In Detroit's Arab-American Community, Health Care and Youth Services Needed a Hero

    • October 13, 2011

The challenge. In a city that has been in decline for decades, Detroit's ever-growing Arab-American population has struggled to receive even the minimum of social services, including culturally appropriate health care and preventive services. In addition, historical tensions between the Black and Arab-American communities of Detroit have polarized the city's youth. What could be done to strengthen the community?

From Jordan to community medicine. Monty Fakhouri was only three years old when his family emigrated from Jordan. In America, his father found work as a machinist with General Dynamics; his mother worked as a seamstress for the retail giant Dayton Hudson, which became the Target Corporation. Though from humble beginnings, Fakhouri remembers the Detroit of his youth, the 1960s and 1970s, fondly. "It was probably the Golden Age for Detroit and the immigrants who moved there," he says.

Always with an eye on helping his community, Fakhouri's journey to find his true vocation was circuitous. When he entered college, he wanted to be a dentist, but found the studies did not hold his interest. The decade following his departure from dental school in 1986 was something of a "detour," he says, as he pursued a variety of jobs and business ventures, including running his own, small home-improvement company. "It was 10, 12 years of indecision," he recalls of that time. Finally, Fakhouri went back to school and in 1999 obtained a master's degree in community medicine from Wayne State University.

Meanwhile, Fakhouri's aunt, Haifa Fakhouri, PhD, had founded the Arab American and Chaldean Council in Detroit and was serving as its president and CEO. (Chaldeans are descendants of the people of the northern Tigris-Euphrates Valley region, in what is now Iraq.) Beginning with one small office in 1979, the council offered help with employment and job training for the Arab and Chaldean community. As Detroit's Middle Eastern population grew so did the need for other human services, especially health care. Haifa Fakhouri reached out to her nephew, and the younger Fakhouri found his calling.

In 2000, he became the director of public health and youth services at the council, where he served through 2009. Today, the council, also known as the ACC, is the largest nonprofit human service organization to serve the Middle Eastern population in the United States, with 39 outreach offices throughout Michigan and more than 80,000 clients every year.

Expanding primary care. One of Fakhouri's first projects was to form a primary care health clinic for the uninsured and underinsured of his community. Overwhelmingly Middle Eastern, the clients include a number of refugees, most with little education. "Many of them are illiterate in their own language," he says. "Everything is done on a simplified level."

Fakhouri and other members of the ACC assembled a bilingual staff—including a board-certified internist—who has stayed on for a decade. "They have a genuine desire to help the vulnerable population that comes to see them," he says. "Many of them refuse to go elsewhere because of the close bonds they've made with their patients."

In part because the staff is drawn from the population it serves, it is uniquely sensitive to cultural nuances, including the male-to-male and female-to-female directives of the Islamic faith. "It's all about respect, trust, and the ability to communicate," says Fakhouri.

At last count, the clinic maintained some 2,500 active medical charts.

A safe space for youth. Along with the health clinic, Fakhouri helped to develop and expand many other ACC projects, including substance abuse prevention and treatment programs, community outreach and job training and placement. But perhaps he is most proud of his work with the youth of his community.

At best, Detroit's Arab-American and Black teenagers have long stood in suspicious appraisal of one another, and for years, it was much worse than that. Fakhouri sought common ground by helping develop a safe place for teenagers to play and study. "I thought that if we got them under one roof it would help to solidify and bring the community together," he explained.

In 2005, on a once-neglected corner of Detroit's hardscrabble 7 Mile Road, Fakhouri's dream came to fruition with the opening of ACC's Youth Recreation and Leadership Center. The brand-new facility includes a gymnasium, computer lab, and community rooms. The center was instantly popular, even drawing the attention of the National Football League, which invited Fakhouri to get involved with some of its outreach activities. Ultimately, he led One World. One Detroit, a day of multicultural activities for youth held during the 2006 Super Bowl in Detroit.

The youth center continues to thrive, and is now known as a safe haven for both Middle Eastern and Black teenagers. "We were able to establish linkages to 10 volunteer basketball coaches and integrate with the African-American community," says Fakhouri. The coaches brought with them an organized intramural program and teams that won national championships. "Getting these coaches to work with us was quite rewarding."

Honors from RWJF. In 2006, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) named Fakhouri an RWJF Community Health Leader in recognition of his work to provide poor residents of metropolitan Detroit with access to culturally appropriate health care and prevention services. He was also recognized for serving the needs of the youth of his community.

The award helped put ACC in the limelight and gave it credibility, helping to raise the council's profile with local and state agencies and solidify some of its funding. "I'm most humbled and grateful," said Fakhouri of the award. "We tried to capitalize on that. But like anything else around any recognition and acknowledgment, you still have to run fast and hard."

Fakhouri left the council in 2009, but continues to serve his community as a minority outreach program coordinator at the Beaumont Cancer Institute in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Mich. He also teaches two classes a year in health care administration at Eastern Michigan University.

RWJF perspective. Since 1993, RWJF has recognized unsung and inspiring individuals who work in their communities—often among the most disenfranchised populations—to address some of the nation's most intractable health care problems. The formal recognition of these RWJF Community Health Leaders and their programs often launches them to greater levels of influence and extends their reach to serve more vulnerable populations.

Under the Community Health Leaders program, RWJF each year provides a $125,000 award to 10 individuals and their organizations ($105,000 supports a project at their organization, and $20,000 goes directly to the Leader for personal development). RWJF also connects its Community Health Leaders with one another so they can build their programs upon the wisdom and experience of their peers and previous award winners.

"RWJF Community Health Leaders are characterized by three specific traits—they are courageous, they are creative, and they are committed," says National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin. "The Foundation recognizes the tremendous resource of experiences among the Leaders, and we look forward to mining that resource as we consider future initiatives."

"Through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders program, we at the Foundation have the opportunity to recognize innovative and courageous local leaders behind groundbreaking efforts in communities across the U.S.," said Sallie George, program officer at RWJF. "These individuals remind us that one person can have a powerful impact on health and health care within their communities."

Monty Fakhouri

Monty Fakhouri
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader