At the canvassers’ first stop, a large divided house with a wide front porch and brick pillars, nobody answers the front door for a couple minutes. Then it cracks open, and a teenage girl, wearing a black head scarf, shyly peeks her head out. “We’re just walking around door knocking, to remind you to vote on November 8,” says Samiya Ahmed, a 17-year-old volunteer. “The polls open from seven in the morning to 8 p.m. at Salina Middle School.”
Ahmed asks the girl to pass the message on to her family, but the interaction hardly seems like a victory. A few minutes later, though, Ahmed and her two canvassing teammates, also teenagers, have better luck. At a house across the street, an elderly man answers quickly, flashing a big smile. Ahmed begins her speech again, then catches herself. “Did you want me to speak Arabic or English?”
“Arabic,” the man answers. His name is Said Saleh, he tells Complex a couple minutes later. He’s 77 years old and was born in Yemen, and he’s definitely going to cast a ballot on Tuesday. “I vote every four years,” he says. “I go to the Salina school.”
Just a few days before Election Day the three high schoolers were door knocking as part of their volunteer work for the nonpartisan Arab American nonprofit ACCESS, in Dearborn, Michigan, widely recognized as the country’s most important Arab-American city: With some 300,000 residents of Middle Eastern or Arab descent, Metro Detroit has by far the country’s highest concentration of Arab Americans; Dearborn, a city of 100,000 just west of Detroit that’s currently around 40 percent Arab and home to the country’s largest mosque, has long been the community’s heart.
And after a presidential campaign that’s been historically contentious—especially for Muslim Americans—area residents are eager to be heard.
“In this particular election, it was more of people coming to us,” says Rachid Elabed, a community engagement manager with ACCESS. “‘How can I register to vote? What do I need to do?’ We’ve registered over a thousand this year...everyone’s engaged.”
With 16 electoral votes, Michigan represents a big electoral prize, and, despite pulling for the Democratic nominee in the past six presidential elections, this year was still considered contested territory. Clinton was polling big leads until earlier in the fall, but a Detroit Free Press poll released on November 4 showed a dramatically tightening race, with her lead down to four points. In the crucial final days of the campaign, both candidates made multiple stops in the state; Clinton was in Michigan late Monday afternoon, and Trump was still rallying in the state after midnight, just hours before polls opened.
The country’s Arab American population leans heavily Democratic--in one national survey of likely Arab American voters released last month, the former Secretary of State was leading Trump by 60 percent to 26--and so does Michigan’s. But the state’s Arab population is also nuanced. In addition to large populations of Muslims with roots in places like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen, Metro Detroit also has long-established communities of Arab Christians, and even some local Muslim religious leaders are supporting the candidate who once called for a complete ban on Muslims. At a Trump rally in the Detroit suburb of Novi in late September, the candidate was joined by several area religious leaders, including Sheikh Mohammad Al-Hajj Hassan, a Dearborn imam who leads a Lebanese Shia movement and believes the Republican candidate is more likely to stop ISIS.
But in Michigan Trump’s repeated anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric have also provoked enthusiastic responses. In June, AJPlus, a division of Al Jazeera, released a video showing Dearborn Muslims praying and living peacefully that has since been viewed nearly two million times on Facebook; last month the Nuisance Committee, a humor group, paid for an Arabic-language billboard in the city that translates to “Donald Trump, he can’t read this, but he is scared of it anyway.”
“This is how people feel in the community,” Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Detroit News. “It’s mocking Trump. It’s funny yet very appropriate considering the nonsense Donald Trump has continued to say about Muslims.”
That nonsense, and the outsize role that religion and identity have played in the campaign more generally, has sparked something of a political awakening in area mosques. Whereas imams were formerly hesitant to get involved in politics, Elabed tells Complex, this year they’ve started encouraging their congregations to vote, including rousing participation messages as part of Friday prayers.
“And they’ve been doing a very good job,” Elabed says. “Energizing people, telling them it is your specific duty, it’s your right, it’s a good thing to do.”
Sami Khalidi, president of the Dearborn Democratic Club, tells Complex that he expects a local turnout of 60 percent or higher, equal or better than in 2012. For the first time, he adds, he’s even seen lines for early voting. “There is a lot of momentum and a lot of energy,” he says. “People are excited.”
But Dearborn’s status as high-profile Arab American and Muslim community also makes it a target for voter intimidation. Particularly after terrorist attacks, the area has often been the target of anti-Muslim protests, including at the Islamic Center of America, the Shia mosque on Ford Road that’s the country’s largest; during the midterm election two years ago, Elabed says, antagonists also showed up at area polling places, accusing Arabic-speaking poll workers of telling residents who to vote for and harassing women.
“They’re like, ‘She has a scarf on. Does that look like her in the I.D.?’” Elabed says. “Just making trouble. Just not letting people practice the right to vote.”
This election, considering the heated rhetoric and Trump’s repeated calls for vigilante-style “poll watching,” the stakes are higher. Elabed and other leaders have been training official poll watchers to protect voters, but nerves remain high.
“This has been a very tough year for everyone,” says Shannon McEvilly, also with ACCESS. “There’s definitely been a lot of strong feelings...there’s been a lot of talk about targeting. It’s terrifying.”
On their canvassing walk, the high schoolers knocked on 33 doors. They also helped a disabled man reach the corner store, and posed for pictures with residents, and walked past a small park where a woman in a burqa was looking after kids playing on a merry-go-round.
And outside of another house on Burley Street they ran into another friendly resident, Imad Saeed, who gratefully accepted their literature and posed for a photo. Saeed is in his late 30s, he told Complex, and has always voted since he moved to the U.S. from Yemen about 20 years ago. But this year was different, he said. This year the whole neighborhood was more engaged, and even his imam was talking about the election.
“All the Muslim people,” he said, “they are together.”