DETROIT — The Arab American News (TAAN) spent the day at a Detroit gas station to chronicle and spread awareness on the dangerous work environment of business owners in the city.
Despite the incident, the station's owner Sam Chahro and his employees showed no concern. "It's nothing new, we're used to it now," said Kassem Balhas, an employee at the station.
The subject was brought up after Chahro was asked about the number of times the station has been held up by gunmen throughout the years.
Just four weeks ago the station was held up at gun point by a man carrying an AK-47. Chahro called 911, and was asked by the dispatcher whether the suspect was black or white. "They always ask whether the person committing the crime is black or white, I don't know why," he said.
Chahro says he was panicking when he was on the phone with the dispatcher, and the woman on the phone asked him to stop yelling at her. "I told her 'a guy is in my store with an AK-47, what do you want me to do say, hi honey how are you?'" The 911 dispatcher told Chahro it would be reported to police. While the incident occurred weeks ago, Detroit Police have still not responded. Speaking to TAAN recently Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee claimed the department responds to crime in accordance to whether the situation is life threatening such as this one.
When asked how he deals with the dangers involved in working at a small business in Detroit, Balhas, 23, says, "It's normal now. You just have to know how to deal with it."
Middle Eastern Americans make up the majority of small business owners in Detroit. They contribute greatly to the city's economy, and have become the lifeblood of the neighborhoods that have been dying, yet their hardships often go unrecognized.
Today their challenges are tougher than ever as crime in the city is at its height. Chahro says when he calls the police he doesn't expect them to respond, but he does it anyways so evidence of the incident is on record. He says sometimes the police will come to address a crime the day after it happens. "They don't even show up, especially when a business owner calls. If someone else calls, they may come a little faster," Chahro said.
Chahro has bullet proof glass in the station, and there are double doorway entrances that separate the cashier counter from the grocery shelves and beverages. When night hits the entrance to the grocery shelves and beverages is closed off for safety purposes. Today many small business owners have to carry guns in their stores because they can't depend on police for protection.
Chahro has owned the gas station for 28 years, and says he deals with customers who can get physically and verbally aggressive every day. Chahro says it's only a handful of people who get out of line, and a majority are loyal customers he's known for decades.
He says problems that occur at the station are not caused by people living in the surrounding neighborhood of gas station. "We grew up together, we were raised together, most of them are like my family," he said.
In addition Chahro says he deals with gangs in the area as well. Because of the increase of crime in the city the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers in collaboration with the Michigan State Police held a public forum with the region's top cops and Detroit business owners to hear their concerns about crime at their stores.
When an article was published about the forum that featured a photo of Chahro with Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee, Chahro posted it at the station, and many customers were upset about it. He was called a snitch and accused of working with the cops, but wors of all, employees at the station were threatened, and told to "be safe" and "watch their backs."
Detroit is currently one of the most dangerous cities in America, and many store owners in the city and residents say they plan on leaving because of security issues, and slow police response times.
Chahro has had one person get shot in his store. The man was shot in the thigh inside the store, and ended up suing Chahro for not unlocking a door and letting him in behind the counter. He says he didn't open the door to keep employees at the store safe. "Someone has a gun and you want me to let you in," he said.
Residents can't depend on the police to protect them either. One customer even showed TAAN his gun. "Some have a gun or a knife, I've seen it. They have to protect themselves, because they can't depend on the police to. protect them."
Chahro does want to get out of the business, but says he doesn't know what other industry to get into. "I've done this my whole life. If there was somewhere else I could go then I would. I haven't done any other work for 28 years besides this," he said.
While Chahro says robberies are rare, he catches customers stealing every day.
Often when they're caught stealing and asked to return an item, they run out with it anyway, and then return to the store as if nothing happened.
"We're not just cashiers, we have to be the security here too, and keep our eyes open at all times," Balhas said. Many storeowners in the city say customers complain about the price and tax on items.
One common problem Chahro has is with customers who refuse to pay the deposit amount on bottles of pop, then come back to the store and expect to return the bottles and get money for them.
Balhas says he allows people to leave the store with items when they are short a dime or more, because they're frequent customers. "They even roll weed in the store, and when we tell them to leave they say, "put your figures on me and I'll sue you," one employee said.
Chahro and his employees are also subjected to verbal abuse, and say they're often called "A-rabs" and told to go back to their country. There are many stereotypes surrounding Middle Eastern American business owners. One of the most common is they're all rich. "They all think I am rich," Chahro said. Many gas stations and liquor stores are not as profitable as they were decades ago, and struggle to stay open. When TAAN was at the station, Chahro was selling gas for less than what he paid for it, and losing money in order to compete with other nearby gas stations. Employees are also frequently criticized for not intervening in customer fights.
Hundreds of Chaldean and Arab Americans have been killed at their small businesses in Detroit over the decades. Often when the situation is reversed the incident receives more media coverage.
In March a Detroit gas station attracted attention after its clerk shot and killed a customer. The storeowner had to close for seven days, because of protesters demonstrating outside the gas station demanding it get closed down.
"When they kill one of us no one makes a big deal," one man working at the station said.