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U.S. Commerce Secretary Visits Arab American Community

The Arab American News, News Report, Khalil AlHajal Posted: Oct 14, 2009

DEARBORN U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke did not have all the answers to Michigan's economic woes, or to many pressing small business and civil rights concerns of Arab Americans during a visit to Dearborn on Tuesday. But he brought messages of awareness, concern and encouragement to a crowd at the Lebanese American Heritage club and announced at least one major new resource available for businesspeople.

Locke connected with the group of about 70 Arab Americans by speaking about his family's immigrant background. About 100 years before Locke became the nations first Chinese American governor in 1997 in the state of Washington, his immigrant grandfather worked as a house servant about a mile away from where Locke was sworn in at the state Capitol building.

"We share a lot in common," Locke said. "My story is really the story of millions hundreds of millions in America... Each wave of immigrants has made us even stronger... The story of Arab Americans and the story of Islam is part of the story of America."

He also carried messages of respect and concern from President Barack Obama, at the event hosted by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Michigan and the Congress of Arab American Organizations.

"The president very much cares about the hopes and dreams and aspirations of Arab Americans," Locke said. "America owes a great debt to Arab Americans and people of the Islamic faith."

Locke's visit came on the same day of the release of a poll by New America Media, a coalition of ethnic news outlets, that indicated Americans are not well informed about impact and available benefits of the Recovery Act in their communities. The poll showed that only about a third of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans believe contractors and businesses in their communities know how to access stimulus dollars, and that more than 80 percent of all Americans do not know of any small business that has received a government loan over the last six months.

"You almost have to hire a consultant to navigate all the services," Locke acknowledged when questioned about the struggles of local small businesses and a lack of knowledge about benefits available.

He announced the opening of a one-stop office in Plymouth named CommerceConnect, designed to offer businesses and entrepreneurs guidance on services of the Commerce Department and benefits through programs like the stimulus.

"CommerceConnect will provide a single point of contact where businesses can access the full array of Commerce programs available to them," Locke said.

The office is located in the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, 47911 Halyard Dr in Plymouth.

When pressed about help for minorities in particular by Dr. Ramsay Dass, President of the American Middle East Christian Congress, a physician who serves minority populations on Oak Park and Detroit, Locke said 43 percent of the business his department contracts are minority-owned businesses, and that the goal is a higher number.

He emphasized the importance of minority and ethnic community participation in the 2010 census, which determines how 400 billion dollars in government funds are spent.

Osama Siblani, spokesman for the Congress of Arab American Organizations and Publisher of The Arab American News, expressed frustration over the lack of a way for Arab Americans to identify themselves on the census.

"We are very disappointed that Arab Americans are not going to have their checkbox in the Census," he said. "We will not be counted as Arab Americans and American Muslims and the portrait is not going to be very clear... but we will help with your department and the other people on the ground to make sure everybody is counted... It's beyond our own interests."


U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke poses with local clergymen, Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly, left, and Cedric Grant of the Commerce Department, right.

Locke acknowledged the issue, calling it a problem, but said a separate survey conducted by the Census Bureau every year, the American Community Survey, goes out to about three million annually and helps make up for the lack of a complete count of ethnic communities.
"We're aware of the problems of the Census the lack of a specific box to check on the census to indicate that you're of Arab descent or islamic faith... We still have a way of counting the Arab Americans and American Muslims... That's how we plan to correct this problem."

Ned Fawaz, CEO of Canton-based international firm Energy International, questioned the secretary on help with trade to the Middle East.

"Michigan is the gate to the Middle East," he said. "From here we can do a lot... We can open doors to Arab countries, to Muslim countries... We have to do it together."

Locke responded by touting services available through offices in consulates throughout the world.

"We'll bring the customers to you," he said.

Civil rights attorney Shereef Akeel related to the secretary stories of large potential Michigan business dealings being halted because of Middle Easterners being subjected to travel hinderances, extensive border stops and nonprofit asset-freezing.

"Oftentimes these policies of the U.S. hurt economic development," he acknowledged, saying he does bring such concerns to other departments and to the President.

"I'm working on visa policy right now. We know so many busnisess people who cannot get a visa."

Lebanese American Heritage Club President Sam Salamey and Arab American Women's Business Council President Jumana Judeh pressed Locke further on small businesses not being able to secure loans from banks despite the stimulus.

"The lenders are not lending," said Judeh. "How are we supposed to pull ourselves out of the rut that we're in."

Locke said he did not have all the answers to lending difficulties, but that the administration is very sensitive to the problem.

"It's a question I hear all accross the U.S. access to capital," Locke said. "...Still too many companies not getting the short term loans they need... The problem is the banks still have to take that risk... It's a tough balancing act.

"I don't pretend to have the answer, or an easy answer, but the President is very aware of this."

He said he would take the concerns on lending and reiterate them to the President.

"I hear it from way too many communities," he said. It's taken us many, many years to get to this sorry state of affairs... the banks are still not lending and the businesses are still struggling.

What the President would like to tell you is that he is very, very concerned. He would say 'Hang in there, because it's going to take a while to turn this around. It's taken many years to get to this state of affairs. Its going to take a year or two to get out of it."

One concrete program Locke cited that may be able to provide immediate help is Americas Recovery Capital (ARC) loan program, available through the Small Business Administration through the Recovery Act.

"We do have some programs with the Small Business Administration with no interest payments, and the first payment not due for a while, he said.

Visit www.sba.gov/recovery for more on the ARC loan.

Visit www.recovery.gov for more on stimulus initiatives. The Web site is expected to offer more detailed information on program funding this month.

Visit www.commerce.gov for more on the U.S. Commerce Department.

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