is a part of that future.” During the speech, the energy in the room was astounding when everyone was told to raise their arms up high, and link arms with their neighbor. A few moments later, with everyone’s arm turning numb, he said, “In the fight of injustice, you will feel pain, but you will also have a group behind you to support you along the way” This captures what MOVE was about: the essence of mobilizing, organizing, and vocalizing with each other.


One could go on forever explaining every program that ACCESS has to offer, but what makes it stand out is more than its capacity as a social services organization. Beyond the ability to bring a community together, and beyond the myriad ways of helping each other, it bridges communities, which can be seen in the smiles of a new citizen, a new immigrant learning English, a person receiving their first paycheck in months, and a volunteers’ dirty hands. “Through assisting, improving, and empowering,” ACCESS is building not only the Arab American community, but the American community as a whole. These are the stories of Arab Americans, and their integral part in the “American dream.”


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