Why Arab immigrants assimilate better in the United States
HE WOULD rather talk about the new Arab-American museum in Dearborn, the
first of its kind in the country. But Ismael Ahmed patiently indulges
questions on another topic—whether America does a better job than France of
integrating Arab immigrants—even though he thinks the answers are obvious.
Mr Ahmed, the executive director of ACCESS, a social-services agency for
Arab immigrants, reckons there are clear reasons why the sorts of
immigrant-driven riots that have recently shocked and shamed France seem
hard to imagine in Dearborn, or in other ethnic Arab communities across
America. In contrast to the situation in France and in many other European
countries, he points out, the children and grandchildren of Arab immigrants
to America, both Muslim and Christian, climb the same ladder of education,
income and advancement that other immigrant groups have scaled
successfully, from Asians to the Irish.
That does not mean that most Arab-Americans, even in well-integrated third-
or fourth-generation families, feel at ease these days. The new museum in
Dearborn highlights many of their worries and frustrations. Its main
exhibits—which look at how Arab immigrants come to America, and how they
and their descendants have contributed to American life—make strenuous
efforts to dispel stereotypes and point out discrimination, especially
since the terrorist attacks of September 2001. One exhibit contains a
letter that was sent out to thousands of Arab immigrants after the attacks,
urging them to show up for a friendly chat with the FBI.
Yet in the wake of those attacks, Dearborn's Arab-American leaders were
also able to fall back on countless ties—social, educational, commercial,
political—with the wider community, to defuse tensions and put nervous
Arab-Americans at ease. Many of those ties had developed naturally as
people in Dearborn and other Detroit suburbs went to school and did
business together. Arab-American workers and businessmen are woven into the
wider economy: making car parts, running petrol stations, and trying, like
the rest of the rustbelt, to branch out into new white-collar professions.
In September 2001, both the chief executive of Ford, Jacques Nasser, and
the president of the United Auto Workers, Stephen Yokich, were of Arab descent.
Assimilating does not always mean dispersing. As with other immigrant
groups, Arab-Americans tend to live in clusters. Indeed, the 300,000 living
in the Detroit metropolitan area comprise the largest concentrated Arab
community outside North Africa and the Middle East. But given America's
economic opportunities, such neighbourhoods—in Dearborn, Flint, Chicago,
New York and elsewhere—have little in common with the French banlieues that
have erupted in recent weeks.
Immigrants from Lebanon or Iraq may head for Dearborn or the Arab section
of Chicago because they have relatives there; or, when they arrive in a big
city, they may gravitate towards an area with familiar foods and
festivities. But that sort of clustering reflects immigrants' choices.
Ahmed Rehab, a spokesman for the Chicago branch of the Council on
American-Islamic Relations, contrasts this with France, where North African
immigrants gravitate to the grim high-rises of the banlieues because there
is nowhere else for them to go. Perhaps grumpy Americans should be careful
what they wish for: while they whinge about the jobs that immigrants are
"stealing", France is feeling the wrath of immigrants who cannot find jobs.