Michigan is well known for having one of the largest Arab and Chaldean populations in not only the United States, but around the world (outside of the Middle East, of course)! Dearborn, and the greater Detroit area, has been home for these communities for decades, and for some, over a century.
The “Henry Ford and the Yemeni Sailor” story is an oral tradition, a tale passed down through generations of local Arab storytellers revealing the spark that led to the great migration of Arab communities to southeast Michigan. The tale begins with a Yemeni sailor from Aden who worked on ships on Michigan’s Great Lakes. The Yemeni sailor is said to have encountered Henry Ford in the early 1900s. At this time, Henry Ford was looking for people to hire and work at his automobile manufacturing factories. The Yemeni sailor spread the word to family and friends, initiating the mass Yemeni Arab migration to Dearborn.
Some of the earliest waves of Arab immigration took place between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Syrian and Lebanese people were the first to reach Detroit in the late 1880s, seeking work in Henry Ford’s factories, originally settling close to the Jefferson Avenue auto plant. Despite restrictive immigration legislation in the early 1920s, Palestinians began immigrating to the Detroit area in 1924, signaling the first major wave of immigration. Members of this community at first settled in Highland Park, close to Ford’s Model T plant, and continued spreading out over the years. The Yemeni people first came to the southend of Dearborn in the early 1900s. Often, the first Yemeni immigrants were men, but by the 1960s Yemeni families began entering Dearborn as well. The closing of Ford’s manufacturing plants in Detroit and Highland Park led many other Arab communities to move once more and settle in Dearborn.
One of the area’s most prominent mosques was built in Dearborn in 1938. Constructed at the intersection of Vernor and Dix streets, it was Michigan’s first mosque. Owned by the American Moslem Society, some call it the “Dix Mosque” while others refer to it as the Dix Masjid, Dearborn Masjid, or Dearborn Mosque. Due to its integral role in the Muslim community, many Muslim immigrants chose to live close to their favored place of worship. It initially started off as a small house, but as more people moved to the area and frequented the local mosque, the need arose to expand the mosque structure. Over time, the local mosque also became a community center for local Muslims to not only worship but also gather and socialize. Even though more mosques were built throughout Dearborn and Detroit, most in the community still attend the Dearborn Mosque regularly.
Prominent Arab Americans from the greater Detroit area include: U.S. representative of Michigan’s 13th congressional district Rashida Tlaib, George Khoury (co-founder of ACCESS), science fiction and comic book writer Saladin Ahmed, and voice actor and radio personality Casey Kasem. Kasem was the first person to voice cartoon character Norville Rogers (Shaggy) in Scooby Doo!
The Arab American National Museum contributed to the development of the text for this location.