SHAFAQNA – The only majority Muslim city in the US has welcomed Syrian refugees with open arms while the rest of America agonises over the security implications of taking in refugees fleeing from the horrors of Islamic State (IS).
Muslims now outnumber non-Muslims in Michigan’s Hamtramck, a city which was once made up of 90 per cent Polish Catholic, and transformed by successive waves of immigrants from Bangladesh, Yemen and Bosnia.
The latest additions to the burgeoning ethnic mix are 33 Syrians, all Muslim families with young children who fled their country’s brutal civil war.
Their arrival comes amid a national debate in the US over the risks of allowing refugees into the country who could be secret IS militants, plotting Paris-style terror attacks.
Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson want tougher monitoring of Muslims, while Michigan governor, Rick Snyder was the first of 31 governors who vowed to stop more Syrians coming to their states.
Hamtramck, aptly nicknamed ‘The world within two square miles’, is home to 22,000 people and its officials insist fears are overblown, adding that their doors remain open.
Thaer Hoshan, 40, fled Syria in 2012 with his pregnant wife Dalal, 37, and their five children, Shouk, 13, Shahed, 12, Rania, 10, Fadi, nine, and four-year-old Abdul-Hadi.
Recalling his story, he said his southern hometown of Daraa was one of the first to come under siege from Assad’s forces, who would shell civilians and burst into homes to slaughter men and rape women.
Without running water, power or access to schools, they escaped into Jordan where they say the UN put them through a 19-month vetting process before they could move to the US in August.
Once in the US, they were amazed t0 find many of the comforts and customs they enjoyed in the Middle East, from Arabic-speaking neighbours to bustling halal restaurants and shops stocked with Islamic gifts and fashion.
“Coming to the US was very nerve-racking. I had never heard of Michigan, let alone Hamtramck,” Hoshan said.
“I had no idea what to expect but once I got here I was surprised at how comfortable it felt. There is a mosque on the corner, most of the people speak our language. This place feels like home,” he added.
Hoshan also said that he had never heard of the IS group or their crimes until he fled Syria. ”We are not a threat to anyone,” he said.
As latest census figures, put Muslims at a majority of 51 per cent, the Polish community, which was once the majority, now only makes up 11 per cent of the community. The Arab population stands at 23 per cent, Bangladeshis at 19 per cent and Bosnians and other Muslims at around nine per cent.
With the city now being home to an assortment of Bengali restaurants, food markets and boutiques selling sequined Muslim gowns, headscarves and veils including the niqab; members of the Polish community have moved away.
However, those who have stayed behind accuse Muslims landlords of letting vacant properties fall into disrepair or renting our properties while doing little to maintain them.
“People here used to be fanatical about looking after their homes, shoveling the snow, cutting the grass, that sort of thing,” said Bernice Kurzawa, 84, who has called Hamtramck home for the past six decades.
“They are all renters now, they don’t care. Some of the women wear outfits where you can only see the eyes. The shops are all shutting because the Arabs eat their own food,” she added.
Another local, Barbara Zielinska, 60, said she feels ‘unsettled’ by groups of young Arab men congregating late at night, saying “We have an invasion of Muslims here now, I’m not afraid to say what needs to be said.”
Many also remain highly suspicious of what they call a ‘Sharia takeover’ or a ‘Muslim takeover’. Senior citizens in particular, have complained about being woken up each day by the 6:00am call to prayer.
Others; however, have been far more accommodating to Muslims and have been welcoming to Syrian refugees.
“We owe it to these people to ensure they don’t suffer a minute longer,” said Imam, an engineer who came to the US from Damascus nearly 40 years ago.
“When I heard they were coming here I took one of my vacant properties off the market just to make more room for them. These guys are not terrorists, they don’t want money – they want opportunity. And who are we to close the door on them? Who is Donald Trump to close the door on them?” he added.