Dearborn, MI hosts the distinction of being known to many as the Arab American capital of the United States. Despite a substantial presence in the greater Detroit area for more than 8 decades, Arab Americans in Dearborn found themselves a focus like never before, post 9/11. I spoke to Betty Brown,87, a soft spoken, lifelong midwesterner and resident of Dearborn, MI(her drawl is so classic Midwestern that she pronounces Dearborn 'Dearburnn'.)We spoke about how Dearborn was affected on that day, how it has been in the years that have passed, and how it may be shaped in the future.
"The morning was my same routine: Wake up, work in the garden for 45 minutes to an hour, and head to church. This was actually a similar routine to when I heard about the Pearl Harbor attacks, the same kind of unassuming morning. In this case, my friend had called me about the first plane striking the Towers,and she just simply said: 'I can't go anymore'. Honestly, I thought it was a hot shot pilot who had made a huge mistake."
Brown lives right behind Dearborn High School, and she tells me it was the sudden crowds outpouring from the school gymnasium doors that alerted her: "I have to say, watching those kids, I had memories from the WWI days, when children were told to save their chewing gum wrappers so people could use the aluminum to make weapons. I was very worried about everything."
Betty Brown soon went for a drive with her daughter. They saw students huddled in groups(she would learn later that teachers told students to go straight home. Do not go to your friends house. But who did not reach out for someone at that time?), crowds of people in East Dearborn crying, others going about their business but numb. "I can remember prayer services being organized almost immediately. It was one of the only times I didn't care what I prayed. I didn't even care about what language. I just wanted to pray something(italics mine).
This same area would have national attention thrust upon them, good and bad. Only five days after 9/11, the FBI would raid a house in Detroit and arrest four men on terrorism-related charges(According to the Houston News, this was the first major terrorism trial post-9/11). 'Sportscenter' was rumored to have a done a special about the DHS football team. The Arab American National Museum was unveiled in 2005. Recently, Dearborn has come into the news yet again: "A lot of us remember that pastor(Terry Jones) from Florida who came to burn the Qur'an on the steps of a mosque in Dearborn". (Or Newt Gingrich, who recently called the city of Dearborn a victim of 'Radical Islamism'). "It was good to see so many people come out to protest. People of so many different faiths.Dearborn will not be intimidated by Islamophobia". Some Arab Americans continue to see Dearborn as the best place to be, others one of the worst.
I ask if she thinks things have improved in the decade that has passed, or if the decade of increased attention on Dearborn will be assuaged. "I don't know yet", she said. "It's easier to see the starts than the finishes, right?"