Abdullah Hammoud, Mayor of Dearborn, MI, on Uncommitted Voters, Faith, and Representation

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The mayor of Dearborn, Michigan, Abdullah Hammoud, is the city’s first Arab American and millennial mayor, though he tells Teen Vogue he has never thought of himself as the “first” anything. It is this deference, this ability to view the job as his duty as a member of the Dearborn community, that endears him so much to his constituents.

Dearborn is home to one of the largest Arab American populations in the country. It's a city where storefronts are adorned in colorful Arabic signs and calls to prayer can be heard from many a street corner. With the Israel-Hamas war raging in Gaza during the past six months, Hammoud’s communications team, which consists of just two people, has been overwhelmed by hundreds of press requests.

Dearborn has become a city with a profound understanding of what it means to lose, what it means to grieve, and what it means to collectively heal. The city, which was derided in a Wall Street Journal op-ed as “America’s Jihad Capital,” is a traditionally blue stronghold. But during the Democratic primary, it became the center of the historic Uncommitted campaign, in which most Dearborn residents overwhelmingly voted “uncommitted” rather than for Joe Biden to express their disapproval of the president's handling of the devastation in Gaza.

Shortly before the start of Ramadan, Teen Vogue caught up with Hammoud over Zoom to talk about what’s happening in Dearborn now, and how he got to the mayor’s office.

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Teen Vogue: What does it mean to be Dearborn’s first Arab American mayor? Does the weight of that ever feel heavy?

Abdullah Hammoud: The title is extremely heavy and burdensome, and not something that I ever pursued. I never pursued to be the first anything — to be the first Muslim, first Arab, whatever it might be. It still feels kind of like a dream, the fact that this is reality and that we made it this far.

We ran for mayor not wanting to be the first but wanting to be the best. That's what we try to aim for each and every single day. So it's been a blessing; God has been great. The family has been great. The community has been awesome. Service employees of the city have been amazing. And I have the luxury where I get the credit, but they're doing the work.

TV: What do you see as some of the most meaningful initiatives you’ve introduced into city legislation during your tenure as mayor?

AH: I grew up in a working-poor household, and I remember my siblings weren't able to afford to go to the community pools. One of the things I did when I first came into office was we waived all pool entrance fees for kids 13 and under, and we actually saw a spike in people who are now participating within our community pools across the city. That was a really cool initiative.

Second, we launched the Public Health Department. I'm an epidemiologist by trade and went to UM School of Public Health, and I believe in a concept called “health in all policies.” What this means is every decision that we make in the city, it's a public health decision. If you're rezoning a property, if you're permitting certain types of economic development, you're trying to address flooding issues, if you are trying to improve air quality, if you want to invest in parks, all of these are public health decisions. So our department focuses on making sure that every decision we make is viewed through the lens of public health. I think that's really cool.

Third, we announced a $30 million investment in our parks across the city, and we're in the middle of making those investments. I think we'll have a lot of ribbon cuttings this year. So I’m really excited to see those go from my mind into paper and from paper into actual reality.

TV: What motivated you to get involved in politics as a young person in Dearborn? What makes leading Dearborn so meaningful?

AH: Growing up in the post-9/11 era as a proud Muslim Arab American, I don't think it was that I wanted to engage in politics, it was kind of like politics was engaging with me. Whether I engaged with it back, I think, was a real question.

I recall the first election I ever volunteered for, when I was 11, and there was a guy by the name Abed Hammoud — he was running for mayor in 2001. Right after the events of 9/11. I just wanted a shirt that said “Hammoud for Mayor.” That's really why I volunteered.

I really got engaged in politics in undergrad at University of Michigan-Dearborn. I was a part of student government. We ran our own slates and really participated. But my dream was to become a physician, not to run for public office. Life events just happened the way they happened. I found myself running for office in 2016, for state representative, and it wasn't planned. It wasn't, you know, on a schedule to do. It just kind of fell in the lap and, by the grace of God, we made it. Honestly, it's been the most transformative experience for me in life, and professionally.

TV: What advice do you have for young Arab Americans looking to become involved in politics?

AH: My message for young people is be your authentic self. We don't have to shy away, we don’t have to make our names sound a little less complicated. I tell everybody, “If they can say Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, they can say Abdullah Hammoud.” It's just as easy, it just takes a bit of effort.

And hold on to your culture. I think it makes us unique, and you'd be surprised at how far staying true to who you are will take you in life. It'll take you further than trying to acquiesce to anybody else's expectations.

TV: What do you think of the success of the Uncommitted campaign? Have you coordinated with other Arab American leaders in other states to send a similar message to Biden?

AH: It was a resounding success. You had over 100,000 people in Michigan who voted uncommitted in demonstration and in protest of President Biden's decision-making, largely on what he's done in Gaza. I think what it demonstrates is that this is a multigenerational, multifaith, multiethnic, multiracial movement, and that movement being the pro-peace, pro-democracy, pro-justice movement. We were all shocked. We thought it would be 10,000 or 100,000 [votes], nothing in between. It brought many of us to tears.

I coordinate with many Muslim officials across the country. We're actually in a group chat together. We communicate on a daily basis, just trying to offer one another advice in navigating any turmoil, whether it pertains to issues happening overseas or domestically, and depending on one another for the experience that we all share.

What you saw was a propping up of [Uncommitted-style] campaigns in Washington and Colorado and Minnesota, Hawaii, North Carolina, and it's nationwide. I think that also demonstrates, coast to coast, that the issues we’re primarily honed in on in Dearborn, that the Arab American and Muslim American community is advocating for — calls for a permanent ceasefire, for restricting military aid, for resuming humanitarian aid, for establishing a Palestine state — these are things that the majority of Americans support.

I think there's been a paradigm shift on the conflict. You're now seeing millions across the globe making their voices heard for the Palestinian people, and I think that's the most beautiful thing. The credit goes to the Listen to Michigan campaign. I know the organizers — they're all Dearborn-based. I was just happy to sign on to the campaign and help rally, now, over 40 elected officials in Michigan, who all endorsed that campaign.

TV: What have you heard from young Arab Americans in Dearborn about the 2024 presidential election? What has been the impact of the war in Gaza on the overall mental health and sense of well-being of your constituents? How do you navigate ongoing feelings of grief and pain in your community?

AH: Many are not even waiting for November. What they're saying is, “We shouldn't have to wait until November”; [they want] to see a change right now.

You have certain residents who don't know what to do come November. I think many are inclined to sit at home. You have some who have lost a dozen family members who have been killed, or we have one resident who's lost over 80 family members in Gaza. I don't think that person is concerned about how to vote come November. He's grieving and trying to understand and make sense of how this can happen.

Then you have others who are truly trying to advocate and use the tools at their disposal, like the Uncommitted campaign, leveraging social media and mainstream media outlets to try to add pressure and get the president to change course now to call for an immediate ceasefire so that they can feel better about their vote come November. And then you have others who are going to abandon [the party]. I think it differs for each and every single person.

There’s a blanket of grief across all of Dearborn. You know, we're entering Ramadan in just a few days. While it's the holiest month of the year, traditionally, a celebratory month of the year, it’s a little bit more calm than traditionally. So I think we're gonna find a lot more people spending time at home, spending time at the places of worship, making dua (prayer) for the Palestinian people, rather than, for example, being at a Suhoor festival, which has been canceled this year because of the events in Gaza.

I just try to keep my ears to the ground, stay close with the community. I don't really care for my title. To the outside world, I’m the mayor; to people in Dearborn, I'm just Abdullah, who happens to be the mayor. I'm in tune with how my residents feel because I talk to my residents every day.

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue

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