Repopulating Detroit: Welcoming immigrants and refugees is necessary
By Ali Harb and Merinda Valley
Zaki Albokhshem, an international student from Saudi Arabia, is studying to be a special education teacher. He has been in Detroit for 10 months, and he already aspires to call the city home.
Albokhshem wants to become a permanent resident. He said opportunities are plentiful in the city, and the large Arab and immigrant communities make him feel like he belongs here.
“What makes Detroit special to me is all the Arabic grocery stores and Islamic centers,” he said. “Everybody treats me well.”
Fahman Amri, Albokhshem’s friend, is already experiencing the success the international student is seeking.
Amri immigrated to the United States from Yemen 15 years ago. He moved to Detroit in 2009 and now owns 14 homes here.
As a handyman, Amri is taking advantage of the Detroit Land Bank auctions. The city is auctioning abandoned properties from a starting price of $1,000 on the condition that the new owner bring the home up to habitable code within six months.
Amri is fixing the houses himself to sell or rent, mostly to other Arab American immigrants. But his investment in Detroit is not only financial; it is also personal. Amri, a father of six, said he hopes his children remain in the city after they grow up.
“This is my home,” he said. “I am staying here, not going anywhere.”
Iraqi American resident Riyadh Musa, who arrived in the city as a refugee 20 years ago, said a new wave of immigrants from his home country is helping stabilize the Warrendale neighborhood.
“They report anybody who is selling drugs or has a gun; they’re not used to it,” he said.
Detroit lost more than 25 percent of its population over the past 12 years. Fewer than 700,000 residents remain.
Vice President Joe Biden called Detroit a “comeback city” in September. Residents say services are improving. There are more buses and street lights. Downtown businesses are thriving. But the shrinking residential base remains an obstacle to Detroit’s comeback.
City leaders and organizers are aiming to attract newcomers from outside the country to help with repopulation.
Detroit is already home to 36,000 immigrants.
Despite national and state efforts to pause resettlement of Syrian refugees in the country because of safety concerns, Detroit officials are still committed to welcoming those fleeing the war.
Steve Tobocman, the director of Global Detroit, said settling immigrants and refugees in Detroit is essential for economic recovery.
“If Detroit is ever going to stabilize its population loss, frankly, it’s going to have to get serious about being inclusive and being open and welcoming to immigrants,” he said.
Tobocman said the United States has historically done a great job of accommodating newcomers because of efforts at the local level.
He added that in Detroit, there is a strong network of groups to help immigrants and refugees.
He cited as an example GlobalMatDetroit.org, which connects newcomers to about 700 organizations, including nonprofits and business advocacy groups.
Tobocman highlighted Global Detroit’s emphasis on granting immigrants access to these resources by tackling the linguistic and cultural barriers.
He said municipal initiatives like the mayor’s Immigrant Affairs office and the city council’s Immigration Task Force help make Detroit a destination for those moving to the United States.
“Detroit has unparalleled opportunities for growth and for creating a new home,” Tobocman said. “There is low cost housing; there are low barriers to becoming business owners. The city can become very navigable. It’s also easy to establish a community from people who come from the same country, who speak your language and share your culture and religion.”
He added that the large public school system ensures bilingual programs for students.
Tobocman, a Jewish American, moved to Detroit about 20 years ago. He said he was welcomed despite religious and ethnic differences.
He was elected to the State House of Representatives in 2002. In 2008, he was succeeded by Rashida Tlaib, a Muslim Arab American, who was succeeded last year by Stephanie Chang, an Asian American.
Tobocman said this voting pattern is a testament to Detroiters’ fondness of diversity.
This piece is part of the series “Detroit Bankruptcy: One Year Later,” presented by the partners of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.
The DJC journalists continue to explore the impacts of the city’s bankruptcy, including effects on people, neighborhoods and southeast Michigan, and the case’s long-term implications. Their collective work, which is archived at NextChapterDetroit.com, continues to inform regional conversations.
One of these discussions will happen at a free, community event from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 9, at Wayne State University’s Community Arts Auditorium, 450 Reuther Mall. Audiences are invited to attend and ask questions of some of the key figures in the bankruptcy case. Learn more or register.
Funding for this project made possible by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism’s Michigan Reporting Initiative and the Ford Foundation.