Arab-Americans see hope in Obama presidency

Published: Monday, January 19, 2009 at 11:12 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 19, 2009 at 11:12 a.m.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. He is the son of Egyptian immigrants, raised in a swanky Detroit suburb, a devout Muslim who used to flatten opponents on the football field.

Now 24, married and in medical school, he is a Rhodes Scholar bound for Oxford University in England in the fall.

Abdulrahman El-Sayed is a full-fledged member of the Obama generation.

"People of my generation, we come with our own bridge," El-Sayed says. "The generation before us didn't come with a bridge. Real integration happens with us. We were raised in this country."

Anticipation is building for Barack Obama's presidency among young Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans, like El-Sayed, who came of age in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

El-Sayed recalls watching the attacks unfold on a television set in high school. His chemistry class tuned in to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center towers. The world changed that day, in ways few could imagine war in Iraq, the implementation of the Patriot Act.

For some Arab-Americans, the world was turned upside down. They know it well here, in southeast Michigan, home to the largest concentration of Arab-Americans in the country, around 400,000 people.

"Before, I was just a darkly pigmented guy with a funny name," El-Sayed says. "No difference between Abdul and the rest of us. Suddenly, one's association with Islam made it different with how people judged you."

He remembers a football game in his senior season, when three opponents toppled him and one yelled, "Get the hell out of our country." While playing lacrosse for the University of Michigan, he says one opponent shouted at him, "I didn't know they played lacrosse in the Middle East."

He navigated life in a post Sept. 11 world, excelled beyond anyone's wildest expectations. In 2007, El-Sayed gave the commencement address at the University of Michigan spring graduation, in front of thousands, including former President Bill Clinton.

El-Sayed declared himself a "Michigan Man," talked of the "contagious Michigan passion," and "the audacity to believe we can change the world."

But can the world really change that fast, that dramatically, especially for Arab-Americans? Consider the last presidential campaign, when some used the full name of "Barack Hussein Obama" to make the candidate seem somehow foreign, un-American and, yes, Muslim.

The Arab-American community flocked to Obama's side.

"I think people who first fell in love with Obama in the Arab-American community were the young people. They have a much bigger view of who they are," says Hassan Jaber, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.

Jaber is based in Dearborn, the thriving heart of Arab-American life in the region. It is a city sprinkled with mosques and built with muscle home to Ford Motor Co.

Jaber is eager to see the new president come to Dearborn, to give a speech aimed at Arab-Americans.

"I know that he is not a miracle worker," Jaber says. "I know that the damage that has been done to this country is really deep. And I believe regardless of who was in there in the last eight years, we were going to see this damage. We'll have to re-evaluate what kind of society we do want."

There is life and learning here. The faithful come for noon prayers at the Islamic Center of America, a glorious mosque that takes up most of a city block. Schoolkids skip through the hallways at the Muslim American Youth Academy.

"We try to keep it real here," says Hala Hazimi, the assistant principal. "We try not to shelter the kids from the outside world."

Hazimi is 29, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. She has an undergraduate degree in elementary education and a master's degree in public administration. Five years ago, she took a job with the school and put on the hijab, a head covering.

She worries about the future, wonders whether the schoolkids will face "confusion and conflict" in a country still emerging from Sept. 11.

"We're no less American than any other ethnic group," she says.

Inside the school, on a bulletin board, are portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., with the words "I Have a Dream."

America is fueled by such dreams.

In the autumn, this Michigan Man will go to Oxford. He will try and change the world.

"If a black man with a funny name can be elected president, then why can't an Arab son of an Egyptian man with a funny name change the perception of people?" El-Sayed asks. "This is the vindication that the country can have for itself."

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