The Bilingual U.S. – Middle Eastern Detroit Part I

On the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, you can count on hearing the Arabic language at least five times a day. From its telltale location on Ford Street, the Islamic Center of America broadcasts its calls to prayer from a loudspeaker, calling out to the city’s Lebanese, Yemeni, and Iraqi residents in the language which unites them.

The Islamic Center of America- the largest mosque in America- and the Arab-American Museum are testimony to what any visitor to Dearborn would probably quickly gather by way of the Arabic signs throughout the city- Dearborn is the heart of Arab-America.

Part of the mission of the brand-new museum- the first of its kind- is to educate people about the role that Arab-Americans have had in our country since its founding. Most people are not aware that it was Henry Ford to first call the Arabs to Michigan. According to the Ford Motor Company, “Upon landing in America, many immigrants were not headed for Detroit, but changed their paths when they heard about Ford Motor Company’s wage of $5 for a day’s work.” Many of the immigrants who came first to Highland Park- the site of Ford’s first factory and the birthplace of the Model T- and then to Dearborn’s South End to work at the Ford Rouge plant- which with its 90,000 employees would soon become the world’s largest industrial complex- came from Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The beginning of the 20th century saw the rise of many Lebanese Maronite Christian churches in the area as well as what were perhaps the first Muslim Mosque and Chaldean Catholic Church in the United States- the former in Highland Park in 1921 and the latter in Detroit in 1947.

Arab Christians far outnumbered the Muslims among the early immigrants and aside from professing different faiths, the immigrants from the large area generally known as the “Middle East” had linguistic differences as well. The Levantine dialects of Arabic spoken in Lebanon and Syria are quite different from Yemeni Arabic even though many of the immigrants would have also spoken the Modern Standard Arabic which linguistically unites the Arabic world. The language of the Chaldeans, on the other hand, Christians from modern-day Iraq, is an eastern dialect of Aramaic, the “language of Christ,” although many- especially modern-day refugees of the Gulf and Iraq Wars- have learned Arabic at school.

The Chaldeans, not a well-known population anywhere in the world, are an important part of the Detroit Metropolitan Area, which is now home to “the largest single concentration of Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriacs in the Western Hemisphere,” estimated to be from 100,000 to 120,000 strong. Chaldeans are Detroit’s merchants- they own 75 of the city’s 84 supermarkets.

Interest in the Chaldeans’ ancient language- a form of which many Americans may have heard in Mel Gibson’sThe Passion of the Christ– is palpable in the Detroit area. Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church offers Chaldean language courses from the basic (101) to the advanced fluent (501) level- free while the University of Detroit- Mercy offers courses in Aramaic open to any and all college students. Chaldean.org evens offers tips on how to teach the language to the family pet.

The Chaldean language is an important part of world history and a source of pride for the Motor City. Oppressed for millennia in the Middle East, the Chaldean community has flourished in Detroit. Practicing a Christian faith has made their integration into the city’s fabric much more seamless than that of their Muslim brethren, who are nonetheless a crucial part of Michigan’s present, and future.

The Bilingual U.S. – Bosnian Burlington, VT

The Hungarians and Cubans who fled communist regimes were the first of a special class of immigrants who have had particular importance in our country over the past half-century: refugees. Since the enactment of the Refugee Act in 1980 the United States Refugee Resettlement Program has provided government assistance to refugees of “special humanitarian concern.”

For the small, homogeneous state of Vermont (which has a strong French-Canadian culture), the arrival of refugees through the Resettlement Program has created a diverse community, especially around its population center, Burlington. In the words of City Councilor Clarence Davis, “There are 27 languages spoken in Burlington, and Bosnians make up Burlington’s biggest immigrant community.”

The Bosnian language which has risen to a place of prominence in this small Northern New England community officially came into existence only about 20 years ago. In 1992 the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the bloody war which followed prompted the mass exodus of refugees to Western Europe and North America. At the end of the war Bosnians found themselves independent for the first time since the 14th century.

Present-day Bosnia is surrounded by its former Yugoslavian compatriots- Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Each of the four countries boasts a distinct language which is however mutually intelligible with the others. In fact the four languages are so close that until the breakup of Yugoslavia they were generically known as a single language- Serbo-Croatian.

The four South Slavic languages are an example of what linguist Heinz Kloss defined Ausbausprache– meaning that they have acquired independent language status as a result of having been developed from a common base. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are another example of this phenomenon, which also known as “elaborated language.” Political factors are usually important in the formation of a situation of Ausbausprache. When Yugoslavia existed as a united country it was considered that one national language and various dialects were spoken; but now that they are independent we recognize four distinct languages.

There are some differences between Bosnian and its former Serbo-Croatian fellows- in fact the Balkans are home to a great deal of vocabulary and pronunciation variations. However the most interesting difference may be in the script; while in Croatia only Latin characters are used (Croatia: Hrvatska), and in Serbia Latin and Cyrillic characters are used alternatively (Serbia: Srbija, Србија), in Bosnia Arabic script was historically at least until the 1940’s (Bosnia: Bosna, Босна, البوسنة), a relic of the more than 400-year Ottoman rule of the Balkan nation. In fact, although the Arabic script might have fallen out of use, most ethnic Bosnians continue to practice Islam.

Religion was just one of the differences which contributed to the great tension between ethnicities in the former Yugoslavia, a tension which reached its tragic climax in a terrifying program of ethnic cleansing.

In 2011 Burlington’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Church Street, became home to a commemoration to the most gruesome massacre of the Bosnian War, the genocide of more than 8,000 civilians in the city of Srebrenica in 1995, at war’s end. The creator of the memorial, Aida Sehovic, fled Bosnia with her family in 1992 and arrived in Vermont by way of Germany and Turkey in 1997. Her exhibit- which she has named Što Te Nema? (Why are you not here?)- has been shown not only in her new “hometown” but in Bosnia, New York City, The Hague, and Stockholm as well.

Many Bosnians like Sehovic now feel at home on the green shores of Lake Champlain. Bosnian Vermonters have a soccer club, FC Bosnia VT, offer their traditional foods to the greater public in various restaurants and markets such as the Euro Market, and have even organized a film festival, the Bosansko Vermontski Filmski Festival.

The Vermont Bosnian community is young and growing. Groups like The Bosnian Lilies focus on the youngest members; its objective is to “provide opportunities for Bosnian girls and boys, ages two to early teens, to come together, interact with each other, learn about their heritage, traditions, and native language, and above all maintain their native culture. Almost every child speaks ‘broken’ Bosnian and good English.” Far from the scene of the bloody Balkan wars, Burlington may offer the Bosnian language a place to blossom anew.

The Bilingual U.S. – Hungarian Politics in the U.S.

The interplay between foreign politics and immigration at work in Cuban Miami was not a singular occurrence in U.S. history. Long before José Martí made the rounds of the Cuban-American communities in New York, Tampa, and Key West, before Miami played host to Cuba’s opposition leaders, ousted Hungarian “Governor-President” Lajos (Louis) Kossuth was drumming up support for his cause on a legendary tour de force of the United States.

After the revolt led by the Governor-President against Hungary’s Austrian overlords was crushed in 1849 by the Hapsburgs’ Russian allies, Kossuth had been imprisoned in Turkey. In his exile he continued to lobby for a free and democratic Hungarian Republic, and upon being freed in 1851 travelled first to England and then to the United States to promote his cause.

In the U.S. his ideals met with a hearty welcome- in less than a year’s time he was invited to speak in front of the legislatures of New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Ohio, was personally entertained by President Millard Fillmore, and became the first foreigner since the Marquis de Lafayette to address a joint session of the United States Congress.

The eloquent promulgator of democracy spoke prolifically throughout his travels; as the American Anti-Slavery Society wrote in a letter to Kossuth in 1952, “Less than a month has passed since your arrival; but, during that brief period, you have made more addresses, and received more delegations,- representing various professions, societies, and corporations,- than any other man living.” In Boston he spoke in historic Faneuil Hall. In St. Louis he spoke to the French community in French. At the Broadway Tabernacle in New York he addressed the crowd in German.  And everyone that he went he received money in support of his cause or, as was the case in Ohio, “two hundred muskets, to aid him in achieving the independence of Hungary.”

Perhaps hoping to avoid offending the U.S. government, Kossuth never directly addressed the topic of slavery, one of the most important political discussions of the era. Nevertheless, his philosophy spoke clearly; the equality of men of different ethnicities and languages was a firm point in Kossuth’s definition of democracy.

In a letter to the New York Times he wrote, “How often have I…said to my countrymen that they must be strictly just, and seek their future greatness, not in the predominance of one race, but in the perfect equality of all! My counsel was adopted, and made the basis of the government. The same freedom, the same privileges, without regard to language or religion, the free development of each race under the protection of the law, were accorded to all. We not only guaranteed the right to use any language in the churches and schools, but we afforded aid for the education and development of each nationality. The principle we announced was, that either the State should protect no religion, no nationality- leaving all to the free action of the people- or that it should protect all alike.”

Kossuth’s 7-month tour of the United States had a tremendous impact on the nation in an important political moment. In addressing the Ohio legislature, Kossuth stated, “All for the people and all by the people. Nothing about the people without the people. That is Democracy, and that is the ruling tendency of the spirit of our age,” words which would go on to influence President Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address.

One hundred years later his memory would be bitterly evoked as a Hungarian rebellion was once again put down by Russian guns. Although the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956 was not successful, it put in the chink in the Iron Curtain and produced 200,000 refugees (about 2% of the country’s population), 38,000 of whom found asylum in the United States. Just as they would do for the Cuban refugees a few short years later, the Attorney General, in collaboration with the CIA, waived restrictive (6,500/year) immigration quotas to allow the refugees in.

The CIA encountered communicative difficulties in working with this refugee population: “Two language factors came to light: (a) the intelligence community probably has fewer language specialists in Hungarian than in any other but the most exotic Eastern and Near Eastern languages, and (b) the Hungarians have a lower coefficient of second-language competence than any other civilized population except Americans.”

Perhaps an enlightened, Kossuth-inspired language policy could help the United States to develop these missing second-language competences; from Cuban to Hungarian refugees, the base materials are certainly not lacking.