A conversation with commencement speaker Abdullah Hammoud

April 25, 2022

The new mayor of Dearborn discusses his historic run, the power of failure, and breaking boundaries for the next generation.

A colorful graphic featuring a headshot of Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud
Graphic by Violet Dashi

If our recent conversation with Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud (‘10 BS) is an indication, students can expect some real talk from this year’s commencement speaker. In the course of just half an hour, we circled through his parents’ immigration story, growing up in Dearborn in the ‘90s, his legislative run against a former professional wrestler, his priorities for Dearborn, and why politics are both disappointing but too important to ignore. In an era where politicians choose their words carefully — frankly, the candidness was refreshing. And we’re excited to hear what other territory Hammoud covers when he addresses students this weekend. Until then, enjoy these highlights from our interview, which has been edited lightly for clarity. 

 

You often talk about the pride you have being the son of immigrant parents. Can you share a little bit of their immigration story and how you think being a first-generation American has shaped you?

My mom came over in 1974 when she was about 4, fleeing the Lebanese Civil War. She came with her family — my grandparents — and my grandfather was trying to get a job on the line. While he was waiting, he got a job at a bakery making $40 a week, and that’s how he got by until he could get a job at GM. My father, he was also Lebanese, but he came a little later in life. His father, my grandfather, was a concrete worker in Saudi Arabia, so he moved his family to Saudi Arabia first, and it wasn’t until my father was in his early 20s that they left and came to Michigan in the early 1980s. My father worked every job you could imagine. He had this saying: Work is never embarrassing. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, work is work, and that’s honorable. 

Both my parents only had a high school education, and I always saw them struggle when a bill came in the mail. But growing up, I would say I was unknowingly poor, and we were always surrounded by friends and family. In the summer, my brothers and I would take coolers and fill them up with water — that was our pool — and wait for the ice cream man, and we thought we were on top of the world. Us four boys all slept in the same two twin-size beds pushed together, and I thought it was just the coolest thing that I got to sleep with my brothers. So you don’t always know what you don’t have. But my parents taught me from a young age that education would be the pathway to success. It wasn’t about the pursuit of money. It was about never having to stress over a phone call from a collector or the bank that’s foreclosing on your home. I lived in 12 homes by the age of 14. Their dream was that I wouldn’t have to struggle like that, and school was the ticket.

Your early education, including here at UM-Dearborn, was in science and then you later worked in the healthcare field. I’m curious how that pivot to politics happened.

It almost happened as a result of continuous failure. I applied three years in a row to about 300 medical schools in all and was denied by just about every one of them, except a few that were abroad and I didn’t want to go abroad. So instead I went and got my master’s in public health, and my new dream was to work my way up the administration of a hospital or health system. But in 2015, my older brother unexpectedly passed away. He was only 27. And in the days that followed, I received a 50-page packet in the mail from my brother’s co-workers talking about how he impacted their lives. I took a step back and decided that I wanted to be for my community what my brother was for the people in his life. So I decided to run for an open seat in the Michigan House. It was a crazy idea, but it also felt like the right thing to do.

When I got to Lansing, I learned a few lessons really fast. One, it’s not the brightest and best from across the state who end up there, it’s people who won an election. Two, you go to Lansing and nobody cares about your story. They care about whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. And then, even within your own caucus, they want to know if you’re a blue-collar Democrat, or a moderate, or a progressive, etc. So I quickly realized people didn’t talk to one another because it was the labels that matter and the labels came quickly. As the only Muslim when I first arrived, I had that extra barrier to overcome. I was the first Mulsim that many legislators had ever met, and even many Democratic members didn’t have a great opinion of Muslims and Arabs. The other thing I’d say about that is when you’re the only Arab or Muslim, you end up representing all Arabs and Muslims, whether you want to or not. I remember when the Mulism ban was first announced, my caucus turned to me and asked, “OK, Abdullah, what should we do?” And my thought was the point of the caucus is you advocate for justice, regardless of your background.

You often hear mayors talk about how being an executive is different because you’re focused on getting stuff done. Are you feeling any of that in your new role?

It’s absolutely a different gig and I appreciate it. As mayor, you have to make sure things get executed and you’re accountable for it. When you’re a legislator, if you have a budget crisis, you just see numbers on paper. When you’re a mayor, you’re dealing directly with the employees, and the programs and the union negotiations. Right now, in Dearborn, the deficit we have to address is $28 million annually, and everything I do to try to make the numbers work means I’m impacting someone’s employment or benefits or a service that 110,000 residents depend on. So I think it’s a far more difficult job and I’ll go against anybody on that. I think how well you do comes down to if you can build a robust, diverse and competent team around you. But the burden is there. It’s a burden I asked for because I voluntarily ran for office. But I’m still learning how to carry that. 

I know money is tight, but if you had the budget, what are some things you’d prioritize in Dearborn right now?

I think there are two things. One is flooding — it’s a huge issue in southeast Michigan that’s impacting tens of thousands of households. I think over the previous three decades, the administration looked at this with a gray infrastructure mentality — that it’s a sewer capacity issue. Looking forward, we think this is a green and gray infrastructure issue. We have to talk about green spaces and limiting pavement and runoff. We’re also working with our partner municipalities on those issues, because Dearborn is the last downstream community on the Rouge River, and the more upstream communities can limit their own runoff, the better it is for everyone. The second is the Southend of Dearborn, along with neighboring Southwest Detroit, is the asthma epicenter of the state. Rates are three to four times higher. If I had an unlimited amount of money, I would relocate all that industry out of that neighborhood. We’re actually trying to work on a similar project right now on a smaller scale. I can’t move the 300-acre steel factory. But we might be able to relocate 70 percent of the smaller businesses that pollute to an area that’s isolated away from the neighborhoods. That would have an immediate impact on quality of life. 

You alluded to the difficulties of today’s political climate, and obviously our politics are barely functioning in a lot of ways. Sometimes I think, why would young people like yourself, who could do any number of things with their talents, want to go into politics? And is that something you personally encourage young folks to do? 

I think it’s important to be involved, because otherwise, decisions are just being made on your behalf. The largest voting bloc is still those who don’t vote, and you have elections being determined by 25 or 30 percent of the voting age population. For example, Millennials are emerging as the largest voting bloc, but traditionally, in the city of Dearborn, in a municipal election, seniors make up 60 percent of the vote, and they have a different priority list than young people. So that’s why I would encourage people to get involved, do their research on candidates and issues, vote, and encourage their friends and families to do the same. I don't think everyone has to run for office. That’s a personal decision. But if you’re not running, maybe you’re still volunteering for a campaign and backing a candidate you support. Make a donation — even if it’s a dollar or two. It makes a difference. And if you do become that physician or engineer or attorney that immigrant parents often dream about for their children, you still have a responsibility of giving back to the community that you’re in. You should want for your neighbor what you want for yourself, and if you uplift the most marginalized in a community, you’re uplifting everyone. 

A lot of coverage of you winning the mayor’s race tends to focus on you being the first Arab American mayor in Dearborn. I’m curious how you feel about that framing in the stories that are told about you? 

I get why people want to focus on that. When you talk to the elders in my parents’ generation, they talk about how something that was once a dream is now a reality. I mean, the day after 9/11, I was walking home and had a gun pulled on me by a guy threatening to shoot “you Muslim kids,” and now I’m the mayor of that city. So I get why that’s significant. But I didn’t run to be the first. I ran to be the best. I want to demonstrate that somebody with a different sounding last name or who prays a little differently can do as good or better a job. Then, when the next person comes along and runs, people will say I can vote for a Fatima, or a Mariam, or a Mohammed, because Abdullah did a good job, and it doesn’t matter what you are as long as you’re able to lead. 

Recently, I was out at an event reading to kids for March is Reading Month. There was this young Palestinian girl, Yara, she’s in third grade, and she walked up to me and said, “Mr. Mayor, will you remember my name when you become president?” And I looked at her and said, “Yara, you’re going to become president and I’m going to need you to remember my name.” And when I saw her again, she walked up to me and said, “I want you to know that I will remember you when I become president.” So to imagine that you might give young people something greater to aspire to — that’s the goal. The goal is that my daughter has more doors open to her than I ever had. And the reality is whether you win or lose, you’re making it easier for the next generation.

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You can watch Mayor Hammoud’s recorded commencement address during any of this year’s ceremonies via the university’s Facebook page. Interview by Lou Blouin.