Hamtramck, a 12-mosque town in middle America

Hamtramck, a 12-mosque town in middle America
(Tuesday, January 19, 2016) 16:21

HAMTRAMCK, Jan 19 — Three faces from afar — a man in a headdress and a veiled girl and woman — greet patrons at a Yemeni restaurant in the US city of Hamtramck, gazing into the distance from a mural outside the eatery.

The colourful painting is just another piece of the ever-changing backdrop in this industrial Michigan town, which made history in November when it became the first in America to elect a Muslim majority to its city council.

Amid heated rhetoric on Muslims across the county during the presidential campaign season, Hamtramck — located just a 15-minute drive from Detroit — has embraced them.

The Paris attacks and San Bernardino killings sent a knee-jerk reaction through some quarters, with Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump going so far as to call for an outright ban on Muslims entering the country.

But such is not the case here.

Hamtramck is “a manifestation of what America is meant to be. A place of opportunity,” said Mayor Karen Majewski, who proudly announced that Syrian refugees were recently welcomed into the city.

One-story houses squeeze in tight next to each other in Hamtramck, which is home to 22,300 residents and has a total area of just over two square miles (five square kilometres).

On its two main streets, women in hijabs and niqabs — the latter cover the face completely except for an opening for the eyes — girls in tight jeans, men with closely shaved heads and youths in baggy pants pass by each other.

Stores, restaurants and supermarkets are equally diverse, welcoming Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and Polish clientele. Kebab vendors coexist alongside Indian food joints.

Call to prayer

Sitting across from a church is Al-Islah Mosque, one of the largest of the city’s 12. Since 2004, a muezzin, who calls Muslims to prayer five times a day, has belted out from makeshift minarets.

“We have no problem with the Polish, we have no problem with the black community. We are living together peacefully. Nobody complains about the call to prayer anymore,” said mosque secretary Masud Khan.

Muslim holy days, he noted, are public holidays here, and schools and city offices close on those days.

A five-minute walk away, an imposing statue of late pope John Paul II serves as a reminder of a Catholic past in the city of immigrants, which was founded by German farmers in the 1910s.

Hamtramck next became a bastion of Polish immigrants fleeing discriminatory laws in Detroit.

However, the number of Polish residents has shrunk from 90 per cent of the population in 1970 to 12 per cent today, said historian Thaddeus Radzilowski, himself a Polish American.

Most moved on to suburban areas. The city has also seen a steady exodus of African Americans, said Radzilowski.

Meanwhile, the proportion of immigrants from Bangladesh (20 per cent), Bosnia (7 per cent) and Yemen (23 per cent) has grown, attracted by low crime rates, cheap real estate and the now bygone US auto boom, according to the researcher.

However, plants belonging to the “Big Three” — Chrysler, Ford and General Motors — have closed, and the city now has one of the highest poverty rates in the state of Michigan.

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