HAMTRAMCK, MICHIGAN —
The moment he became an American citizen in December of 2012 was a high point in Yemen-born Saad Almasmari’s life. A close second was the night of November 3 when he garnered the most votes in the race for Hamtramck’s City Council.
“I am a social guy,” he told VOA in between bites of his dinner at the popular local Yemeni restaurant, Sheeba. “I like helping people. I like helping my community, my city.”
Almasmari joined two more Muslim American candidates on the November ballot in Hamtramck’s City Council election. The trio received the most votes in a town that has one of the largest percentages of foreign-born citizens in Michigan.
“This is the city that has distinguished itself among others that the majority of those on the city council are Muslim,” explains Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab American News in Dearborn, Michigan, which put Almasmari’s picture on the front page of its election coverage. But the Hamtramck City Council election made bigger news because of its timing, and what it represents.
“While our presidential candidates are trying to prevent Muslims from coming to our country," Siblani told VOA, “Muslims are becoming a majority in one of the cities surrounding Detroit. This is why it became news.”
“I was surprised,” says Almasmari of the attention his election received, “because the election we just had was a politics election. It was not a religion election.”
Once dominated by Polish American restaurants and shops, the downtown business district of Hamtramck, Michigan has transformed into variety of small businesses and shops like this Yemeni restaurant, which reflects the changing ethnic makeup of this Detroit suburb of about 22,000 people (VOA/K. Farabaugh).
There is another edition of The Arab American News in the same stack of papers in Siblani’s Dearborn office as the one that covered the Hamtramck election. On the front page of the other edition is a picture of Republican candidate Donald Trump under the headline “FACISM.” Trump’s call for a ban on those of Muslim faith from coming to America angered many in Hamtramck and the larger Muslim community in Michigan.
“It is unfortunate however, that this is a point of discussion,” says Siblani. “The point of discussion should be how our country is diverse and how much we are tolerant to other nationalities and religions.”
For many in Hamtramck, the election results were not a surprise. Almasmari attributes that to the current makeup of the town of about 22,000 people.
“We are about 27 percent of the population in Hamtramck – Yemenis,” he says. “We have about 22 percent Bengalis. We have about 11 percent Bosnians. They are all Muslims. About 65 percent of the population are Muslims.”
Hamtramck is a case study in changing demographics spurred by recent immigration.
For more than a century, this Detroit suburb was home to many Polish Catholic immigrants and their descendants. The town prospered when the auto industry flourished, but its fortunes, and ethnic makeup, dramatically changed in the last several decades as the big three automakers shed jobs and closed factories.
Autoworkers and money flowed out of town, and with them went the town’s traditional identity.
It has now shifted from a town of Polish Catholic autoworkers to Muslim American shop owners and small businesses, like the Yemeni restaurant Almasmari frequents.
“We’re used to the ethnic diversity of our city,” says mayor Karen Majewski, herself a descendent of Polish immigrants in Hamtramck. “We’re used to the influx of new immigrants and the changes that brings to our city and so you know to us, this is what we do, and this is who we are, and so yeah, it’s actually been quite surprising all this national and international attention.”
But that attention has quickly faded, so much so that when Almasmari took his seat for his first City Council meeting, VOA was one of only two media organizations present to document the moment.
It was a meeting Almasmari was not going to miss, despite an invitation to attend President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address, which happened to fall on the same night.
“But I refused to take it because tonight was my first council meeting, and I couldn’t miss my first council meeting!”
Almasmari says he is proud to be Muslim, “but of course I am not going to put my religion into my work as a council (member),” he says. “On the council, I am American before I am Muslim.”
Almasmari says he’s fielded more than 75 interview requests, which keep coming in. “One of the newspapers asked me 'if you were able to meet with Mr. Trump, would you?' And then three days later I received an email from his campaign asking if you (I) had time, 15 or 20 minutes, to meet with Mr. Trump.”
Almasmari says he’s been too busy to follow up on the invitation, but if he does meet Trump, he wouldn’t talk about his faith. He’d ask the candidate about helping Hamtramck, which is in financial trouble, and has one of the highest poverty rates in the state of Michigan.