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Michigan's Arab-Americans Respond To Donald Trump's Anti-Muslim Rhetoric


Visit the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, and it becomes immediately clear that you're in one of the largest Arab-American populations in the country. Signs are in English and Arabic. There are mosques large and small. Arab-Americans make up 40 percent of the city's population. NPR's Don Gonyea traveled there to get reaction to this week's political rhetoric about Muslims.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: In Dearborn this week, Arab-American and Latino activists gathered to share a meal and discuss ways they can work together. Much of the talk that evening was about the presidential campaign, especially Donald Trump.

ISMAEL AHMED: I'll give a shout out to Donald Trump, as well.


GONYEA: That's Ismael Ahmed, the former head of Michigan's Department of Human Services. You could hear some laughter there, but his message was dead serious.

AHMED: There should be no place for people like him in this country. He should not...


AHMED: And make no mistake, he's not the only one. He's the leading edge.

GONYEA: Seventy-year-old Ron Amen works in the city's economic development department. He's is a gray-haired example of the long history of Arab-Americans here.

RON AMEN: My one grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1890. That was on my mom's side.

GONYEA: Amen is a Vietnam veteran and a former police officer and says he'll put his all-American family story up against anyone's.

AMEN: I was born, raised in America. I served this country in the military. I served this country as a police officer for 32 years. I don't know what else I would have to prove to people like Mr. Trump that I'm not a threat to this country.

GONYEA: At another table, we find 16-year-old Marwa Kalil, her 17-year-old sister, Safa, and their 15-year-old friend Molouk Harp. They say they feel themselves being judged every day. This is Marwa.

MARWA KHALIL: You are a virus. That's what they make you seem like. Muslims and Arabs are a virus to America.

GONYEA: The Kalil sisters, both wearing the traditional Muslim head cover, the hijab, came here with their family from Syria eight years ago. Here's in this person.

SAFA KHALIL: I feel like, especially after Trump, I always have to be extra nice in public. I always have to have a smile on my face. So I need to have - oh, she's nice. Like, they automatically assume that, because I'm a Muslim, I'm a woman, I'm a hijabi, that I'm this terrorist.

GONYEA: The three girls attend Fordson High School in Dearborn, where Molouk Harp describes how the day begins.

MOLOUK HARP: We do the Pledge of Allegiance every single day. And after you realize that we are the land of the free, you sort of make the connection that, after what Trump is saying, does not make any connection to what we are saying every day.

GONYEA: Rashida Tlaib runs a campaign called Take On Hate, which confronts prejudice and misconceptions about Arab-Americans nationally. She is also the first Muslim woman ever elected to the Michigan legislature. She says it frustrates her when she hears people accuse Arab-Americans of not speaking out against terrorist attacks.

RASHIDA TLAIB: When they say that, I get so definitive.

GONYEA: She says Arab-Americans do speak out all the time against terrorism and that they have been a big help to law enforcement.

TLAIB: We are struggling as we mourn when Paris happened, as we mourn when the California mass shooting happened. I mean, we were mourning with our fellow Americans and, at the same time, trying to defend who we are and to say that's not who we are, and it's exhausting.

GONYEA: Nasser Beydoun is a former head of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce and now heads the Arab-American Civil Rights League. He is also a Republican. He's disturbed by what he's hearing from his party's candidates this election, not just Donald Trump.

NASSER BEYDOUN: It's shocking. You know that's where the Islamophobia has really gotten to a point where it's OK.

GONYEA: As for the Republican Party...

BEYDOUN: If they don't adapt to the changing demographics of America, the party is going to basically go away.

GONYEA: Beydoun says he feels the anti-Muslim mood is worse than right after 9/11. And he says it will take years to undo the damage that's being done by the campaign rhetoric today. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.