Michigan city to inaugurate all-Muslim government
Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla surrendered once, in 1969, before becoming Pope. A statue of Wojtyla with outstretched arms still casts a shadow over what is now Pope Park, where a huge mural of Polish folk dancers spans almost an entire city block.
Mayor-elect Ghalib was born in Yemen and came to the United States on his own when he was young, with some broken English and little else. He is now 42 years old, works in the medical field and is studying to become a doctor.
The heyday of Hamtramck had apparently passed. The city was deteriorating. Many factories had closed. Many second and third generation Polish Americans had moved to the suburbs of Detroit and beyond in the past two decades. Immigrants, mostly from Yemen and Bangladesh, have taken their place and Hamtramck, locals say, is now predominantly Muslim.
Hamtramck is a palimpsest – where new immigrants deposited layers of culture and society on top of what was already there. You can enjoy a Yemeni sizzle mistake – a spicy bean stew – and flatbread for breakfast, and always find a kielbasa or one pierogi for the lunch. And Hamtramck is now back, one of Michigan’s fastest growing cities, according to census figures. New immigrants repair dilapidated houses, open shops and restaurants, take root. And what could be more American than delving into local politics?
“Tonight is a real example that the American dream is alive and well in the land of opportunity,” Ghalib told the excited crowd gathered to celebrate his landslide election victory in early November. He beat incumbent Karen Majewski, who had held the position for 16 years.
There is only one American-born member on the new board: Amanda Jaczkowski, a longtime Michigander. His Polish-American family worshiped for five generations in the same nearby Catholic Church. She converted to Islam in 2012.
“One of the big things that people worry about is that we are going to get rid of the bars. We cannot get rid of the bars,” Jaczkowski told us. She and her fellow advisers don’t want to get rid of bars, she says, because Islam forbids alcohol for followers of the faith, but no one else.
“These aren’t necessarily bad places that we would ban because they [non-Muslims] are not supposed to live under the same rules that we are supposed to live, ”she said of the bars and their customers.
This point of view was echoed by the elected mayor.
“We are Muslims,” said Ghalib, sitting in the council chamber of the town hall he will soon chair. “We are proud of our beliefs and values. But we are not going to try to impose them on others.”
Jaczkowski added, “We will take an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States. And the Constitution of the United States includes the separation of church and state.”
The elected mayor and his council promise a separation of the mosque and the state. It is the law, they say, and also their intention.
“I think it’s going to be good!” Mara Popovska told us as she was washing the hair of an elderly client in the salon she had run for decades on the city’s main street. But Popovska’s husband wants to get up and go. “He doesn’t have his own friends anymore,” she told us. “So he doesn’t want to stay.
“Who still has friends? Exclaimed his client, Theresa Smith. “Mine are all dead! Smith, an American of Polish descent, was born in Hamtramck, has lived in the same house for 85 years and says she plans to die here.
“There are changes your whole life and you have to follow them,” Smith said as Popovska pinned down her lock of damp white hair. “I mean, anyone can complain about something or the other. We’re human.”
Popovska complains that her new neighbors are not as well looked after as she would like. “I clean everyday, they just throw away!” she said. But as a business owner, she agrees the Main Street has become more lively since new immigrants have moved in.
Smith says she welcomes the changing faces of her city. “They came to town. They repair houses beautifully, ”she told us. “When someone says something against them, I get angry. Because all of our parents came from one place at a time.”
When Muslim immigrants arrived in Hamtramck in large numbers a decade or two ago, some locals disliked the call to prayer that was played over loudspeakers on mosque rooftops.
“It comes more from the people who left Hamtramck than from the people who stayed,” Jaczkowski said.
The goal, says Jaczkowski, is to make Hamtramck welcoming and safe for all. For example, the council is not expected to require all women to cover their hair in town, she volunteered. “There is no reason for this!” she said.
But there was some concern when not a single Yemeni American woman attended Ghalib’s victory celebration late on election night.
“My campaign had six girls working there, six women,” he said. But none of them were there.
“The result was announced late at night, you know, around 10 or 11 o’clock,” he explained. “And as part of culture, women don’t mainly go out at night. And, you know, there’s always some segregation at events, even when they attend.”
Jaczkowski was there that evening. “One of the things people need to understand is that Yemeni women here don’t need to be saved,” she said. “I messaged a group of friends and said, ‘Do you want to be there?’ And they say, ‘No, we don’t want to be there.’ “
“I’m not for or against. I’m for everyone’s right to practice whatever they want. But they shouldn’t make it a government issue,” Ghalib told us. “They can do it anywhere else, in their homes, on the street. I’m not against that. I don’t mind.”
Ghalib says you cannot now be in favor of hoisting the pride flag in town hall and winning an election in Hamtramck. The outgoing mayor, Majewski, was the decisive vote this summer for the flag.
Ghalib does not want the matter to be brought before the board again. “This should not be discussed because it will divide, it will increase the division within the community,” he said, before conceding that he never wants to be forced to vote on the issue. It should be noted that the US military does not allow the pride flag to fly on military bases. And the Roseville, Calif., City council voted this summer not to display the pride flag or other non-government flags at their city hall. And it seems that there are no Muslims on the Roseville council.
Lynn Blasey of the Hamtramck Arts and Culture Commission supported carrying the flag. She ran for city council in the fall and lost. “We decided that we wanted to do a little more for the pride besides just reading a statement earlier this month at the city council meeting,” she told us. “Our goal was to let the LGBT community here in Hamtramck know that they are not alone and that there are services available to support them.”
Blasey said that despite her defeat, she would continue to work with the council, with the candidates who beat her, for the good of the community. “I think that was an important message to send to the community,” she says. “Politics don’t have to be ruthless.”
Mayor-elect Ghalib knows that the national spotlight on Hamtramck’s all-Muslim city council will make his job more difficult. He tries to block it.
“People are asking: what do you think this is a first? “, Said Jaczkowski, member of the board. “I’m like ‘The first ones are great. And now we have to prove that it doesn’t matter.'”