DEARBORN — A group of local leaders consisting of businessmen, attorneys and civil rights groups under an umbrella called The Congress of Arab American Organizations of Michigan (CAAO) has come together to launch an investigation on the city of Dearborn regarding hiring practices and procedures. The investigation, which was announced in July, will be monitored by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and will focus on the apparent lack of Arab American workers in city positions such as ones at city hall, the police department and the fire department.
|Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. (right) and Fire Chief Joseph Murray (second from right) witness the swearing-in of three new Dearborn firefighters, all of whom participated in the Dearborn Fire Department’s Cadet Program. City Clerk Kathleen Buda (left) swears in Probationary Firefighters Timothy Duda, Matthew Bajjey and Matthew Allen Ferrell during a ceremony on July 18. Photo courtesy of the city of Dearborn|
The process of the investigation has already begun with the CAAO asking local residents to provide them with their testimonies if they had ever applied for positions in the city but were not hired. The investigation is expected to be time consuming, as it will require details that will include obtaining public records and looking into the history of several departments within the city.
Attorney Tarek Beydoun, a member on the committee says that with the investigation in full-swing, they can't provide too many details at the moment, but wants to assure local residents that they are closely monitoring the matter.
"I just want everyone to know that we are looking into hiring in Dearborn. We think the city can do a better job of hiring a more diverse workforce and hiring city residents. The committee was formed to look into that goal as well as looking into whether anything was wrong and how we can fix it. Things are moving along as we continue to request information from the city," Beydoun said.
TAAN has also begun working on their own investigation regarding the matter. Three weeks ago we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on the Dearborn Police Department as well as the Dearborn Fire Department, requesting information on the total number of employees in the departments as well as the number of them that are Arab-American. On August 14, we received a letter in the mail from the city's legal department stating that only part of the request could be complied with, as the city does not document their employees ethnicities.
Donald Unis, a 32-year former fire captain for the city of Dearborn as well as a former Korean War veteran, says that 80 percent of the employees in the police department and fire department don't live in the city of Dearborn. Unis says that this has been a habit that has been intact since the previous administration of late Mayor Michael Guido.
"They've hired workers from other cities in Michigan, from Ohio and Pennsylvania as well, yet they don't ever hire any Arab-Americans or residents that live in the city. We are not asking the city to hire non qualified individuals. We are asking them to provide young men and women from this community with the proper training and education skills to become qualified. They are the only people who will be able to properly communicate with the residents of this city. They actually understand the Arab culture," Unis stated.
Unis did also mention that the problem is a double edged sword. He says many Arabs have simply quit trying to get into the departments because they feel they have no chance. He says he hopes Mayor Jack O'Reilly will begin to change the climate over at city hall, by straying away from the habits of the previous administration.
Federal veteran grant raises some concerns
More questions emerged in June when the Dearborn Police Department received a federal grant to hire 10 veterans to work in the Dearborn police force. Dearborn Police Chief Ron Haddad stated in a private meeting with TAAN that the grant's purpose was to provide jobs for veterans who are having a hard time finding employment after returning home from duty. Recent findings have shown that the state of Michigan comes in last place in the entire country when it comes to veteran benefits, placing behind every state, as well as the District of Columbia, Guantanamo Bay and Puerto Rico.
The major concern locals seem to have with this grant comes down to one argument. Are veterans who might have served in hostile territories surrounded by Arabs and Muslims in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq best suited in the highly populated Arab neighborhoods of Dearborn serving as police officers? Additionally, the recent massacre that occurred at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin that left six individuals dead has also been used as a reference. The gunman, Wade M. Page, was a 40-year-old Army veteran. While Page had also reportedly been a leader of a racist group, many have questioned whether his six years of experience in the army contributed to his ideologies.
Many veterans have been known to deal with disorders such as post-traumatic stress. While bringing up this point to Haddad, he understood the concerns but assured us that every applicant in the police department is put through a rigorous process that includes background checks, driving record checks and psychological tests before they are hired. Haddad stated that even prior to the grant, the department was already in the process of hiring three veterans simply because they were the most qualified for the positions.
Haddad tells us when hiring police officers, they hire based on who is the most qualified and as well as which candidates have the cleanest background records, both of which are important to the department. Currently, they have already hired five of the 10 positions for the federal grant, but additionally they have also hired three other officers and are looking to hire more.
1998 accidental death of four-year old boy should be used as an example
An old case regarding an incident that occurred in 1998 has recently re-emerged with a new angle, when it was brought to TAAN’s attention that a four-year-old boy, who died in a house fire, could've been saved in time had the department been able to provide Arabic speaking officers and fire fighters on the scene.
In February 1998, a four-year-old boy named Kharallah Ahmed, died during a fire in his south-end home while other family members, including his mother, father and siblings had escaped from the fire when authorities arrived to the scene. Allegedly, both Dearborn officers and fire fighter were not able to understand or translate the family's cries when the parents, who did not speak English, were trying to tell authorities that the four-year-old was still located in the basement. The family was finally assisted when a police officer from a neighboring jurisdiction, who was able to speak and translate for them in Arabic, came to the scene about 30 minutes after Dearborn authorities had already arrived.
|A house fire in the city’s south-end in 1998 that left a four-year-old dead has re-emerged with a new angle, after it was revealed that an officer from a neighboring jurisdiction had to translate for Dearborn Police and Firefighters. A story was published in the Dearborn Press & Guide on February 12, 1998.|
This week we contacted the police officer who helped translate for the family on that afternoon, and he agreed to reunite with the family for the first time in 14 years, stating it was an incident that had been stuck on his conscience for a very long time. The Ahmed family is still located on the same street where the fire occurred in 1998, living inside of a remodeled house. They were more than willing to speak about the incident when TAAN visited them at their residence alongside the officer that helped them that afternoon.
Naji Ahmed, the young boy's father was able to recognize the Arabic-speaking officer immediately, stating that the family had thought about him frequently and that he wanted to personally thank him after all these years. Dawlah Ahmed, the mother, told TAAN in Arabic that she still remembered certain details about that horrific afternoon. She says that while a few family members were able to escape from the fire, including her two-year-old daughter at the time, the firefighters were being uncooperative with her when she was trying to tell them that her son was located under the couch in the basement. She even tells us that one of the fire fighters yelled at her and told her "Let us do our job."
The parents also confirm that authorities did have a hard time understanding them, until at least the Arabic-speaking officer was able to assist them. Despite not being from the same jurisdiction, the officer also assisted and translated for the family when they were taken to the medical examiner to identify their son's body. The officer stated that the Ahmed family's incident should've been used as a reference point by the city instead of getting ignored.
"For years I thought maybe things could've been different had I been there a little earlier to help assist them," the officer from the neighboring jurisdiction told us. "This case should've been used as an example as to why it is important to have Americans of Arab descent, who also speak Arabic, working in both the fire department and the police department. They should've made it a priority to make sure that there were Arabic speakers on every shift of every day since this incident occurred," he added.
Donald Unis tells TAAN that in his 32 years of being a firefighter, there were countless times when the presence of an Arab firefighter was necessary. He tells us he was extremely disappointed to learn about the events of the Ahmed family shortly after the incident occurred.
"When I was a firefighter, my presence made a complete difference with Arab families. Had I not been there, God knows what would've happened," Unis stated. "Had that man come to the scene about 20 minutes earlier to translate [for the Ahmed family], that boy might have lived."
The family's older son, Sadeq Ahmed, 32, is a four-year veteran in the United States Air Force. He says he thinks it's good that the department is catering to veteran's needs by hiring new officers with the federal grant, but agrees that more Arab speaking officers should be on top of the city's priority list to avoid incidents similar to the one that occurred with his family.
Sadeq's younger brother, Toufic Ahmed, 28, was just 14 and still in school when the fire had occurred at his home. He says that he wants to pursue a career as a police officer and hopes to eventually land a job at the Dearborn Police Department. Currently a student at Henry Ford Community College, Toufic is expected to start his Police Academy training at Schoolcraft later this year. He says his brother's memory is part of his motivation to become an officer.
"I want to help out the community by becoming a local cop. The city would benefit greatly if they had Arab speaking officers who grew up in these neighborhoods and were able to speak to the people. No one knows the community better than the very people that grew up in it," Toufic stated.
Small steps in the right direction
Last month the city had issued a response to the investigation that was launched by the CAAO, stating that just recently they had hired three firefighters through a youth program spearheaded by the city. While the three firefighters were not Arab, they grew up in the Dearborn community and had received months of training. The mayor's office discredits any suspicions of discriminatory practices taking place.
"While Mayor O'Reilly is willing to meet with representatives from CAAO and ADC to discuss any specific concerns, he cautions against the practice of making highly-charged allegations then seeking evidence afterwards to support them," the Mayor's office stated about the current investigation.
Additionally, four graduates from Fordson and Edsel Ford High Schools are currently involved in the police department’s internship program which began in July 2010. Two additional students are also expected to join the program this fall which could also include Dearborn High graduates.
Haddad says that he hopes through this internship program, the department will be able to reach out to the younger generation in the community. While Haddad did not know the total number of Arab officers within the department off hand, he did say there were "at least eight or nine" out of around 180. He says the reason for the small number is because not enough Arabs have been applying for the positions and some of the ones that have don't meet the standards of being qualified. In a recent phone interview, Haddad encouraged the community to seek out more positions within the department.
"We will be giving tests early this fall for some positions. I want any qualified applicant that's interested in police work to go online and file an application. Sometimes people might be reluctant to work in these city jobs, but we’re certainly looking and we need committed people," Chief Haddad said.
Unis is also confident that the chiefs from both the police and fire departments will begin to make a change.
"We are really hoping that these new chiefs make a difference. We want to be a part of the city. We want to be part of the state and country. These Arab men and women are entitled Americans. It's a shame that they haven't included them," Unis added.
To review the requirements for job positions within the police department, Chief Haddad is encouraging applicants to visit the Human Resources office located on 4500 Maple Rd., or to go online at :