Laila Alhusini was 26 when she decided to leave her home in Damascus, Syria in the autumn of 2000 to pursue new opportunities in the United States. Although Alhusini was working professionally for several Arab and Western media outlets in Damascus, including Associated Press and BBC World News, as well as writing for Syrian newspaper Al Burhana, she felt that societal roadblocks against women were holding her back.
"I was having personal issues and I wanted to get away and get my freedom and I thought I could do that in America," she said. "The laws in Syria are not supportive of woman's rights and I felt I couldn't be treated fairly."
The timing couldn't have been better, a year before Al-Qaeda terrorists struck the World Trade Centre's Twin Towers and the Pentagon. She chose to move to Detroit where the Arab American community was active and there was a growing Arab media.
Alhusini said that she was surprised that there were only a few Arab Americans working in mainstream US news media positions and she gave up the goal of finding a job in the American media. Instead, she was hired by Salam TV, a satellite TV Station based in Detroit that was new at the time and catering to the large Syrian American community in Michigan with news and features. Michigan has the second largest Arab population of any state in America apart from California.
"They were looking specifically for a journalist from Syria who could speak the Syrian dialect clearly and reinforce the station's connection with the prominent Syrian American community," Alhusini explained. "They liked the work I had done while in Damascus and they ended up sponsoring my immigration applications."
She began hosting routine interview and news programmes on the start-up satellite network that served the Detroit region. A few months later the demand for news about Arab Americans and Muslims grew when terrorists brought down the Twin Towers and struck the centre of America's military might at the Pentagon. Suddenly, "Arabs in America" was a hot topic and she found herself being interviewed by local and regional mainstream media outlets.
As the demand for information about Arabs in America continued to grow, Alhusini decided that she wanted to do more. She reached out to the wealthy community of Arab American expatriates, many of whom are medical professionals, to help her launch a live morning radio show where listeners could call in and share their opinions about the top news stories and the war on Al-Qaeda.
With some support, she launched the US Arab Radio Network — "Sout al-Arab min Amreeka" — broadcasting every weekday morning at 8 am, Monday to Friday, live from studios in Dearborn at WNZK AM 690. The show ran for one hour first in Detroit and covered a wide geographical area that included most of Michigan and parts of Canada, including Windsor, which also has a large Arab population.
"Arab Americans wanted to talk," she pointed out. "They wanted to share their opinions and they couldn't do it on the traditional mainstream US media. But a live radio show in the heart of the Arab community was the perfect answer. We did it in English and Arabic."
Then Alhusini went ahead to do this herself. "I decided to use my money to buy time and host my own radio network and I felt Detroit was the most important place to do it because Arabs were very engaged in local activism and American politics."
Despite having had Arabs living in America going back to the mid-18th Century, the Arab American media was and is very weak; it is scattered and could barely provide information to the Arab immigrants let alone educate the larger American population. Detroit has the only weekly Arab American newspaper; most are published monthly or bi-monthly. There are only a few radio programmes that broadcast for about one hour each week in several American cities like Houston, Los Angeles and New York, and there are no Arab American TV shows.
"Every ethnic group in America has a strong and vibrant ethnic news media except for the Arabs in America. Our media is weak. It's focused mostly on politics. And there is very little reporting that documents who were are and what we do. Our achievements. Our accomplishments. Not everything is political. But that's all we were seeing," explained Alhusini, who is a founding member of the National Arab American Journalist Association (NAAJA). "I wanted to change that and provide not just political and news coverage about the Middle East, but also information about what we are doing in this country. Our banquets. Our achievements. Our successes. We are engaged as Americans but very few media outlets document all that we do."
By 2011 when the Arab Spring erupted and revolution and civil war were tearing Syria apart, Alhusini had expanded her network even more, launching broadcasts in Washington DC, Maryland, New York, Connecticut and Virginia. Today, despite all her successes, she continues to face financial challenges. The radio show has many advertisers, mostly Arab Americans promoting their businesses in Detroit, but it is still one small speck in the American media landscape.
"There is so much more we could be doing," Alhusini insists. "If we had more financial support, we would be broadcasting 24 hours a day, every day of the week. There is that much demand in the community for news. It also is a sign of respect when Americans learn that they can tune in to an English language Arab American radio show and hear what we have to say. What we have to say doesn't make it into the mainstream news media and Americans get a distorted picture of who we are."
Alhusini believes that a stronger Arab media could help to remedy that. On Friday mornings, Alhusini offers radio time to guest hosts (including this writer) to help expand the range of topics to be more inclusive. "We have a large and diverse Arab community in Detroit that consists of Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese and Yemenis. We also have Chaldean Middle East Christians from Iraq. And our audience includes many Americans who call in and ask questions." Although the programmes sometimes get heated, most of the time they are very informative, providing news and information about who Arab Americans are that no one else is doing.
"One day," concluded Alhusini, "we will have a 24-hour radio programme and one day the story of the Arab people won't be strange or distorted to Americans. They will know who we really are and recognize the richness of our culture and understand our politics far better than they do today. But we have a long way to go."
You can listen to the radio show by tuning in live by visiting her radio show website at www.ArabRadio.us. All of the shows are podcast, too.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.