Poor public transportation can be a roadblock to the everyday needs of Arab-American seniors
By Julia Kassem
DETROIT--Is Michigan’s faulty transit system failing Arab-American seniors?
Conversations around Detroit-area public transit in recent months have focused on new routes on Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan Avenue – as well as the Detroit Connector, a new service operating from Ann Arbor to Detroit offered by the University of Michigan that launched October 30.
Yet these discussions around transit development tend to omit those most in need of affordable, reliable and convenient transportation options.
Nationwide, the Pew Foundationreports that while only 18 percent of urban dwellers born in the United States regularly use public transportation, almost 38 percent of foreign-born city residents rely on public transit.
In Metro Detroit, a city without the mass-transit system of a Chicago or a New York – yet with a high concentration of Arab-American immigrants – these statistics become more complicated.
Vesna Cizmic, program manager at Samaritas, an organization serving refugees, identifies poor public transportation as the No. 1 obstacle on her clients’ path to self-sufficiency.
“Purchasing a vehicle is not an easy and quick option for refugees,” Cizmic said. “In order to buy the car, they need to start working. And how do they work when there is no public transportation?”
Like older immigrants, Cizmic said, refugees depend on “neighbors, family members, agencies such as Samaritas or community members,” to help transport them to other functions and errands, like ESL classes and medical appointments.
Yet many other lone immigrants, such as Nouri Hanna or Amer Kakoz, age in place with little to no family help, having left homelands decades before to seek opportunity and safety in the U.S.
Hanna, a Detroit resident nearing 70, has used the bus to get around during his decades in this country.
He said that all his errands can be run along the SMART route that takes him up John R to 9 Mile, from Detroit to Madison Heights. “I go from the bus to Kroger every day, and come back,” Hanna said. “The bus takes me to the pharmacy, doctors, shops, all on 9 Mile.”
The former painter agrees that the buses are both a convenient and an affordable option for retirees like him, who are exempt from paying the full $2 SMART fare. “I put in 50 cents for 3 hours.”
Other patrons more quickly vocalize their issues with Metro Detroit transit.
Kakoz is a former college Arabic teacher, emigrating from Mosul, Iraq, to the United States in 2007. He uses the suburban SMART and the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) services to travel to weekly tutoring sessions at the Detroit Public Library, rather than paying the parking and gas expenses of a car ride to Midtown.
Punctuality is important to the freelance tutor, who reports that delays and late arrivals interfere with his ability to perform his job. “The SMART and Detroit Department of Transportation buses are always late, and they always have been,” said Kakoz.
“I’ve ridden the bus many times in the past,” Fatima Saab, an east Dearborn resident, said. “But I know people who are older than me in the family or those who don’t speak any English, like my neighbor, that can’t walk all the way to a stop.”
And Saab is right; even in suburbs such as Dearborn where stops are plentiful, patrons often have to walk a mile or two to the nearest bus stop. She herself does not drive, often relying on family, friends or neighbors to transport her around.
She added that obtaining information on stops, routes, schedules and detours for the bus system is often enough of a challenge for a native English speaker to navigate, let alone an immigrant.
“I don’t mind, because I enjoy walking,” Saab said. “And I have time.”
She added that while services exist to help transport elderly recipients to and from appointments, informational and language barriers make many immigrants hesitant to take advantage of these options. In neighborhoods where immigrant families reside, including many aging women who do not drive, work or speak English, difficulty navigating or using public transportation can further isolate Arab immigrants.
“A lot of people don’t know how to speak English,” Saab explained. “I tell my neighbors to just call a number on the back of their Medicaid card, or to just call a taxi, but they ask me to go with them (to translate).”
In 2008, SMART unveiled plans for a new bilingual transportation service within its community partnership program. The service offered bilingual schedulers and drivers to help Arabic-speaking seniors gain assistance by the city of Dearborn’s van service program.
Stephen Payne, supervisor of the SMART Connector door-to-door service for seniors and people with disabilities reported that the program met with little success. He said that the van service program was no longer active when he assumed his position in 2009.
Yet the former bus driver says that the agency doesn’t usually face challenges serving elders from these communities and it has the resources to schedule connectors that provide home pick-ups.
“There's usually one English speaker, from the family side, that does the scheduling for them,” he explained. “But one way for strictly Arab American families to pick up a connector would be to go online and book the trip.”
While family is often the intermediary between immigrant seniors and society, the demanding schedules of adult family members demand more agency and independence from seniors.
This gap between cultural expectations and practical demands is a highlight of Kristine Ajrouch’s work.
In her 2005 study, “Arab-Immigrant Elders’ Views About Social Support,” Ajrouch identifies “tensions between cultural ideals and pragmatic realities” as salient in three areas -- “nursing home placements, expectations of children for caregiving, and state-sponsored support.”
“There is certainly pressure within the community to serve every need of older individuals, but at the same time a recognition that help is needed,” Ajrouch writes. “We need to promote a narrative that advances the idea that children take care of their parents by accessing programs that can attend to their needs when the children cannot be available.”
As transit advocates emphasize, public transportation in Michigan must be more expansive and accessible in order for these programs to assist immigrant seniors in their transition along roads, across nationalities and throughout age groups.
And in turn, an improvement in public transportation services will translate into an improvement in Arab-American seniors’ ability to more comfortably age in place, independently as well as interdependently in their communities.
Julia Kassem wrote this story for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative. She was supported by a fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and AARP.