Hamtramck: ‘Most diverse’ city reflects on Trump

While one resident sees Trump’s victory as “a reminder of the hatred” in the world, another calls it “a miracle”.

A mural depicting diversity in Hamtramck [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]

Hamtramck, Michigan – Hip-hop and Middle Eastern music spill from the windows of passing cars, competing for attention with the day’s final call to prayer at the corner mosque. Men and women, many in headscarves and long robes, walk along the pavements as another day comes to a close.

Welcome to Hamtramck, said to be the most diverse city in Michigan. Last year, the city of 22,400 people became the first in the country to be run by a Muslim-majority city council.

Residents claim their city is its own little world, and they work hard and coexist peacefully here – the way Americans are supposed to, they say. 

But this little world was shaken on November 8 when Republican nominee Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

“People were shocked,” said Saad Almasmari, who tipped Hamtramck’s city council to a Muslim majority when he was elected a year ago. “We pushed hard for Hillary Clinton.”

Almasmari, a 29-year-old immigrant from Yemen, said the city came out in droves to vote, motivated largely by Trump’s anti-Islam and anti-immigration rhetoric.

Saad Almasmari [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]
Saad Almasmari [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]

More than half of Hamtramck’s residents are practising Muslims and immigrants from Yemen, Bangladesh, Poland and Bosnia make up the majority of the city’s population. African Americans also claim a sizable portion.

It hasn’t alway been this way: The city was once an enclave of almost exclusively Polish Catholic immigrants. A wave of immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia, however, changed the demographics of the city dramatically.

The shift initially caused a rumble in the community. Tension came to a head with protests about 10 years ago when a local mosque was granted permission to broadcast its call to prayer over a rooftop speaker.

Karen Majewski, Hamtramck’s mayor and the daughter of Polish immigrants, said in the past that some Polish residents felt uneasy about the ethnic shift. She, however, supported the mosque’s efforts to broadcast the call to prayer in 2004.

Majewski has also been outspoken on social media about her disdain for Trump and has shown support for the diversity of her city.

In an open letter to residents posted on Facebook the day after the election, Majewski said: “It’s no secret that I strongly opposed Trump in this election, and like many of you I’m worried about what a Trump presidency would bring for the country and the world … “

A mural in Hamtramck [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]
A mural in Hamtramck [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]

‘We’re all immigrants, and we respect each other’

Flags from nations across the globe flutter above Joseph Campau Avenue, a main thoroughfare of the city. Mosques sit across the street from churches. Middle Eastern and European restaurants and supermarkets are scattered throughout the city.

“I, as a Muslim, know my non-Muslim neighbour who knows her Catholic neighbour who knows his Jewish neighbour,” Almasmari said. “We’re all immigrants, and we respect each other.”

For many, Trump’s lack of respect for immigrants and minorities during his campaign seemed to undermine the diversity embraced by the people of Hamtramck.


“I didn’t think Trump had a chance,” said Omar Alkusari. “He alienated Muslims, blacks, women and gay people.”

Alkusari, who came to the US from Yemen in the 1980s, said he could not fall asleep on election night and stayed awake into the early hours of the morning.

He felt some fear when he heard the results.

“I have a lot of worry about what could happen,” Alkusari said.

The 33-year-old said he is not fearful for himself so much as much as he is about Muslims in other communities that are not so welcoming as Hamtramck.

“Trump stirred up hatred in the country,” Alkusari said, and if the president-elect did not mean what he said, then “he’s a hypocrite, at best”, he added.

But Alkusari is still confident that his country will continue to grow in the right direction.

“Let the racists see that he can’t just kick us out and that he can’t just bring Jim Crow laws back,” Alkusari said, referring to a set of US laws that once enforced segregation between blacks and whites.

Hamtramck residents come to pray at the Al-Islah Islamic Centre [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]
Hamtramck residents come to pray at the Al-Islah Islamic Centre [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]

Down one of Hamtramck’s signature narrow alleyways is the Al-Islah Islamic Centre, where a mostly Bangladeshi Muslim community meets for prayer.

Abdul Motlib, president of the centre, said Trump’s win was nothing short of a miracle. “I feel fine about him winning,” he said, unlike others in his community.

Motlib thinks Trump’s anti-Muslim and immigrant rhetoric was simply a campaigning tool to win the election and believes that the president-elect will behave differently when he is in office.

“It is [God’s] decision to have Trump,” he said. “Of course he will support our community. He will be president for everybody.” 

Others in the community are not so sure of his equitability, and the harshness of Trump’s pre-election behaviour still worries some.

Jeff Urcheck, 25, of Hamtramck, said that he loves the city’s diversity and that Trump’s words were damaging.

“The things he said about Muslims and women are horrifying,” Urcheck said. “It makes me scared for my neighbours.”

Ma'Nisha Walls is concerned for her students [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera] 
Ma’Nisha Walls is concerned for her students [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera] 

A city’s resolve

In an aged, brick school building on the Detroit-Hamtramck border, Ma’Nisha Walls, 25, of Detroit, carries on through her day as a school teacher as though nothing in the country has changed. In her heart, however, she said she knows what Trump’s election is a revelation.

“Trump’s election is a reminder of the hatred in this world,” Walls, who converted to Islam four years ago, said. “He’s ignorant and despicable.”

Walls is “all three”, as she calls it: female, Muslim and black.

Walls teaches third-grade pupils at a private school attended mostly by Muslims. The morning after election, she said, her children came to class curious about what the results meant.

“Did you know Trump won? He hates Muslims. He’s going to deport us,” she recalls some of the young pupils saying.

Walls said she is not worried about her own life under Trump because she has no problem persevering through any hardships that may come.

“I’m proud that I stand out and I am different,” she said, but it is the children in her classroom she worries about.

“My kids aren’t strong enough yet to know who they are,” she told Al Jazeera. “It breaks my heart that there is hatred, and I can’t always protect them.”

The mayor’s post continues, addressing the fears shared by members of her community: “We live in a city whose strength is its diversity, where people live as neighbours no matter what country they come from, no matter the circumstances that brought them here, no matter their language, their ethnicity, no matter the colour of their skin, no matter their religion, no matter their gender, and no matter who they love.” 

For all the differences in race, religion and opinion packed into Hamtramck, the city is united by its resolve and unwillingness to let these differences divide them.

A mural in Hamtramck [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]
A mural in Hamtramck [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera