The shopping plaza on the corner of Ryan and 15 Mile roads in Detroit's Sterling Heights is not typical of American suburbia. There's the Dream Market, Hadia Gifts, the Ashtar and Al Mahar restaurants, Adam and Eve Oud perfume and incense store, and the Palm Sweets dessert store. All cater to a specific immigrant community.
Detroit may be best known for car manufacturing and soul music, but it is also the site of the largest Middle Eastern community outside West Asia. For more than a century, immigrants from Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere have made the Motor City their home.
Among them are Chaldean Catholics, members of an ancient sect that speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus, who have moved to the U.S. from Iraq and northeastern Syria. For over a century, Chaldeans have built supermarket empires, run hotels and worked in Detroit's auto manufacturing industry. There's even a "Chaldean town" district north of downtown where, following the collapse of auto manufacturing in the 1960s, Chaldean arrivals from the Middle East bought up properties and concentrated their businesses.
Now, on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, this community with an estimated statewide population of 160,000 could be poised to play a key role in deciding who wins the White House. In 2016, Donald Trump won the state of Michigan and its 16 electoral votes in a shock victory by a tiny majority. The Chaldean community mostly voted for Trump, its leaders say. This time around, a series of polls suggest Democratic party candidate Joe Biden is ahead in Michigan. And for the president to stand a realistic chance of winning Michigan again, the Chaldean vote will once again be critical.
Related: Brief History of Assyrians
"We are 95,000 registered voters and in the 2016 election Michigan was only won by 10,000 votes," says Martin Manna, president of the Michigan-based Chaldean Community Foundation.
For the most part, community leaders say, Trump can continue to count on Chaldean support in Michigan. "[Trump] came in promising he was going to eradicate ISIS [which in Iraq and Syria targeted minorities such as Yazidis and Christians], so that was something that resonated with many members of the community," Manna said. The killing of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has bolstered Trump's credentials as an effective leader against ISIS.
The administration has also proactively courted Chaldeans. Last March Manna had a private audience with Vice President Mike Pence, and regular access to senior White House officials to discuss and plan Iraq policy has placed the Chaldean community firmly in the president's column.
When Trump was battling for the Republican nomination in early 2016, he was the most vocal in speaking out against the U.S. war in Iraq that laid the ground in the emergence of ISIS. "That caught the attention of a lot of Chaldean voters early on," says Jonathan Francis, communications director for the Chaldean Diocese of St. Thomas the Apostle in Detroit.
Most U.S.-based Middle Eastern communities are livid with the Trump administration for enacting a travel ban in 2017 that targeted citizens from several Middle Eastern countries -- including, for a time, Iraq. Federal immigration raids in 2017 affected some Chaldean immigrants too, but the reasons behind their support for Trump and Republicans are far too many to be swept away by any one incident.
For the most part, Chaldeans don't identify as Arab, belonging to the Assyrian culture that predates Arabism by hundreds of years. That Trump identifies himself as a businessman resonates with many Chaldeans who themselves are small-business owners. Abu Steif, a member of the community who came from Mosul in 2013 and recently opened the Famous Mosul Pacha restaurant in the Sterling Heights shopping plaza, is clear where his political loyalties lie. "Before the virus there were no problems," he says, defending President Trump. "What I see is that before the virus Americans were happy." He says he plans to vote for the president next week.
Scenes of stores being looted and businesses burning following the killings of Black Americans by law enforcement this past summer are also likely to have pushed the community further into the hands of the Republican candidate, who has campaigned on a nominal law and order platform. That's because dozens of Chaldean store owners and merchants in and around Detroit have been robbed, attacked or killed over the decades.
What's more, the nomination and confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett -- a Catholic, pro-life advocate -- on the Supreme Court has gone down well with the community. "In good conscience, we cannot support candidates who do not view human life as sacred," Detroit-based Chaldean bishop Francis Kalabat wrote in a letter to the community this month about the upcoming elections.
For sure, Michigan's Chaldeans are not a uniform bloc, and recent refugees who've fled conflicts in northern Iraq and Syria are often not yet politically active.
Still, Manna expects that at the end of the day, most will still support Trump. "If you asked me this a couple of months ago, I would've said he has no chance because of COVID," he says. Now, he says, the wind is changing. "I do believe that it's going to be a very close race and that the president will likely win." He'll need Chaldean support to have a chance.