Arab Americans increase their business presence in Detroit
Arab and Chaldean Americans look beyond Detroit bankruptcy to eventual rebound
By Natasha Dado and Samer Hijazi
The Arab American News
DETROIT — Population loss, blight and increased crime rates make it difficult to keep businesses here thriving. Small Arab and Chaldean-owned businesses have managed to stay open over the decades despite these challenges.
Arab Americans define themselves as having roots in one of the 22 Arabic-speaking countries, including, among others, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, Egypt, and the Gulf countries. Chaldean Americans find their origins in Iraq, however, as a result of speaking Aramaic in addition to Arabic, many do not consider themselves Arabs, while many do. The metro Detroit area boasts the most concentrated communities of both Arabs and Chaldeans in the United States, and both groups have significant presences in the small business scene in Detroit.
Arab and Chaldean Americans own a majority of the city’s gas stations, convenience stores and supermarkets, and they are expanding their business presence in the wake of Detroit’s bankruptcy.
Several are purchasing vacant buildings and transforming them into apartment and condo complexes. They are also renovating houses and renting them out to tenants, while others still are continuing to open small family businesses such as restaurants. It is clear these communities will play a crucial role in the city’s recovery.
“To say that now Arabs and Chaldeans are reinvesting or coming back into Detroit, they have always been there. There is no question about it… I do see a new resurgence of the city, so it is something very positive,” said Helal Farhat, a local Lebanese businessman and Dearborn attorney.
Last year, Farhat and a business partner purchased the Frederick K. Sterns House on East Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. The house is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
The 10,000-square-foot building, which features medieval architecture, was initially built as a house in 1902 for Frederick K. Sterns and later transformed into office space. Three nonprofits are already operating inside the building that used to house the Detroit Wayne County Port Authority. Farhat regards the bankruptcy as an opportunity to “clean up a lot of things” in the city.
Sam Yono, a Chaldean American businessman, recently purchased a 100,000-square-foot building that he plans on turning into a condo complex. Yono and his sons own the Rub BBQ Pub and a Mexican restaurant that was recently expected to open, along with other businesses in the city.
“Things are getting a lot better. I have faith that eventually Detroit will be like Atlanta, L.A. or Chicago one day, without question. I encourage diversity among the businesses, so that means not just the large companies such as Quicken Loans, but also the small business owners and entrepreneurs as well,” Yono said.
Randy Yono, who manages the Rub BBQ Pub, is encouraging investors to disallow negative depictions of the city to discourage them from doing business in it.
“Those who are afraid to invest in the city because of its image are wrong. They need to see it firsthand, they need to live in it and they need to work in it. We have not had that experience, and we keep investing,” he said.
Lebanese American businessman Moussa Bazzi and his four brothers have been doing business in the city for almost 30 years. They own four Detroit gas stations, but they have recently invested in other types of businesses as well.
“I think the Arab and Chaldean community from a small business standpoint is the backbone of Detroit… People talk about a rebirth and that it is happening in downtown and Midtown. But the people in Detroit live in the neighborhoods. What is left today is small business owners who are Arabs and Chaldeans and the churches. Those are the folks in the neighborhood. If you take the Middle Eastern community out, there are no small businesses left,” said Auday Arabo, president and CEO of the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers.
One of Bazzi’s brothers has renovated houses and is renting them out to tenants. The siblings are also business partners in an apartment complex.
“We believe in the city,” Bazzi said. “What you see in the media, some of it might be true, but that is not entirely what it is like. I chose to do business here, and I enjoy it.”
Fay Beydoun, the executive director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, says as downtown Detroit continues to develop with larger companies moving in, Arab American entrepreneurs have found a place there.
“We do have a presence in downtown, but it is not as noticeable. We have seen a lot of companies opening up — not necessarily retail or gas stations. More business owners are now in the IT industry and other kinds of companies,” Beydoun said.
Small business owners getting ticketed in wake of Detroit bankruptcy
Within the last year, Arabo says he has heard complaints from retailers who are being penalized by the police department in areas the business owners do not control.
“The police department might issue a ticket, but it is a ticket in regards to something that is not their fault,” Arabo said. “Owners apply for a business license and the city takes months to even send it back to them. An officer then shows up and hands them a ticket. Things like that we can’t seem to get to the bottom of.”
Farhat has represented Arab Americans who are small business owners in Detroit, and they are frustrated over getting ticketed. The Detroit Police Department is currently under Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s control. Some believe the tickets are being issued to generate revenue for the bankrupt city.
The AFPD recently held discussions with Mike Mayor Duggan about some concerns of small business owners. Duggan is now looking to create a committee that will overlook licensing and other small business issues.
Beydoun says the issues need to be addressed in order to have more profitable and sustainable businesses in Detroit. “We should work with the mayor, because there are still issues that exist with security and small policies,” she said.