One small city, three vibrant immigrant communities
Hamtramck is a 2-square-mile city. Small in size, but large in population and ethnic diversity. With around 22,000 residents, the city has much to offer and visit in a day.
Throughout the 20th century, Hamtramck was largely a Polish community. Today, the city has the largest percentage of immigrants in the state of Michigan. About 42% are foreign-born and immigrated from countries in Eastern Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East.
To show us Hamtramck through the lens of different cultures, we asked four residents to show us their city: Abraham Aiyash, Andrea Karpinski, and couple Raihan Akther and Kamal Rahman. (To further emphasize the city’s close-knit community, they all knew each other.)
Our hosts highlighted different parts of the city, but all called attention to the rich cultures that make Hamtramck the city it is.
Andrea Karpinski is many things: city councilwoman, secretary at Hamtramck High School, and occasional helper at her family’s bar. Karpinski grew up in the city, as did her parents and grandparents.
She said that business has definitely gotten slower over the years at their bar, the Polish Sea League, due to many Polish families moving out of the city, and the influx of Muslims with Bengali and Yemeni backgrounds.
“Most Muslims don’t drink, and so that’s a big part of the population. Compared to 30 years ago, when all the auto plants were right here, we’d have the white-collar GM workers and the people who were working on the lines who came [to the bar],” she said.
Karpinski said there’s still a significant amount of Polish people who remain in Hamtramck.
“You hear a lot from older white people who say, ‘Oh there’s no Polish people there anymore.’ My argument to that is we all came as immigrants, we all came to Hamtramck to settle, when [we] first came to the U.S.,” Karpinski said.
Several markets and businesses celebrate Polish cuisine and heritage in the city. One Polish treasure is the Polish Art Center.
Joan Bittner has been running the Polish Art Center with her husband, Raymond, since 1973. “Since then, we’ve welcomed all kinds of immigrants into the city. We’ve got about 30 different languages spoken in the homes of the school children here,” Bittner said.
Many of the items sold in the store come directly from Poland. Raymond, who’s Polish, visits Poland almost every summer, and ships back items like Polish pottery, Christmas decorations, and cookbooks, according to Bittner.
When talking about the diversity of the city, Karpinski said it’s apparent everywhere; especially in the classrooms.
As a student in Saint Florian Catholic School's last graduating class in 2002, she didn’t see that diversity, but as a high school secretary, it’s different.
“When I started working at Hamtramck High, it was a game-changer. I didn’t know what to expect," she said. "There’s an African-American kid walking around with a Bengali girl. They don’t look at color or race.”
One spot Karpinski says is the biggest intersection point of Hamtramck’s cultures, that the other hosts also mentioned, would be Al-Haramain grocery store.
“It’s huge, it’s got everything you need, like a mini Kroger. You’ll see people of all colors there, getting their groceries like everybody else,” she said.
Al-Haramain caters to the surrounding communities by importing spices and groceries that the Polish, Bengali, Yemeni, Indian, and other populations frequently use in their cuisine.
Kamal Rahman, finance manager at the City of Detroit, expressed his relief when talking about Al-Haramain.
Growing up, Rahman said he used to take his family to Garden City (roughly 20 miles from Hamtramck) to purchase groceries that cater to the Bangladeshi diet.
“Or go to Canada, which is closer than Garden City, to go buy spices every other week,” he said.
Because of the city’s need for the market, Al-Haramain International Foods, currently located on Caniff street, recently expanded, opening a larger, second location on Joseph Campau in September 2018. Customers shop from their vast selection of groceries, which include dates, Indian cucumbers, figs, ginger, and an even wider selection of spices originating from Yemen and India.
When it comes to food, Rahman, who was born in Bangladesh, said he frequents Aladdin Sweets and Cafe for the occasional cup of tea.
“It opened around 2000 and was the first Bangladeshi restaurant in the area,” Rahman said. Biryani is a famous South Asian dish, and is served at Aladdin Sweets and Cafe as well as other authentic cuisine like tandoori dishes and breads like naan and roti.
A popular drink at the cafe, according to Rahman, is the mango lassi— a cold and sweetened drink of yogurt, milk, and mango pulp served at the restaurant.
Rahman immigrated to Hamtramck as a child, and graduated from Hamtramck High School. He’s a familiar face in the community due to his active participation in politics.
In 2017, Rahman ran for mayor of Hamtramck and lost. He said he wanted to be a bridge between the newer Hamtramck communities and the old.
“We will have a mayor, other than a Polish mayor. It’s been 100 years. It’s going to change, and I wanted to be a part of the change in a positive way,” Rahman said.
Raihan Akther, Rahman’s wife, is the principal of Bridge Academy West, a middle school unlike others in the state for two reasons: it’s separated by gender and has a huge 46-foot mural on its exterior wall.
“Gender separate classrooms, lunchrooms, staircases. This was created solely because the community demanded it,” Akther said.
She said the school has a majority Muslim population, and the demands stemmed specifically from the Yemeni population in the area.
In order to address the needs of the community, Rahman and Akther researched studies about gender separate schools and classrooms and discovered students in those types of schools tended to receive higher scores on exams.
“It’s the best of both worlds: cultural sensitivity and they’re going to school,” Rahman said. “Otherwise, students would’ve stayed at home.”
The mural painted on the exterior of Bridge Academy West was painted by Victor Quiñonez, a New York-based artist also known as Marka27. It was completed October 2018.
The mural depicts a young Bangladeshi girl along with a tiger, the Bangladeshi flag, tea fields, and many more cultural symbols.
According to Akther, having the mural celebrate and recognize Bangladeshi culture in Hamtramck is inspiring to many children and adults in the community.
Abraham Aiyash is a community organizer with OneHamtramck, the same organization that helped develop the mural project. Aiyash is of Yemeni descent and was raised in Hamtramck. He graduated from Hamtramck High and came back to the city after graduating from Michigan State University. He said there’s a sense of community, beautiful art, and amazing cuisine in the area that continues to attract tourists and residents.
Aiyash took us to another mural on the south end of Hamtramck. It's a vibrant mural that celebrates Hamtramck's Yemeni culture, originally commissioned by OneHamtramck and painted by Dasic Fernandez in 2013.
“This is one of the few cultural icons of Yemeni heritage in America,” Aiyash said.
The mural has several veiled faces with only the eyes showing in vivid colors. If you stand in front of the mural at night, Aiyash said, you can look into the eyes and they will appear to be reflecting you. Because of a new next-door lot owner, the mural is at risk of being covered up by new development. Aiyash said many Yemeni-Americans appreciate this piece of art because of the cultural connection and representation it emanates, and are fighting for it to stay.
“It’s important to want to preserve [our] heritage,” he said.
In addition to culture, Aiyash highlighted the importance of religion in the various Muslim Hamtramck communities, and took us to one mosque that is predominantly visited by the Yemeni community.
Masjid Al-Kabir opened during Ramadan in May 2019, and Aiyash said it still fills up during Friday prayers in addition to several other mosques in the city.
“This community has just continued growing and growing,” he said.
Within this community, Aiyash said there’s a language barrier. Many of the immigrant residents are Arab and may not understand or speak English.
Hamtramck made national headlines in 2015, when it became the first city in the country to elect a Muslim-majority city council, but Aiyash said there needs to be improvement in communication between the city government and residents.
“The city has a lot of folks that speak English as a second language, yet some people feel that English is the only language in city hall,” Aiyash said.
One of the ways Aiyash said political leaders can be inclusive is by having bilingual employees to assist residents.
“We really want to start seeing our administration in city hall reflect the diversity of the city,” Aiyash said.