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In 2006, for reasons that take longer than a blog intro to explain, I was boarding a plane in Copenhagen in a state of absolute joy to be going home. It was hard to believe I was really going to make it. Imagine my delight when took my seat right next to a guy who appeared to be Muslim, dressed in a long tunic. Yes! It was true! I was really getting back to Michigan, and here was my first sign of home.

It was a direct flight into Detroit, and so of course seeing a man of Arabic decent was proof that I was truly homeward bound. Non-Michiganders are sometimes surprised to learn that we’re home of the one of the (and some say, the very) largest population of Arabs outside of the Middle East. In 2011, the Arab American Institute Foundation estimated that more than 500,000 people of Arabic-speaking ancestry live in Michigan, with 80 percent of that population in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties.

How awesome is that? Honestly, it’s not just a fun fact: it’s an economic and cultural gift. This first began to dawn on me last year when I interviewed Wally Jadan who owns MEA-TV & Radio. It was one of those weeks when I had a million and a half things happening, and while I typically spend some time researching people before interviews, in this case, I was winging it (oops!). So imagine my surprise when I was a few minutes into an interview with this guy who owns what I assumed was a nice little local Middle Eastern American television station and he starts telling me about his 9 million viewers in North America and the 10 million more he was about to add in the Middle East. And his interview with Hillary Clinton. And how his goal is to change the perception of the US in the Middle East as great place where Arabs are welcomed and thrive – a goal he was months away from beginning to achieve.

That changing the world bit got my attention. Here’s an excerpt from the story that ran in Metromode:

“Jadan’s pride in the local Middle Eastern American community is clear from the MEA-TV website,*  which boasts the same statistics the broadcast network hopes to share with the world. According to the page, Middle Eastern Americans own more than 10,000 businesses in the tri-county area and contribute $3.7 billion in wage and salary earnings in the state. It also clarifies that Middle Eastern American families have higher average incomes than other Americans and are notably well educated.”

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a handful of those well-educated, job-creating Middle Eastern Americans while writing another story for Metromode on ICON Global Architecture Engineering, a collaboration between a handful of architects, developers and engineers who are in the process of signing a $5.5 billion contract with the National Investment Commission of Iraq to build cities’ worth of housing there. Yes, billion, with a “b.” And that money is coming here, to Michigan, to be circulated through those development firms as well as manufacturers and other companies in the businesses of building things here.

How did Michigan get so lucky? To start, the chair of the National Investment Commission for Iraq is an MSU grad. For real. He teamed up with the East Lansing-based economic development organization Prima Civitas to specifically find Michigan firms to work with on the project because of his connection to the state. And then there’s the fact that nearly all the partners in ICON have a connection to Iraq.

You know the expression, “it’s all about who you know?” Apparently that works for states too. For Michigan, we couldn’t be more fortunate to have such a vibrant and diverse community bringing so much talent, culture and economic development to the Metro Detroit. When you hear the talk about inviting highly educated immigrants to settle here in Michigan, this is why you should cheer: $3.7 billion in annual wages and salaries; $5.5 billion in overseas contracts. And that’s just from a few people I happen to have chatted up recently.


*These data points are no longer available at the MEA website. 7/20/12