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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Amid strikes and spares, Muslim nervousness that the game has changed

About this project

The 2016 presidential election exposed deepening fault lines in Michigan. Bridge is following 11 people and families throughout 2017 in an effort to pierce the bubbles in which they, and the rest of us, live. Our reporters and photojournalists will check in on these very different residents throughout the year to see how their aspirations or fears from the election play out, and to learn more about their hopes — some shared, some not — for a state they all love. 

Learn more about the Michigan Divided project

It’s Friday night at Cherry Hill Lanes in Dearborn Heights, starting to get late but plenty of time for a game or three before closing. Someone still likes Britney Spears enough to play “Baby One More Time” on the jukebox, and her voice rises over the sounds of crashing balls and pins.

Four couples have set up in lanes 42 and 43, punching their names into the electronic scorekeeper – Champ, Madina’s Mom, Adam, Leila – and changing into bowling shoes. The temperature outside is in the teens, so the long cardigan sweaters the women wear don’t register as modest clothing, but the headscarves do.

The group is Hussein and Mariam Charara, two of Mariam’s sisters, plus their husband and fiance, and Hussein’s sister and her husband. Eight young Muslims, American-born of mostly immigrant parents, Dearborn-raised, educated in public schools, capping off a night of halal pepperoni pizza and socializing with one of the oldest and most mundane entertainments Michigan has to offer – bowling.

“An exciting Friday night with Muslims,” Hussein said.

The Chararas are participating in Michigan Divided, a Bridge exploration of 11 Michigan individuals and families throughout 2017, in an attempt to pierce the bubbles in which they, and the rest of us, live. Part of Dearborn’s large, growing and increasingly native-born Muslim population, the Chararas have a 1-year-old daughter, are expecting a son in April, and both aspire to be teachers, Hussein when he finishes his degree this spring, and Mariam when their children are older.

Meet Michigan's divided: Hussein and Mariam Charara

This Friday night is a week-ending night off for the couple, one of a shrinking number before the baby arrives in April. Hussein is particularly busy, student teaching at Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn and working in his family’s furniture store in Detroit. Mariam cares for toddler Madina and shops online for the double stroller she’ll need soon.

It’s also a welcome break from the news of the past two weeks, as President Donald Trump’s executive orders temporarily banning refugees, and halting immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries have rattled the Muslim community, even this group who have little expectation of being directly affected by it.

Adam Fahs, married to Mariam’s sister Hanadi, is a orthopedic surgery resident at Beaumont Hospital’s Royal Oak location. He’s an uneven bowler, throwing gutters and strikes, and between turns says the immigration ban is of special concern for the area’s foreign-born doctors, who must complete a set number of hours of training to achieve various certifications. One ill-timed vacation, family emergency or other trip outside the country could lead to not being allowed to re-enter.

“Will doctors lose their licenses because of this? It could happen,” said Fahs. “It’s an unfortunate consequence of this blanket racism. I guess fear works.”

This group is safe from a ruling that targets immigrants, and by any outward measure they’re doing fine -- young, well-educated, employed.

But a persistent fake-news article about their hometown resurfaces from time to time, claiming the city is ruled by Islamic sharia law. The Arab International Festival, a community event dating from 1995, was cancelled after noisy anti-Islam demonstrators, one carrying a pig’s head on a stick, made it a scene of conflict. On a recent vacation Mariam and Hussein took to Los Angeles, a woman sitting at a nearby table in a restaurant made a snide comment about Mariam’s hijab. A trip to the movies might bring a trailer for a movie like “Patriots Day,” about the Boston Marathon terror attack. A gunman in Canada entered a mosque in Quebec City and opened fire, killing six. The outrages and irritants pile up.

When Trump’s executive order was followed immediately by mass protests at American airports, Mariam found herself whipsawed by emotion. After the executive order, she posted on the Facebook page she shares with her husband: “I'm absolutely appalled and disgusted at what has been going on today. I'm feeling so unsafe, so insecure, and so hurt. Such bigotry and ignorance. Such a senseless ruling that the country that breeds the most extreme ideology (Saudi Arabia) is exempt from this ban. Trump’s reality is my nightmare. I wish I can tell the child in my womb to stay in there until Trump's term is over.”

But she was also heartened by the thousands of non-Muslim Americans who turned out to clog airports, wave signs and angrily rebuke the new policy.

“I was moved to tears,” she texted a reporter. “(It) revived some faith in humanity.”

The following weekend, her husband was still calm. “We have the Constitution on our side,” Hussein said, preparing to take his turn at bowling. “I’m not worried.” Mariam, who watched Trump’s ABC News interview with David Muir, said she “honestly felt like it was a (Saturday Night Live) skit.” There’s a lot to process.

Between frames at Cherry Hill Lanes, her family and friends shared more of Hussein’s attitude. All said they felt Saudi Arabia – home of the Wahhabi sect of Islamic fundamentalists – is more of a threat to American interests than the seven countries named in the executive order, home of many refugees to Metro Detroit in recent years, particularly Iraq after two American wars fought there.

Hanadi Fahs, Mariam’s sister and Adam’s wife, is a social worker in the Novi Community Schools District, working with special-needs children. There, she stands out; she counts only four Muslims in her workplace, and she is the only hijabi (women who wear head coverings).

But after the executive order, the district's assistant superintendent called his 24-year-old staff member personally. 

“He said he stands with me and my family,” Hanadi said. “It made me cry.”

Like her sisters, like her husband, like her brother-in-law, Hanadi said she always felt fully American, growing up in Dearborn. A different kind of American than many, perhaps, but one who “never felt affected” by current events elsewhere in the world. Now, that’s different.

“It’s a tension,” Hanadi said. “That’s all. But it’s there.”

In many ways, even as a small religious minority, the Chararas live in their own bubble. Both attended Fordson High School in Dearborn, where the student body is almost entirely of Middle Eastern extraction and overwhelmingly Muslim. But Mariam didn’t start wearing a hijab until she was 19, resisting pressure from her mother to do so.

“It has to be something you choose to do, and I wasn’t ready,” she said. Her closest friends from high school, also Muslim, leave their heads uncovered. Like Judaism, Christianity and other faiths, observance and practice falls along a continuum.

What drives them crazy is how their religion – peaceful, civilizing, empathetic – is misperceived, especially now, with an administration they view as hostile to their beliefs.

“It’s giving people entitlement to be bigoted,” said Mariam. “I kind of feel like it’s going to be relentless now.”

The lanes are emptying out, and it’s time to go. Outside, an Audi stops by the front door, and some teenage boys jump out to throw a ball back and forth over the roof. They laugh. Arab music blares from the car’s speakers.

“Don’t embarrass us!” Hussein’s brother-in-law, Ahmad Bazzi, calls to the boys in Arabic.They jump back into the car and, like a latter-day Archie and Reggie, speed away into the night.

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