From the Middle East to the Motor City

More than 500,000 people of Middle Eastern descent live in metro Detroit, and, combined, they generated $36.4 billion in economic activity in 2015. While the road to self-reliance can take years due to language and cultural barriers, the influx of refugees has been a boon to the regional economy.

As a small case study of what Middle Eastern Americans have accomplished on a much broader scale, consider that the once-forlorn shopping center at the corner of 15 Mile and Ryan is now vibrant with Chaldean-owned businesses. There are signs with Arabic script on a driving school, a hair salon, a restaurant, a bakery and coffee shop, and a national insurance company’s branch office.

Tania and Batoul Shatila, owners of Shatila (Above), along with their sister Nada and mother Zinat; own and operate the bakery, a mainstay in the city for decades. The bakery was founded by their late father, Riad Shatila, in 1979.

A brightly lit supermarket with a brick oven baking fresh Middle Eastern bread and pastries opened late last year. On the outside, another store next to the supermarket resembles any other store in metro Detroit. The interior, however, would be unremarkable in a Damascus suburb. Shelf after shelf along one wall is stacked with displays of Persian rugs and fine fabric window treatments, among many other offerings. As in the other businesses in the shopping center, prices are posted in English and Arabic.

Although the migration of Arabs and Chaldeans to this country dates back to the end of World War I, the recent wars and violence that are wracking the Middle East has added an urgent impetus to the flow of refugees.

“Of the 500,000 Chaldeans in the United States, 150,000 are now living here in southeast Michigan,” says Martin Manna, president of both the Chaldean Community Foundation and the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce in Bingham Farms. “Since 2007, we have had 30,000 people come from Iraq, Syria, Iran, and parts of Turkey. A majority of those newcomers  are here in Sterling Heights, Warren, and Madison Heights.”

Although they are from the Middle East, Chaldeans are not Muslim. “Obviously we speak Arabic, too, because we are from the Arab world, but we are indigenous to Iraq and Syria (originally Mesopotamia), and we speak the language of Christ, which is Aramaic,” he says.

Since the chaotic civil war in Syria and the rise of  ISIS, more than 1 million Chaldeans have been displaced from their homes in Iraq and in Syria. Very few of that number have reached this country — approximately 1,500 Syrian refugees have made their way to the United States, with 120 of them coming to Michigan.

Written by Norm Sinclair

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