Can we not lose our minds — and our democratic principles — over Syrian refugees?

Children during an event in Hamtramck.
Children during an event in Hamtramck.

Recently my aunt, a white-haired ordained Methodist minister who has a magic touch with children and rarely speaks up about politics, piped up during a discussion of the GOP presidential campaign. Speaking of the nasty, xenophobic rhetoric coming from the frontrunners, she said, “I’m just so disappointed in the American people.”

This was weeks before the terrorist attacks in Paris, which has made the nasty rhetoric much uglier and more nakedly hateful. I feel like her comment perfectly summarizes this peculiar, disturbing political moment.

Suddenly, Detroit has found itself in the same discussions as Paris or Brussels, which was on lockdown for days following the attacks. Not because we’ve been attacked by terrorists or are believed to be at imminent risk of it, but because we have already absorbed a many Arab and Muslim immigrants from across the globe, so people naturally ask, “How’s that workin’ out for ya?” And because there are plenty of good reasons for us to welcome refugees fleeing chaos and violence in places like Syria — not least Detroit’s need to repopulate itself with immigrant groups that tend to be more entrepreneurial than the general population.

Worst impulses

And in fact, that was exactly the plan.

Until Paris scared the shit out of everybody.

The attacks seem to have brought out the worst impulses from everyday Americans and many top elected leaders. Gov. Rick Snyder swiftly backpedaled on his pro-immigration stance and urged a “pause” for bringing Syrian refugees to Michigan. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson wants to shut down a proposed development in Pontiac to house Syrian refugees. Leading presidential contenders have likened Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs,” advocated accepting only Christian refugees, suggested the government should monitor mosques, claimed a huge mob of Arab-Americans in New Jersey cheered when the Twin Towers fell, and on and on and on.

The rhetoric is sickening, and might even be scarier than the Paris attacks themselves.

Is this really who we are now, cold and cruel and guided by fear and mistrust? Will we replace our democracy with fascism? Or will we remember what America is supposed to represent to the rest of the world, a beacon of light to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and all that stuff?

Reminder: Immigration isn’t a new thing

So it was refreshing to say the least to hear Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan ride to the defense of sanity Monday, announcing that Detroit is willing to accept Syrian refugees after the normal, 2-year screening process, which he said was adequate to weed out threats of terrorism.

“The question is do we respond to it with fear and panic, or do we respond to it with thoughtfulness and resolve?” Duggan said.

Storefronts in Mexican Town in Detroit.
Storefronts in Mexican Town in Detroit.

He added: “We have the vacant housing here that could accommodate these refugees. We have local support agencies, and, of course, we have a significant number of Syrian and other Middle Eastern communities based here, and so we have been moving down that road.”

The fact is that Detroit is much like the rest of the country in that there are entire communities made up of immigrants from less prosperous and dangerous lands. Southwest Detroit is populated largely by people who fled Mexico and Central America. Dearborn is notorious for its Arab-American population, which has been here for years without major incidents, despite frequent efforts by outsiders to stir up trouble. There are Asian Indians scattered throughout the suburbs. I play soccer with a bunch of Jamaicans who speak patois.

Last weekend, The Washington Post wrote a good story about Hamtramck, a small city of about 25,000 people surrounded by Detroit that recently made history for becoming what may be the first U.S. city to elect a Muslim-majority city council.

At 2.1 square miles, Hamtramck is best known as a longtime Polish Catholic immigrant enclave, a working-class town full of taverns and the Kowalski sausage plant, home to the annual Blowout music and Labor Day street festivals. In recent years, the city has undergone enormous demographic changes, as many Poles moved out to the suburbs, replaced by Bosnian, Yemeni, Bangladeshi and other immigrants. Poles are now a distinct minority there, although their cultural stamp remains.

As the Post story points out, it’s far from kumbaya in Hamtown in 2015. The different ethnic Muslim groups mostly don’t commingle, people have been complaining for years about the call to prayer broadcasts five times a day, and longtime townies worry the new city council members won’t represent their interests. Culture clashes are inevitable.

But in the end, people figure out a way to work it out, mostly. Life goes on. The newcomers add indelibly to the richness of local culture, whether it be by food, fashion, new businesses or, yes, religion. They become part of this idea we call “America.”

“They’re human,” as a longtime Pole told the Post of the newcomers. “You gotta live with them. Hamtramck is known for diversity.”

We’ve done this before, and we’re better than this. At least, we’re supposed to be.

Photos by Saad Almasmari’s Facebook page and Ian Freimuth via Creative Commons

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