From left, Zarina Malik of Rochester Hills, Farah Khan of Northville and Latifa Jamel of Dearborn Heights watch President Biden make his introduction during the State of the Union watch party at Adonis in Dearborn, Mich., on March 7. Nic Antaya/Washington Post

DEARBORN, Mich. – Abdullah Hammoud had been outspoken about Israel’s assault in Gaza and President Biden’s unconditional support of Israel for nearly four months, but he had not attracted much attention outside his native Dearborn. That all changed in late January, when he made a decision that would catapult him from little-known mayor to national figure.

Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, was coming to town, a fellow Arab American official told Hammoud. How would the Dearborn mayor feel about meeting with her?

Something didn’t sit right with Hammoud.

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza had killed more than 25,000 Palestinians. Hammoud had heard from residents of this majority Arab American city who had lost 20, 40, even 80, relatives. The war was spreading to southern Lebanon and Yemen, where many of Dearborn’s residents had ancestral roots. This was the first outreach he had received from anyone in the Biden camp and it was not a White House official with the ability to influence policy, but someone whose sole job was getting the president reelected.

Hammoud, a Democratic mayor of a city of just over 100,000 residents, made a decision that sent an unmistakable message: He turned down the meeting.

“That was a concept people couldn’t understand: ‘Why would you do that?’” Hammoud said in a recent interview while driving around Dearborn. “Immediately when I got the invitation, I felt like it was a disingenuous engagement. It was an engagement only for the worry of what’s going to happen in the upcoming election, and not for the worry of what’s actually happening to the people on the ground and to their friends and family and my residents.”


Since then, Hammoud, the first Arab American and Muslim mayor of Dearborn, has had to navigate myriad crosscurrents. He has spoken with White House officials – though not campaign operatives – who have looked to him to try to understand his constituents’ anger at the president, and what it might take to win them back. He has become a prominent voice for Arab American and Muslim voters, not just in Dearborn but across the country, who say that Biden has betrayed and dehumanized them.

And still, the 34-year-old Hammoud has to keep his attention on the job he was elected to do: overseeing the city of Dearborn. He now spends hours discussing foreign policy and the political fallout of Biden’s support of Israel. But his days are filled with meetings about budgets, flooding, community parks and city events.

“I ran for office on the idea that I’d ensure your garbage was picked up on time,” Hammoud said. He has received numerous invitations for dinners and speaking engagements related to the war, but he has turned most of them down. “It’s humbling,” he said. “But I try to tell folks I’m still the mayor of Dearborn, and this is my primary focus.”

After rejecting the meeting with Chavez Rodriguez, Hammoud made clear that he would only meet with policymakers, not campaign operatives. Two weeks later, the White House sent a high-level delegation to Dearborn that included Jon Finer, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, and Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Israel-Gaza war is, on its face, a foreign policy issue thousands of miles away from a midsize city in Michigan. But it occupies a unique space in Dearborn, where it has in essence become a local issue, now consuming the community for more than six months. The city is a little more than 50 percent Arab American and sits in a swing state that is crucial to Biden’s path to a second term.

Residents have organized dozens of protests and fundraisers since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants rampaged through the Israel-Gaza border fence and killed 1,200 people, many of them civilians, and took 253 others hostage into Gaza, according to Israeli authorities. In response, Israel launched a punishing military assault that has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom are women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel’s siege of the enclave has also created a humanitarian catastrophe as Gaza’s health system has collapsed and its residents face famine.


Michigan is home to the nation’s largest Arab American and Muslim population, with about 300,000 people who claim ancestry from the Middle East or North Africa, and that community overwhelmingly supported Biden in 2020. Biden won Michigan by 154,000 votes in 2020 and is expected to face another tight contest this year against former president Donald Trump.

Along the way, Dearborn has become the informal headquarters of a movement among progressives to withhold their votes from Biden in November. Activists in the city helped organize a campaign urging voters to choose “uncommitted” in the Michigan Democratic primary in February, an effort that garnered more than 100,000 votes and spread to other swing states. Those election protests have now been joined by demonstrations at numerous college campuses across the country.

Against that highly charged backdrop, Hammoud faces furiously competing pressures. Many Arab Americans and Muslims view meetings with Biden or his top aides as pointless or even a betrayal. And many Democrats, while sympathetic to the community’s anger, believe Hammoud has a responsibility to help convince his constituents – as well as Arab Americans and Muslims across the country – to vote for Biden and prevent a second Trump term.

“I think he’s probably the most influential person in the state of Michigan when it comes to the Muslim and Arab American community and young progressives,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who met with Hammoud in February. Khanna is a Biden supporter and surrogate who has strong ties to the Democratic Party’s progressive and minority factions.

If Hammoud does not support Biden, “I’d be disappointed, because I want the president to win and I think that would make his path more challenging, especially in Michigan,” Khanna added. “But I understand this is a matter of conscience for Abdullah and he’s true to the community he represents.”

Hammoud has not yet decided whether he will vote for Biden. But he gets asked that nearly every day, and he knows he can only postpone the decision for so long.


“The whole community wants to know, how do we all march together in one direction? … How do we demonstrate our power come November, and what are the trade-offs?” he said. “Because we also understand that a losing Biden is a winning Trump.”

Khalid Turaani, co-chair of Michigan’s “Abandon Biden” campaign, commended Hammoud for deftly navigating these political crosscurrents. But he said he is worried the mayor may ultimately feel pressured to support Biden as a fellow Democrat, which Turaani said would be a “betrayal.”

“It would be a huge disservice to our community, because our community is not going to matter if we don’t stand our ground,” Turaani said.

‘No reason for me to be there’

Even before he rose to national prominence, Hammoud wrestled with how to interact with the White House.

He visited Washington in mid-January, about a week before he turned down the session with Biden’s campaign manager, for a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. When Biden hosted the group at the White House, Hammoud skipped the event.


“I did not feel that at this point in time, the administration would be welcoming to a Muslim Arab American. The White House didn’t feel like it represented me,” Hammoud said in an interview in January. “So I felt like there was no reason for me to be there.”

Mayors of large, prominent cities like New York and Los Angeles often have national profiles. But it is rare for a mayor of a small or midsize city to gain that kind of recognition, let alone for a foreign policy issue.

Hammoud did not dream of political life. Born to Lebanese immigrants in Dearborn, he grew up the second of five children in a poor family. His mother dropped out of high school at age 17 after she got married and then pregnant, and his father spent most of Hammoud’s childhood as a truck driver delivering steel for auto companies.

Hammoud was 12 or 13 when he truly realized his family was poor. A stranger called asking for their address and Hammoud innocently gave it to him, even as his father was bellowing at him from the other room to hang up. A few days later, collections agents showed up at the house.

Hammoud initially dreamed of medical school as a path to financial stability, but after he failed to get in, he shifted to public health, and by age 25, he was being interviewed for six-figure jobs at health firms.

Then his life took an unexpected turn. On Oct. 15, 2015, Hammoud’s older brother, Ali, who suffered from seizures, called him at 5:29 a.m., saying something felt wrong. Hammoud called an ambulance and ran to his brother’s home. Ali went into a seizure, and Hammoud knew before they left the house that his brother, then 27, was dead.


Hammoud dropped his career plans, deciding he wanted to pursue a more meaningful path, and a few weeks later was approached with an opportunity to run for an open state House seat. His parents were against the idea. Politics had ruined Lebanon; why would their son want to become a part of that?

Hammoud’s father told him in Arabic: “Don’t forget your name is Abdullah Hammoud.” He didn’t think it was possible for an Arab and Muslim to win elected office in America.

But Hammoud did win, becoming, at age 26, the first Arab American and Muslim elected to represent Michigan’s 15th district. After a couple years, Hammoud felt he could have more impact directly overseeing Dearborn than as one of 110 in the state House. He ultimately beat out five other candidates and assumed the mayor’s office in January 2022.

Many of Hammoud’s experiences growing up have shaped his policies as mayor. He remembers how he and his siblings could not afford the $5 entrance fee to the local pool; during his first summer as mayor, Hammoud made community pools free for all children 13 and under.

As someone who focused much of his mayoral campaign on the nuts-and-bolts of the city’s flooding problem, Hammoud could have never foreseen his rise to become a leading voice on a foreign war.

His chief adviser through this unlikely maze is his wife, Fatima. Hammoud consults with her nearly every night on when and how he should speak out, what meetings he should take and how he should approach them.


Fatima is wary of the attention that comes with Hammoud’s fame, especially after the Wall Street Journal published an editorial in February titled “Welcome to Dearborn, America’s Jihad Capital.” The article prompted increased threats to Hammoud and the city, including one person who threatened to behead his 2-year-old and then-4-month-old children. But Fatima believes Hammoud has a unique opportunity to advocate on behalf of his Dearborn community.

During a recent evening at home, playing with their kids, the two discussed Hammoud’s rise and his potential to swing critical voters. Hammoud expressed discomfort at having that kind of impact.

“Why do you hope you don’t influence the election?” she asked him. “I hope you do.”

A careful balance

On a Tuesday afternoon in March, Hammoud, who was fasting for Ramadan, held meetings on city business. Abed Ayoub, director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, a national group, made the case for holding its annual conference in Dearborn instead of Washington – a move he argued would be especially meaningful after the Wall Street Journal column. “If you want to talk to Arab Americans, you’re going to do it in our city,” Ayoub said. “What we’re basically doing is welcoming all Arab Americans home.” Hammoud agreed.

The following afternoon, Hammoud stopped in at one of Dearborn’s grocery stores as residents were picking up items for iftar, the meal in which Muslims break their fast during Ramadan. Several of the store’s employees warmly greeted Hammoud: one man stocking shelves, another behind the meat counter.


Hammoud knows he will likely face criticism whether he endorses Biden or ultimately announces he cannot support him. Many Muslims and Arab Americans, as well as progressives and people of color, could be swayed by the mayor’s decision, and if Biden loses Michigan – and the White House – as a result, Hammoud fears that Arab Americans and Muslims will be blamed for Trump’s triumph. Yet casting a vote for Biden now, after his backing of Israel’s military onslaught in Gaza, seems unpalatable to many Arab Americans.

For now, Hammoud is pursuing a careful balance.

Before meeting with Finer and Power in February, he pored through six hours worth of interviews the two officials had given since the war started; at various points, he read their quotes back to them. He came in with 10 pages of notes not just on Gaza, but on West Bank settlements, sanctions and other issues.

The meetings between Biden officials and Hammoud, as well as other leaders in Michigan, showed the White House the depth and political impact of the community’s anger, according to a White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

Biden began shifting his rhetoric, calling Israel’s military response in Gaza “over the top.” He more directly acknowledged Palestinian suffering, and he told Israel there were “no excuses” for not allowing in more aid.

Hammoud so far has managed to keep his city, as well as Arab and Muslim communities outside of Dearborn, largely united behind him. He has advocated for his residents, and has sought to convey to the White House the sense of betrayal felt by many Arab Americans and Muslims.


Hammoud has also distanced himself on occasion from the more hard-hitting rhetoric coming from his community. When video emerged earlier this month of protesters in Dearborn chanting “Death to Israel” and “Death to America,” Hammoud publicly condemned it.

“The Dearborn community stands for peace and justice for all people,” Hammoud wrote on X. “We are proud to call this city and this country home.”

Shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks, Hammoud faced criticism for a statement that condemned the killing of innocents but only after blasting Israel’s military occupation of Gaza, saying that “context” of the decades-long conflict was crucial to understand the unfolding events.

Hammoud said he recognizes Biden’s shift in tone toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but insisted the president must do more. “Is it truly a win to say the president no longer casts doubt on how many Palestinians have been killed? Is that the bar in which we as a community are moving forward?” Hammoud said.

Until the Gaza war, Hammoud considered Biden one of the best American presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt. His city has won tens of millions of dollars in grants under Biden’s infrastructure law. His residents have benefited from the president’s health reforms, including a $35 cap on insulin prices.

But Hammoud says he cannot look past the tens of thousands killed and wounded in Gaza, the millions displaced, the stream of U.S. weapons flowing to Israel.

“We want the world to see and recognize that humanity is on the ballot in November,” Hammoud said. “My biggest fear is that [Biden] is not going to be remembered as the president who saved democracy in 2020 and all this transformative legislation – he’s going to be remembered as the president who sided with Benjamin Netanyahu and chose him over American democracy.”

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