Looking around at the Judges’ Night Gala in Dearborn, Michigan—an event thrown by the Michigan branch of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)—there are some visual markers of the community that the ADC serves: some men in white gowns, some women with head coverings. But there are also judges and lawyers from all over the state and from all sectors of the highly diverse community of southeastern Michigan. There are men and women in suits and with expensive-looking haircuts, many of whom don’t seem to know exactly when to put their cellphones away.
With a keynote address from former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver and awards going to Detroit legal trailblazers attorney Alice P. Jennings and judge Sam Salamey, the tone of the evening and the mission of the ADC is clear: This isn’t just about being Arab American; this is about civil rights.
“Civil rights work is exciting and challenging,” says Fatina Abdrabboh (A.B. ’03), who is the executive director of the ADC-Michigan. “It’s exciting because you see a direct impact of your efforts."
"You help people get their job back," Abdrabboh says. "You help people get vindicated in court. And you help people find resolutions informally and off the record, through relationships and networks and by appealing to the good old conscience of Americans.”
The ADC-Michigan serves Michigan’s large Arab American community—including Muslims, Christians, and others—and 2016 was a banner year for that community’s needs, Abdrabboh says, and not in a good way.
“Obviously, world events have been horrible, right?” Abdrabboh says. “And the backdrop of the political rhetoric going on, for sure, has added to it. In terms of direct caseload, direct growth in staff size, and community needs, 2016 was the busiest and most challenging year for civil rights work for Arab communities that I have ever seen.”
But a lifetime of legal advocacy and activism weren’t necessarily the plan when Abdrabboh arrived at college.
“I was 18, and not many Arab or Muslim girls from Dearborn went to U-M at the time,” Abdrabboh says. “This was 1999. I was deciding who I wanted to be on a really open campus in terms of my identity. And then 9/11 happened when I was a sophomore and everything changed.”
Abdrabboh and many Muslim and Arab Americans who were in school when the attacks happened refer to themselves as Generation 9/11. And as America started preparing for war against Afghanistan and later Iraq, a generation of students with Middle Eastern backgrounds started to use their studies to empower their personal identity and to try to hold governments and private actors accountable for actions that affected them and their community.
“Everything suddenly mattered a lot more,” Abdrabboh said. “Arabic language classes rose on the academic priority list. Gender courses about the Middle East suddenly seemed to matter way more, because the whole world was talking about Muslim women. And the Michigan campus was such a broad place to think and develop that you could always find out who you wanted to be there. And I did.”
Abdrabboh says she was transformed by her time at LSA, which included classes with professors Mark Tessler, Carol Bardenstein, and Sherman Jackson, on her way to attaining her degree in Near Eastern Studies. Later, Abdrabboh attended Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and her ongoing study of religion, social movements, and the law led her to a career in activism. Now, she heads up the largest chapter of the ADC nationwide.
The Hopeful Part
Under Abdrabboh’s leadership, the ADC-Michigan takes on significant—and steady—challenges. They receive discrimination complaints “every day,” Abdrabboh says. And whether it’s factory workers being denied the opportunity to break fast for Ramadan or students at schools being called “ISIS” or young doctors being asked unlawful questions about their religious persuasions at a residency interview, each problem requires its own tailored solution.
“I think it is part of our responsibility as graduates and mentors to guide students along the way,” says Abdrabboh (fifth from right), pictured here with winners of ADC-Michigan’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship awards.
“When the NAACP fought discrimination, it strategized around cases with great ‘facts,’ like Rosa Parks, like Brown v. Board of Education, the cases that created a transformative policy change,” Abdrabboh says. “And we have those, and we make those strides. But the reality is that it’s all these small victories that actually chisel and chip away at the ugliness that we call bigotry.
“Now, we may think that it might be more useful to make it a test case but the client may not want to,” Abdrabboh continues. “Sometimes there might not be a huge legal victory on a particular case, but it’s a huge public relations victory for the community. In a lawsuit against the city, for example, you’re not going to get any money now, but they’ve changed the policy. Sometimes a great outcome for the community may not be the best outcome for the individual client. As a lawyer, my primary duty is first and foremost to the client, which is a privileged relationship that was created just by virtue of them consulting with me. And my job, my duty, is to disclose to them all of the ramifications of turning something into a community issue including media or publicity.”
Abdrabboh speaks across the country about the fight for civil rights that the ADC-Michigan is making, recently making trips to Ohio and California to talk to students about the importance of being involved in the political process and the consequences of not voting. Abdrabboh’s efforts have been recognized broadly. She is the receipient of the NAACP’s Freedom and Justice Award and the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Youth and Empowerment Award. She also mentors many U-M students who end up interning at the ADC-Michigan. As an adjunct law professor, she encourages many of her students at Wayne State to apply to Michigan for graduate school.
“It’s an extra special place,” Abdrabboh says of U-M. “People love the campus, they love Ann Arbor, they love the public interest component to Michigan. And it’s cool to work and encourage interns or students or whomever to Go Blue.”
And while there are real reasons to despair, Abdrabboh says, in light of the increasing intolerance she sees impacting her community, she sees real reasons for hope, also, including the number of people that she encounters in her day-to-day work who want to fix problems and make sure that everyone, regardless of their race or religion, has the same rights.
“A lot of people see what’s wrong and they say, ‘Look, you’re right. This is messed up. We’re going to get this right,’” Abdrabboh says. “And they don’t do it because they’re checking a diversity box or because they’re checking a box against company liability. They’re doing it because they’re Americans and that’s what this country is all about. Seeing that happen, for me, is the hopeful part.”
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