DEARBORN — The weekend of June 15-17 brought a mixed bag of emotions at the 17th annual Arab International Festival held on Warren Avenue in Dearborn. Visitors from surrounding areas looking to indulge in the Arab culture were instead left with a bad taste in their mouth after anti-Islamic protesters antagonized locals, causing several arrests by the Wayne County Sheriff's Department on Friday, undoubtedly casting a shadow on the remainder of the weekend.
|Tense debates between Christian missionaries and Muslim locals were a common occurrence during the three-day festival.|
The news of the confrontations was the talk for the remaining days at the festival, but according to Mike Jafaar, the Wayne County Deputy Chief, who was one of the heads of security at the festival, he says that that the confrontations were slightly over-exaggerated when we spoke to him on the last day of the festival.
"Friday wasn't as bad as people thought it was. Overall we took control of the whole situation and the majority of the festival was very good. You had some individuals that were starting some ruckus but our guys totally had it under control," Jafaar stated. "It's been so safe today that I had my own kids come...it's been awesome."
Sunday evening also included a few peaceful Arab demonstrators who were holding signs that read "Jesus & Muhammad, Brothers in Faith," and “I love Jesus because I'm a Muslim," as a response to the anti-Islamic demonstrators that were there on Friday.
|A few Muslim demonstrators were holding peaceful signs in response to the anti-Islamic protestors that were arrested two days earlier.|
Even as the final hours were drawing down on the Festival during the weekend, heated debates between Christian missionaries and locals were still occurring right in the middle of the festival, in front of Greenland Supermarket and the Al-Ameer restaurant located on Warren and Miller. Some of the debates were friendly, while others were more intense, but nothing spiraled out of control.
"I came to have fun. I grew up in Wisconsin and we used to come here and hang out. I really don't appreciate what the guys on Friday did. There's no reason why we can't have intellectual back and forth conversations instead. We can all remain passionate about our beliefs and get our points across," stated Jared Stelter, a Christian missionary from New Mexico.
Set up inside of the tents were quite a few Christian missionary groups, who were peacefully handing out pamphlets, books and DVDs. Unlike the tense debates occurring outside of the tents by individuals, these groups decided to take a more quiet and subtle route.
"My sister and I really wanted to see the different cultures. We noticed the tension from Friday, but we have not had any tension at this booth. What we have engaged in instead are meaningful discussions about religion and faith," Zachary Dias, from Southwest Michigan stated.
Impact International, an organization that is dominant in the southern states, has been helping the American Arab Chamber of Commerce (AACC), the organization that runs the festival, for the last 12 years by sending over 200 volunteers on a yearly basis to help operate the ins and outs of the festival. When speaking to a few volunteers, they had nothing but positive words to say about their experience at the festival.
"We absolutely love the people of Dearborn. They have been nothing but kind and their demeanor is completely respectful and lovely. This was definitely an experience I will always remember," stated volunteer Sandra Burns, from Georgia. "I am a Christian and I'm completely against what those protesters did on Friday. Just leave these people alone and let them celebrate their wonderful culture."
|A peaceful discussion about religion and faith between a Muslim woman and a Christian woman. |
PHOTOS: Samer Hijazi/TAAN
"Something I noticed that put a smile on my face is that the children, no matter what culture or religion they are, always behave the same way. They love candy, games, prizes and stickers. It really shows you how much we all have in common," she stated.
Despite the volunteers and operators being extremely positive towards the festival in general, there were some locals who were disappointed that the AACC even called on outside help to begin with. One local went out of his way to contact our office to express his dismay at the festival.
"I want the chamber to know that the festival is no longer about a celebration of culture. It has sadly become a battleground for religious imposition on the community," the local who wished to remain anonymous stated. "The community wasn't even there. Why does the chamber call on outside businesses and outside volunteers for sponsorships and help? Why do we need people from Georgia and Florida to clean up our mess? Are we incapable of doing it ourselves? The entire ordeal has really become an insult," he added.
Many people also acknowledged that the crowds at the festival this year were smaller than usual. Some blame it on the protesters, while others said it could be attributed to the bad weather conditions that occurred on Saturday and Sunday when it rained and thunder stormed.
Despite the AACC claiming that the festival receives support from many of the businesses on Warren Avenue, it seems the businesses that were located inside of the festival have had mixed feelings instead.
"It wasn't as busy as we expected to be, I think it was just a bad weekend. On top of the weather, it was also Father's Day and there were a lot of graduation parties going on," stated Maha, a manager at Al-Ameer. "In the future, I do believe they should move the festival to a better location, because a lot of people lose business. Ford Field or even an area with a big lot would work for the festival."
Discussions of moving the festival to a more secluded location by both irritated business owners and city officials has been a hot topic all year long. The plan was considered by the mayor as a way to attract less protesters, but was ultimately rejected. Judging by the press release sent out by the AACC after the festival, locals who were hoping that in the future the festival's location would be moved or that the festival would be canceled all together, might not be getting their wishes anytime soon.
"We extend our gratitude to all of our sponsors and supporters, media, the community and everyone who helped make the largest Arab-American street festival successful. We look forward to seeing you next year," the AACC release stated.