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Chronicling the Dangers of Detroit's Gas Station Workers

Posted: Aug 01, 2012


Ed. Note: Ongoing violence at Detroit area gas stations, including the fatal shooting of a customer by the store’s owner in March, has raised alarms among police, community members and small business owners. In the following piece, The Arab American News explores some of the day-to-day dangers faced by operators of the city’s gas stations, and what they’re doing to protect themselves.

DETROIT — The Arab American News spent the day recently at a Detroit gas station to chronicle the dangers that business owners in the city face in their work environment.

One station, as it turns out was robbed the day before by a gunman who demanded money from the cashier. No one was hurt in the incident. "It's nothing new, we're used to it now," said Kassem Balhas, an employee at the station.

The station's owner, Sam Chahro, was asked about the number of times the station has been held up by gunmen throughout the years. Just four weeks ago, he said, the station was held up at gunpoint by a man carrying an AK-47. Chahro called 911, and was asked by the dispatcher whether the suspect was black or white.

"They always ask whether the person committing the crime is black or white, I don't know why," he said.

Chahro says he was panicking when he was on the phone with the dispatcher, and the woman on the phone asked him to stop yelling at her. "I told her 'a guy is in my store with an AK-47. What do you want me to do, say, hi honey how are you?'"

The 911 dispatcher told Chahro it would be reported to police. While the incident occurred weeks ago, Detroit Police have still not responded.

Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee told the Arab American News his department responds to crime in accordance with the severity of the situation, and whether it is life threatening.

Asked how he deals with the dangers involved in working at a small business in Detroit, Balhas, 23, replied, "It's normal now. You just have to know how to deal with it."

Middle Eastern Americans make up the majority of small business owners in Detroit. They contribute greatly to the city's economy, and have become the lifeblood of neighborhoods that have been dying.

Today their challenges are tougher than ever as crime in the city is at its height. Chahro says when he calls the police he doesn't expect them to respond, but he does it anyway so evidence of the incident is on record. He says sometimes the police will come to address a crime the day after it happens.

"They don't even show up, especially when a business owner calls. If someone else calls, they may come a little faster," Chahro said.

Chahro has bullet proof glass in the station, and there are double doorway entrances that separate the cashier counter from the grocery shelves and beverages. When night hits the entrance to the grocery shelves and beverages is closed off for safety purposes. Today many small business owners have to carry guns in their stores because they can't depend on police for protection.

Balhas says the gas station's location isn't as dangerous as other areas that he's worked in around the city. Still, he has to remain vigilant. "We're not just cashiers, we have to be the security here too, and keep our eyes open at all times.”

Chahro has owned the gas station for 28 years, and says he deals with customers who can get physically and verbally aggressive every day, including gang members. Still, he insists it's only a handful of people who get out of line, and a majority are loyal customers he's known for decades.

"We grew up together, we were raised together, most of them are like my family," he said.

Because of the increase in crime in the city the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers in collaboration with the Michigan State Police held a public forum with the region's top cops and Detroit business owners to hear their concerns about crime at their stores.

When an article was published about the forum that featured a photo of Chahro with Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee, Chahro posted it at the station. A number of customers were upset by that, calling him a snitch and accusing him of working with the cops. Worst of all, employees at the station were threatened, and told to "be safe" and "watch their backs."

Storeowners and residents cite crime and security as a reason for their decision to leave.

Chahro says one person has been shot in his store. The man was shot in the thigh inside the store, and ended up suing Chahro for not unlocking a door and letting him in behind the counter. He says he didn't open the door to keep employees at the store safe. "Someone has a gun and you want me to let you in," he said.

Residents share Chahro’s concerns. One flashed a gun, saying people “have to protect themselves, because they can't depend on the police to protect them."

Chahro does want to get out of the business, but says he doesn't know what other line of work to get into. "I've done this my whole life. If there was somewhere else I could go then I would. I haven't done any other work for 28 years besides this," he said.

Chahro and his employees are also subjected to verbal abuse, and say they're often called "A-rabs" and told to go back to their country.

"They all think I am rich," Chahro said of the many stereotypes that surround people of Middle Eastern descent.

In fact, many gas stations and liquor stores are not as profitable as they were decades ago, and struggle to stay open. Chahro own station was selling gas for less than what he paid for it, and losing money in order to remain competitive.

Employees are also frequently criticized for not intervening in customer fights, a reluctance stemming from the hundreds of Chaldean and Arab Americans that have been killed at their small businesses in Detroit over the decades. Such incidents, they say, rarely attract media attention.

In March a Detroit gas station became the focal point of protests after its clerk shot and killed a customer. The storeowner had to close for seven days, because of protesters demonstrating outside the gas station demanding its closure.

"When they kill one of us no one makes a big deal," one man working at the station said.

This is an adapted version of the original, which ran on the Web site of The Arab American News.



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