Hamtramck, Mich.: An Evolving City Of Immigrants

Mar 28, 2017
Originally published on March 31, 2017 1:31 pm

Pick a street corner in downtown Hamtramck, Mich., and you'll be struck by the incredible mix of cultures crammed into this tiny, 2-square-mile city.

A Catholic church across the street from a mosque. Polish pastry shops, sausage factories, and grocery stores promising "the best Polish food, shipping to Eastern Europe," side by side with Bengali clothing shops that sell richly embroidered dresses and headscarves. And you'd be remiss if you didn't stop in the many Yemeni restaurants serving fragrant lamb and discs of flatbread the size of hubcaps.

What has united all of the immigrant groups who've come to Hamtramck? Good jobs in the auto industry. Hamtramck is surrounded by Detroit, and for decades, car manufacturing was its lifeblood.

Polish immigrants started coming to Hamtramck starting in the early 1900s, lured by the promise of jobs at the new Dodge Main factory. At its peak, nearly 75 percent of the city's residents were Poles. But now, after decades of decline, that has plummeted to about 10 percent, as Poles have moved up and out to the suburbs and Yemenis and Bangladeshis have replaced them.

Many of those former Polish residents still flock back here each week for the Polish language Mass at St. Florian Roman Catholic Church. It's a majestic neo-Gothic structure, with beautiful stained-glass windows and an elaborate turquoise spire that rises high above Poland Street.

"It's one of the kind. It's a cathedral. It just speaks to you," explains parishioner Alek Fidler — "like the one on the roof!" he jokes, "just one 'd.' "

Fidler and his wife both immigrated to Hamtramck from Poland. They met while working minimum wage factory jobs, cutting leather to make seats for cars. Their children were born in Hamtramck, but five years ago, the family moved to a nearby suburb, looking for better schools and a different environment.

The Hamtramck they knew had changed. "It's now more like a Bangladeshi town, so, that's a different story," says Fidler. "Seems like, you know, they were basically taking over."

That loss of identity can be uncomfortable. St. Florian's priest, Miroslaw Frankowski, recalls his first impression of this city when he arrived in Hamtramck about 10 years ago.

"I'm almost like in Cairo," he says, "because you know, the call for the prayer — and people covered up under clothings typical for Middle East. Yeah, it seemed like I'm working in Middle East."

In Hamtramck streets, it's common now to see women fully veiled, with only their eyes exposed. The amplified Muslim call to prayer was a source of controversy here some years back, and still can raise hackles.

"It's different, nothing against it, it's just a different way. The sound, it's not from our culture," says Frankowski.

The 45-year-old priest can draw on his own experience as an outsider. He came to the U.S. from Poland when he was 14 and spoke no English when he started eighth grade.

"Those eighth-graders are the worst," he recalls. "Some understood, some did not, some were laughing at me. That's why I do understand the immigrants. I know that they face difficult times. Not only because it's a totally different culture here, but because there's still love for the homeland."

The Poles live side by side with Muslims, explains Father Frankowski: friendly, but mostly separate.

"We go to their stores, we shop at their markets," he says. He says he loves trying interesting fruits he's never seen before, and he's a big fan of hummus.

Hamtramck is now closing in on a majority Muslim population, with Bangladeshis and Yemenis making up the largest immigrant groups. There are more than a dozen mosques around the small city, one of them in a surprising spot: the former American Axle factory.

The factory closed down — thousands of jobs, gone to Mexico — and the Abu-Bakr Al-Siddique Islamic Center opened up in one of the bright blue cavernous warehouses still standing there.

Right across the street from that mosque, we stop in at the home of the Hadwan family. They live in a new, three-story brick house, big enough for three generations of Hadwans to live comfortably.

Salah Hadwan, 27, takes us inside to meet his family, and right away, his mother is brewing tea for us and his brothers get busy ordering takeout Yemeni food for lunch. "Dude, get some chicken fahsah," advises his youngest brother, Hadwan.

On the refrigerator, right next to Arabic script reading "God is the greatest," there's a red, white and blue oval sticker printed with two words: "I voted."

Salah Hadwan's father put that sticker there. "If he finds out one of us didn't vote, he's furious," Salah says. "You guys would not believe how proud they are to have the rights, and how hard they worked to get it. My dad wakes us up as soon as the polls open. And if you're not at home, he'll call you all day."

Soon, we gather — sitting cross-legged on the carpet — to talk over plates of chicken stew, roasted lamb and wedges of sweet, flaky bread.

Salah, who goes by Sal, has invited two Yemeni friends over to join the conversation: Nabil Nagi, 32, and Yunus Wasel, 33.

All of them are the sons of proud autoworkers. Their fathers or grandfathers spent decades working the assembly lines for the Big Three.

"You didn't have to have much English," explains Wasel. "You're on the assembly line. No one's gonna pick on you, and it was a good paying job at the time." All three agree that their fathers were hard workers: "If they weren't," says Wasel, "they would never have stuck in there for 35 years."

Here's a signpost of just how shared the immigrant experiences can be in a place like Hamtramck: it turns out that Salah Hadwan's father cut leather for car seats in the very same factory as Alek Fidler, the Polish parishioner we met earlier at St. Florian.

And just as we heard Father Frankowski profess his fondness for hummus, these young Yemeni men excitedly describe their love of a Polish delicacy: custard-filled paczki, the doughnuts that are a famous Hamtramck tradition. Food is, as always, the great uniter.

As we talk in the Hadwans' home, our conversation turns to the sharp, anti-Muslim rhetoric that has erupted around the country and the Trump administration's travel ban, which specifically targets Yemen.

Salah and his friends are all U.S. citizens, so the travel ban on Yemenis shouldn't affect them directly. But it still stings, they say, and creates fear.

The conversation grows animated:

"You're banning us as Yemeni and also sending us drones to kill us every day!" exclaims Wasel. "If they wanted to ban a country, why didn't they ban Saudi Arabia?"

"But you guys, we all knew," chimes in Salah Hadwan, the "countries that were banned never had a terrorist act committed from any of those."

They all start talking at once: "a traditional Yemeni way of communicating," Hadwan tells us with a smile.

Hadwan is a registered nurse, working in the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital. He tells us about a patient he took care of who mistakenly thought "Sal" on his nametag meant that he was a fellow Italian.

Assuming he had found a sympathetic ear, the patient started bashing Muslims, saying that Arabs are all terrorists and should all be deported; that Islam would doom the world. Salah held his tongue until it was time for the patient to be discharged. Only then did he tell him that he is Muslim.

"There's times where you just gotta be the better person and the bigger person," says Hadwan. "Being of Middle Eastern descent, we have to be stronger and learn how to control our emotions."

But that goes only so far.

"It hurts," says Nabil Nagi. "When I heard all that [anti-Muslim] stuff, I look out the window, I see the [American] flag, and it feels like home. But at the same time, it was hard. It was like betrayal in a way."

"But you should know," Salah Hadwan says, looking at Nagi, "as an individual ... It shouldn't have bothered you and hurt, because we know who we are."

Yunus Wasel jumps into the conversation: "OK, we're all proud Americans. From Day 1 to right now. We came from Yemen, we're living in America. We're Yemeni-Americans, we're proud Americans. But to get hit with what's going on right now, it takes something out of you and you're angry. Who is not angry? Who is not mad? At the same notion, it's not like we're going out here doing anything violent or getting mad about it. We protested and that's it. But we're still mad at why we got the finger pointed at us."

This concluding thought on the tenor of the times comes from Salah Hadwan:

"At the end of the day, Trump won, this is what it is. And now we've got to work together and show what it is to be an American."

Hadwan suggests that their diverse city should serve as a model. He says, "I wish there was a mini-Hamtramck in every state."

The "Our Land" series is produced by Elissa Nadworny.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The world in two square miles - that's how the city of Hamtramck, Mich., promotes itself. It's a city of immigrants that has changed dramatically over the years. It used to be overwhelmingly Polish and Catholic. Now it's largely Muslim. Two of the biggest ethnic groups are Bangladeshis and Yemenis.

On her road trip for the series Our Land, NPR's Melissa Block visited Hamtramck, which is surrounded by Detroit, and she found a place where old and new coexist and sometimes collide.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Five times a day, the call to prayer rings out over Hamtramck from more than a dozen mosques, including this one. It's in a former axle factory.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

BLOCK: Just a few blocks away...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)

BLOCK: ...Polish mass at St. Florian Roman Catholic Church where Polish immigrants have worshipped for more than a century.

UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGATION: (Singing in Polish).

BLOCK: There's one thing that's united all the immigrant groups who've come to Hamtramck - good jobs in the auto industry. The Poles came first in huge numbers. They used to make up three quarters of Hamtramck's population. Now that's dwindled to about 10 percent as Poles have moved up and out to the suburbs. But each week, many still flock back here to St. Florian for Polish mass.

ALEK FIDLER: It's one of the kind. It's a cathedral. It just speaks to you, you know? So...

BLOCK: So this is parishioner Alek Fidler.

FIDLER: Fidler.

BLOCK: Fidler.

FIDLER: Like the one on the roof.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

FIDLER: Just one D.

BLOCK: Here's the Fidler's immigration story. Alek and his wife came to Hamtramck from Poland. They met in a factory here. They were cutting leather to make seats for cars. But five years ago, they moved to a nearby suburb, looking for better schools for their kids, a different environment. The Hamtramck they knew had changed.

FIDLER: It's now more like a Bangladeshi town, so (laughter) that's a different story. But seems like, you know, they were basically taking over.

BLOCK: That loss of identity - it can be uncomfortable.

MIROSLAW FRANKOWSKI: I'm almost, like, in Cairo (laughter).

BLOCK: Really, that's what you were thinking?

FRANKOWSKI: Yes.

BLOCK: St. Florian's priest, Miroslaw Frankowski, recalls his first impression when he arrived in Hamtramck about 10 years ago.

FRANKOWSKI: The call for the prayer, then the people covered up in their clothings typical for Middle East. So yeah, it seemed like I'm working in the Middle East.

BLOCK: In Hamtramck's streets, it's common now to see women fully veiled with only their eyes exposed. The amplified Muslim call to prayer was a source of controversy here some years back.

And when you hear the call to prayer, how does it register with you?

FRANKOWSKI: It's different. And you know, nothing against it. It's just a different way. The sound - it's not from our culture, no.

BLOCK: Father Frankowski knows what it's like to be an outsider. He immigrated to the U.S. from Poland when he was 14. At first, he spoke no English, and he was teased.

FRANKOWSKI: Those eighth graders are the worst. That's why I do understand the immigrants. And I know that they face difficult times not only because it's a totally different culture here but because there is still love for the homeland.

BLOCK: You feel that, too.

FRANKOWSKI: I feel that, too, yes, yeah.

BLOCK: In Hamtramck, the Poles live alongside Muslims - Frankowski says friendly but mostly separate.

FRANKOWSKI: We go to their stores. We shop at their markets. So I buy things, and I buy their things because I like to try their things.

BLOCK: Like what? What do you get?

FRANKOWSKI: Like hummus.

BLOCK: Hummus, and he'll try interesting fruits he's never seen before. Walk around Hamtramck, and you'll still see Polish pastry shops, sausage factories and grocery stores. They're side by side with Bengali clothing shops that sell richly embroidered dresses and headscarves and Yemini restaurants serving fragrant lamb and disks of flatbread the size of hubcaps. To hear about the Yemeni experience here, we meet up with Salah Hadwan.

SALAH HADWAN: We can go in my house.

BLOCK: Oh, this is your house.

HADWAN: Yeah.

BLOCK: His house is right across from that mosque we heard earlier. While his mother makes tea, Salah and his brothers get busy ordering takeout lunch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Kalaba, dude, get some chicken fahsa.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes.

BLOCK: The Hadwan family immigrated from Yemen when Salah was 5. He's 27 now, a registered nurse. He lives with his parents, brothers and sister, nieces - nine people in all in a new, three-story house. On the refrigerator, there's Arabic script reading, God is the greatest right next to a red, white and blue sticker printed with two words - I voted.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: My dad - he's - if he finds out one of us didn't vote, he's furious. Dude, my dad wakes us up as soon as the polls open. And if you're not at home, he'll call you all day.

BLOCK: And soon, we gather to talk over plates of chicken stew with wedges of sweet, flaky bread. Salah Hadwan in a Detroit Tigers ball cap has invited two Yemeni friends over to join the conversation, Nabil Nagi and Yunus Wasel. All of them are the sons of proud auto workers. Their fathers or grandfathers spent decades working the assembly lines for the big three.

YUNUS WASEL: You didn't have to have much English. You're on the assembly line. And you know, no one's going to pick on you as long as you...

HADWAN: It was a good-paying job at the time.

WASEL: Yeah. And they're hard workers - very hard workers. If they weren't, they would have never stuck in there for 35 years.

BLOCK: And here's a signpost of just how shared the immigrant experiences can be in a place like Hamtramck. It turns out that Salah Hadwan's father worked in the same factory as Alek Fidler, the Polish parishioner we met earlier at St. Florian. In fact, they had the same job cutting leather for car seats. And just as Father Frankowski loves his hummus, these young Yemeni men love a Polish delicacy.

HADWAN: They make a custard-filled Paczki.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Delicious.

HADWAN: It's called a Paczki. It's kind of a donut.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: It's huge.

HADWAN: And it's huge.

BLOCK: The donuts that Hamtramck is famous for. When we start talking about recent anti-immigrant rhetoric around the country, Salah Hadwan points out...

HADWAN: If you're not Native American, you are the definition of an immigrant.

BLOCK: But as a Muslim, he does get anxious, for example, when he hears breaking news of a mass shooting.

HADWAN: The first thing that does come to my mind is, I hope his name is not Omar, or I hope it's not a Muslim. And then they all say the name, and I'm like, oh, OK, he's not Arabic.

BLOCK: And the conversation grows animated as we talk about the Trump administration's travel ban which specifically targets Yemen.

WASEL: If they wanted to ban a country, why didn't they ban Saudi Arabia...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Exactly. That's what I'm saying.

WASEL: ...That did the 9/11.

BLOCK: Hadwan and his friends are all U.S. citizens, so the travel ban on Yemenis shouldn't affect them directly. But still, it stings.

WASEL: Can you listen? You're banning us as Yemeni and also sending U.S. drones to kill us every day.

HADWAN: But you guys, we all knew that. We all knew that. This country's never been, never had a terrorist act committed from any those - hold on. Can I finish? Can I finish?

BLOCK: This is our host, Salah Hadwan.

HADWAN: There's times where you just got to be the better person and the bigger person. You know, being a Middle Eastern descent, we have to be...

NABIL NAGI: It's a responsibility.

HADWAN: ...Stronger and learn how to control our emotions.

BLOCK: But that only goes so far.

NAGI: It hurts.

BLOCK: This is Nabil Nagi.

NAGI: When I heard all that stuff, look out the window, I see the flag, and it feels like home. And then - but at the same time, that was, like - it was hard. It was like betrayal.

WASEL: OK, we're all proud Americans.

HADWAN: We are.

WASEL: But then to get hit with what's going on right now, it takes something out of you, and you're angry. Who's not angry? Who's not mad? I mean and at the same notion, it's not like we're going out here, doing anything violent or getting mad about it. We protested, and that's it. But at the same notion, we're still mad at why we got the finger pointed at us.

BLOCK: That's Yunus Wasel at the end there. Salah Hadwan adds a final thought.

HADWAN: I feel like at the end of the day, Trunp won. This is what it is. And now we just got to work together and show what it is to be an American.

BLOCK: And to do that, why not look to their diverse city as a model? Hadwan says, I wish there was a mini Hamtramck in every state. Melissa Block, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BUTLER TRIO SONG, "BULLET GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.