DEARBORN, Mich. – Sawsan Jabri and Osama Siblani represent the advancement of the Arab community in the Detroit area: Jabri is a doctor from Syria who teaches microbiology at several community colleges, and Siblani came from Lebanon to be an engineer and now publishes the influential Arab-American News.
The two share Middle Eastern roots and the American dream. They also represent dissension among Arab-Americans over Syria and underscore a growing rift over ideological, political and regional differences.
Each speaks for opposing camps: Jabri is a spokeswoman for the Syrian Expatriates Organization, a lobbying and fundraising group of doctors and other professionals that staged rallies in support of the U.S. backing rebels in Syria’s civil war and ousting President Bashar Assad. Siblani has been a voice opposing U.S. intervention through counter-demonstrations and the opinion pages of his newspaper.
When it comes to Syria, Siblani says, there’s little room for agreement.
“I have been in this business for 29 years,” he said. “I have never seen the community divided as much as we are divided today. … It is an elephant in the room all the time.”
President Barack Obama has been pushing for U.S. military action but Tuesday asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force and threw his support behind a diplomatic plan for U.N. Security Council talks aimed at securing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Regardless of what the U.S. ultimately decides to do, positions on Syria have unraveled Arab ties to the United States that date back more than a century, when immigrants from the Arab world started coming en masse and moved into enclaves dubbed “Little Syria.”
They originally came from what today are known as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel or the Palestinian territories but then was Ottoman-controlled Syria. More came later from the region, particularly after immigration restrictions were eased in the 1960s and during the 15-year Lebanese civil war ending in 1990.
The Syrian community in the U.S. is estimated to be about 150,000 people and about 10,000 in Michigan, but the number could be much higher if it reflected all those who trace their roots to early 20th century Greater Syria. The Detroit area alone, which has one of the largest Middle East populations in the United States has roughly 150,000 Arabs and Chaldeans, or Iraqi Christians based on the latest available data and scholarly research.
Siblani and Jabri agree that Syria has divided the U.S. Arab community despite a history of coexistence among different religions, Islamic sects, regions or countries.
“I don’t know what’s happened – people became more into everyone’s identity,” said Jabri, who contends that Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons numerous times and he should be toppled and prosecuted. “The separation is not working in our direction.”
Some of the rising tension reflects what’s happening in community members’ homelands: Lebanon and Syria share a complicated history and a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, and Syria’s civil war has intensified divisions next-door. The Syrian rebels enjoy the backing of many Lebanese Sunnis, while the Syrian government has the support of Lebanon’s Shiite community, including the powerful militant Hezbollah group.
“The situation gets very tense when you try to say who is responsible for what,” Siblani said.
A couple hundred people rallied Friday in support of U.S. airstrikes in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, while about 100 opponents marched through downtown Detroit Sunday. The relatively low numbers reflect the divisions among Arab-Americans, Siblani said. He compared them with the thousands who demonstrated in 2006 during a 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel that destroyed much of southern Lebanon, where many of the Arabs in Dearborn come from.
“Everyone is staying home and doesn’t want to get involved,” Siblani said. “But on the ground and in their living rooms … they are segregated.”
In deciding whether to hold a public show of support for Assad this week, Syrian-born New Jersey resident Michael Ibrahim recalled a clash that broke out the last time Syrians in New Jersey held a protest. In April 2011, a Paterson, N.J., protest had to be controlled by police when Syrians both for and against Assad packed a small park in the heart of New Jersey’s Arab-American community and tried shouting one another down in English and Arabic.
“We don’t want any problems,” said Ibrahim, a Syrian Christian priest. “It’s enough with what’s going on in our country – we don’t want more trouble here.”
Just as in Detroit, there’s a fragile peace among the Syrian diaspora in New Jersey, home to about 7,000 Syrians, both Christian and Muslim.
Mohamed Khairullah said many Syrians are waiting to see what action the United States will take before organizing any demonstrations. The mayor of Prospect Park, N.J., said he’s been waging his own form of protest by boycotting Syrian businesses in New Jersey owned by Assad supporters.
Although his family is Sunni Muslim, Khairullah said tensions among Syrians in the U.S. aren’t divided along religious lines from what he has observed.
“I don’t think it’s Muslim versus Christian, because we do have Christians who are anti-regime, and there are Muslims who are with the regime,” he said. “It depends how strongly you believe.”