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Dearborn Heights & All the HYPE
Amer Zahr
by Amer Zahr
January 27th, 2013 (No comments)
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Everyone knows that Dearborn, Michigan is the center of Arab-America. It contains the largest concentration of Arabs anywhere in America. Its main drag, Warren Avenue, is lined with stores, shops, restaurants, and cafes run, owned, and frequented by Arab-Americans. Signs displayed in Arabic are the norm. It is home to the one and only Arab-American National Museum.

Dearborn is the Arab Disneyland. In the span of a few hours, you can enjoy a shawarma, a hookah, and a demonstration.

There is no place like it. Well, there was no place like it. Adjacent to Dearborn lays the city of Dearborn Heights. Dearborn is mostly characterized by smaller homes and bungalows. Dearborn Heights has some bigger homes and is generally viewed as a bit “higher” than Dearborn. Maybe that’s where they got the name.

Arab-Americans have been living in Dearborn Heights for a long time, but Dearborn has always been the hub. In the past 15 years or so, as many Arab-Americans have done well for themselves (we do have a very high rate of college graduation after all), thousands have moved to Dearborn Heights. There, they can enjoy bigger yards while still being basically connected to Dearborn and its community. As a result, Ford Road, Dearborn Heights’ main thoroughfare, has become filled with Arab-American owned and themed establishments. I’m smoking a hookah in Dearborn Heights as I write this column. In Dearborn Heights, one might say that Arabs have “exploded” onto the scene.

The transformation of Dearborn Heights is evident to everyone, and perhaps none more so than the white population there, who for many generations had no company. And in case you didn’t know, when we Arabs move in, we move really move in. We bring our markets, our language, our customs, and our cousins.

That brings me to the current case of HYPE (Helping Youth Prepare for Excellence). HYPE Athletics was created in 2001, and its stated mission is “to create and strengthen infrastructures that support the positive development of Wayne County youth.”  HYPE conducts training camps, leagues, and tournaments in various sports. It also provides free in-school and after-school social services to youth and their families.

HYPE is a federally registered nonprofit organization, meaning it is tax exempt. After receiving assurances from the city, including a council resolution recognizing its nonprofit status, HYPE built a 104,000 square foot recreation center in Dearborn Heights to further its mission and objectives. The center opened to the general public on May 4, 2012.

The city of Dearborn Heights now, however, has decided that HYPE is not nonprofit at all and has assessed the group almost $200,000 in property taxes. HYPE had predicated its entire project on pledges from the city and its mayor, Dan Paletko, that it would not be assessed such fees. HYPE will not be able to survive with the tax burden the city is now imposing.

The city of Dearborn Heights is claiming that HYPE does not offer its services “without restrictions” since it charges a membership fee. However, the Michigan Supreme Court has held that a nonprofit charitable institution “can charge for its services as long as the charges are not more than what is needed for its successful maintenance.”  HYPE maintains that its membership fees are necessary in order to ensure it can effectively provide services.

Now I’ve told you everything I’ve told you so far to now tell you this. While this may all seem like a garden-variety tax dispute between government and a nonprofit institution, it is much more. HYPE’s founder and CEO is Ali Sayed, an Arab-American Muslim born and raised in Dearborn. HYPE’s center employs and serves many Arab-Americans, as well as any and all community members, including African-Americans, whites, and anyone else. Its Parent Advisory Board and Youth Board include almost 40 Arab-Americans who volunteer their time to help HYPE achieve its goals. In other words, Arab-American members of the community have built, supported, and enhanced HYPE.

This reality has not been lost on Marge Horvath, a member of the Dearborn Heights City Council, who once referred to HYPE as “that Arab center.”  Good thing for Ms. Horvath that we are Arabs. If we were black and she had said something like that, CNN and Al Sharpton would be here the next day.

Uttering discriminatory statements about Arabs seems entirely acceptable. Arabs are the only group that white people are still allowed to openly talk about in a racist manner. I almost feel bad trying to take that last bastion of prejudice from them. Almost.

There is no price to voicing uneasiness about Arabs. No politicians are called out. No leaders are truly held to account. Maybe Al Sharpton can change his name to Ali for a couple days and make his way up here. Maybe we can learn a few things from him.

It’s hard not to imagine to how the case HYPE vs. Dearborn Heights has an element of racism to it. Why wouldn’t a city like Dearborn Heights be excited that a nonprofit organization like HYPE was running a massive recreation center within its limits?  Why wouldn’t Dearborn Heights encourage HYPE, a group that invokes and encourages civic duty and a commitment to community?  One would think that Dearborn Heights would help HYPE solidify its nonprofit status instead of challenging it.

The city must know that it will most likely never get the tax money it is now looking for. If HYPE is not granted nonprofit status by Dearborn Heights, the only outcome will be the closing of its doors. Sadly, to some in the city, that will be seen as a victory.

READ MORE:  UPDATE: Dearborn Heights & All the HYPE, Part II

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* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."

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