For America's first Muslim-led city, Trump ban is wakeup call

After the shock of Trump's ban on refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority nations, residents of Hamtramck, Mich., resolve to make their voices heard.  

Rebecca Cook/Reuters
Several hundred people rally against a temporary travel ban signed by President Trump in an executive order during a protest in Hamtramck, Mich., Jan. 29, 2017.

After reports broke last week that President Trump was planning to halt immigration from some Muslim countries, calls and texts started pouring in to Saad Almasmari, a gregarious Yemeni-born city councilman here. By Saturday afternoon, the day after the executive order came through, Mr. Almasmari had received hundreds of anxious messages, and his phone was still buzzing.

“Saad, what are we going to do now?” one man wrote to him. “Please tell me. My wife is in the airport in Qatar.”

Across the country and throughout the world, Mr. Trump’s sweeping executive order produced an uproar rarely felt from a presidential act. The order indefinitely banned Syrian refugees from entering the United States. It also temporarily banned all refugees for 120 days and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, including Yemen for 90 days. Over the weekend, refugees were caught in limbo at American airports, permanent residents were stranded away from their families, and world leaders and experts roundly condemned the act as cruel, counterproductive, and unconstitutional.

But perhaps no American city has felt the impact more acutely than Hamtramck, a largely Yemeni and Bangladeshi enclave of some 22,000 residents adjacent to Detroit. In the wake of the order the city’s residents – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – were outraged and saddened. Once the initial shock wore off, the city seemed to have found a new resolve, even if the path forward remains unclear.  

“I'm 100 percent sure that today is not going to be like yesterday,” Mr. Almasmari told the Monitor on Saturday. “We might do protests. We might hire lawyers.... We’re going to try to do anything to protect our rights.”

Hamtramck, once mostly populated by Polish immigrants, became famous in November 2015 when it became the nation’s first city to elect a majority-Muslim city council. Since then the city has often been the subject of various kinds of media and internet attention – both heralded as an example of American religious harmony and vilified by false allegations that it practices sharia law. Catholic church bells and the Muslim call to prayer reverberate through the city’s densely populated middle-class neighborhoods. Halal grocery stores and old-time dive bars coexist on Joseph Campau and Caniff streets, the main business avenues.

“This country was built by immigrants,” said Almasmari, who owns a local ice cream shop and came to Hamtramck in 2008, earning American citizenship in 2012. “How can Mr. Trump, the president – the head of the country – be against one of the best American values? That’s what makes us disappointed.”

On Saturday, a half dozen or so Hamtramck Yemenis and Yemeni-Americans echoed similar sentiments, expressing not only shock and fear for friends and relatives but also a sense that America – the country they loved – now had a president who was betraying them.

“I consider this my country. I will do anything for it,” said Hizam Husain, a grocery cashier. “I did not expect to be treated like this.”

Mr. Husain, a thin-middle aged man with a wispy white beard, has lived in the US for 27 years, he said. Like most Muslims, he was troubled by Trump’s campaign talk, but he also didn’t think the new president would actually carry through with his anti-Muslim threats. “We did not expect that to happen,” he said. “I thought it was, like, only to win the election.”

Politics over malawah

One nearby shopkeeper, Hameed Murshed, said he and his wife (who immigrated to the US last year) had been forced to cancel their upcoming pilgrimage to Mecca. Now they aren’t sure how long they will have to wait to plan another trip. “Maybe until we have a new president,” he said.

Another group of several young men, chatting in Arabic and eating together over big baskets of malawah bread at Sheeba, a small Yemeni restaurant, worried about a mutual friend. She was stuck overseas, away from her kids. They spoke in incredulous tones about how, under Trump, America was moving away from its founding principles. “If we stop the immigration, America will stop growing,” one of the men said.

Another, Sam, told how his 10-year-old sister, who wears the hijab, had started crying after Trump won. He had consoled her, explaining that one man couldn’t erase an entire country’s democratic system and the goodwill of its people. “I still believe that,” he said. “Trump by himself can’t change that.”

But everyone at the table declined to give their full names. “We’re afraid,” one young man said.  

Soon, though, as protests engulfed the country, Hamtramck, too, turned from anxiety to action.

Roughly 800 people attended a rally Sunday afternoon outside Hamtramck’s city hall, in a normally quiet residential neighborhood. Protesters of all ages and backgrounds – many people from nearby cities joined a large local contingent – chanted and waved signs with phrases like “Stand 4 All Fight 4 All” and “Without Immigrants USA Wouldn’t Exist.” Several speakers vigorously denounced Trump and extolled the contributions of Muslims.

“Today we stand united against bigotry and hatred!” said Fatina Abdrabboh, a civil rights lawyer and the director of the Michigan regional office of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “We stand together in support of each other, and this is the best of America!”

Watching the scene on a live internet feed was Karen Majewski, the city’s longtime mayor. She was out of state but had helped with the event planning, urging protest organizers to include local leaders as much as possible. The mayor was moved to tears by the display of love and unity that unfolded in her city, she later told the Monitor.

“We’re taking part in a nationwide movement,” she said. “I think that’s really important for the people of Hamtramck to know – that they’re taking part in something that’s patriotic, that’s national, that’s principled, and that has the weight of millions of people behind it.... I was so amazed.”

A city's support

The mayor said the city will do everything in its power to protect its Muslim residents. She expects to partner with civil rights organizations, and was reaching out to local Yemeni community leaders before deciding on the best course for the city.  

“We’ll support whatever they decide to do,” Mayor Majewski said. “I wanted to put the lead in the hands of the community itself.”

But the mayor was also frank about the limitations of her small Midwestern city. “Somebody asked me, ‘You know, shouldn’t we be suing Trump?’ We don’t have those kinds of resources,” Majewski said. “Basically, we’re just a small little town.”

Still, there are signs that Hamtramck’s multicultural voice won’t be silenced. On Monday evening, as the town was being blanketed by a late winter snowstorm, the city council convened in an emergency session to unanimously pass a resolution condemning the executive order. And council members – Muslim and non-Muslim – and area community leaders have been roundly vocal in decrying Mr. Trump’s order.

Residents are making themselves heard, too.

Among the protesters Sunday was Gharab Hdwan, a soft-spoken county employee who came to Hamtramck from Yemen 18 months ago. Shivering in the cold, Mr. Hdwan was also draped in an American flag.

“America the country No. 1 in the world,” he said in broken English. “I love people of America, but the Trump [policy is] racist.”

A minute later Hdwan was pulled aside to pose for a picture with other protesters, and for several minutes he didn’t stop smiling. 

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