by Leslie Shepard
Martin Manna, 39, is the executive director of the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce and is helping to spread the word about a community that is prominent in the world of southeast Michigan business, including West Bloomfield Township. Manna was just awarded the Community Excellence Award for Businessperson of the Year at the West Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce Awards Dinner on Tuesday, April 24. Born in Detroit after his family immigrated from Iraq, the homeland of the Chaldeans, Manna grew up in West Bloomfield and graduated from West Bloomfield High School in 1990 before earning a degree from Wayne State University. Having previously worked in finance, Manna now heads an organization that not only works to increase networking among its Chaldean and non-Chaldean members, but to also to advocate for Chaldean refugees. Married to his wife, Tamara, and the father of four children, Manna recently spoke about his role with the chamber, who Chaldeans are and what role they are playing in the community.
(click to listen)
First off, congratulations on being named the Businessperson of the Year at the West Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce Awards Dinner. What does it mean to you to receive this honor and how did you earn it?
MM: I think it’s more of an honor for our organization and our community. We’ve been active in many local municipalities as it pertains to getting our community more involved in working with small businesses, and West Bloomfield is one of those communities. It has a large concentration of Chaldeans and a large concentration of Chaldean-owned businesses.
We do have a relationship with the chamber. We’re trying to partner on various events, maybe collaborate on specific issues, and a lot of the residents and business owners in West Bloomfield are also members of the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce. Many of those, by the way, are non-Chaldeans — about 20 percent of the Chaldean Chamber membership is composed of non-Chaldeans.
There are some people out there who may not be familiar with Chaldean-Americans or their culture. Please describe what sets Chaldeans apart and makes them unique? How prominent is the Chaldean-American community in southeast Michigan, including West Bloomfield? What kind of businesses are Chaldean-American owners usually involved with?
MM: Chaldeans, by definition, are Iraq’s indigenous people, so they’re native Iraqis. They predate the Arabs, the Kurds, and the Turks, and they have a history spanning some 5,500 years. And by definition, Chaldean means you’re Eastern-rite Catholic. Eastern-rite just means that we maintain our own rite within the Roman Catholic Church, our own identity. The Chaldeans also speak Aramaic. It’s the oldest continued spoken language. It’s the language spoken by Jesus Christ. So, Chaldeans are Aramaic-speaking Eastern-rite Catholics that are native to Iraq.
The largest concentration of Chaldeans outside of the Middle East is in the Detroit metropolitan area. About 120,000 Chaldeans reside in southeast Michigan. Probably about 25 percent of West Bloomfield’s residents are Chaldean.
West Bloomfield is the home of the Shenandoah Country Club, for example, which also houses the Chaldean Cultural Center. One of our largest Catholic Churches is also in West Bloomfield, the St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Church.
That population has continued to increase since 2003. Two-thirds of Iraq’s Christian population has fled, so a lot of them have migrated to the Michigan area. About 15,000 refugees have arrived here in the last three years. Another 5,000 to 10,000 more are expected. Some of them are choosing to live in West Bloomfield.
In addition to that, you look at our businesses. Many of the businesses that are in West Bloomfield, whether they’re supermarkets, convenience stores, some of these suburban gas stations, a lot of the restaurants where there’s a Domino’s Pizza, Happy’s Pizza, Pizza Papalis, Papa Romano’s, just an idea — lot of our folks are in wireless stores, hotel ownership, and a cross-section of different, diverse businesses.
Initially, a lot of them were involved in party stores and liquor stores and people didn’t know the history that Islam forbids the sale and consumption of alcohol, so Christians really own most of the liquor stores in the Middle East and that was the case here in the United States too. It’s something that they’re aware of.
That evolved now into supermarket ownership and moved on into different industries, so you have a lot of Chaldeans that are now into the restaurant-service business, hotel ownership, cellular and wireless business, and many more are getting involved in real estate development.
Again, if you look at West Bloomfield, there’s a good chance that one of those corner strip malls might be owned by Chaldeans, along with several of the other businesses which I just recently mentioned.
What was it like for you growing up as a Chaldean-American and how did you become interested in business?
MM: I’ve always had an interest in business. I was originally in the finance field. I worked for a brokerage house and always had a knack for business.
Our family owned a small business, we had a convenience store in West Bloomfield where I worked most of my time.
Most of the Chaldeans, like my parents who came here in the late 1960s, did everything they could to support their family, so a lot of them bought businesses, would work 80, 90, 100 hours a week to provide for their families and give their children something better than they were able to have when they came here really with nothing.
A lot of the community now has evolved from stores into many other things, but I was involved in the store business and learned how to run a business at a young age. That’s why so many Chaldeans I think, like me, are entrepreneurs. They were taught that. It’s almost an edict within our community.
Every survey shows that two-thirds of our households own at least one business, and 39 percent of our households own two or more businesses. We are a community of about 120,000 that owns more than 15,000 businesses in Michigan.
You’re credited with helping create the the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce. What inspired you to form this group? Tell us a little about the chamber’s mission?
MM: I wasn’t necessarily responsible, I was just part of a group. We have so many wonderful members of our community that stepped up I think about eight, nine years ago to fill a void.
I think many didn’t understand who Chaldeans are, and part of the mission of the chamber was to help advocate for and help people understand the contributions Chaldeans are making in this region, so that was one of the objectives.
And in doing so, we had 15 members of our community who invested some money to help launch the chamber. Those 15 now have become over 900 members and from there, they’ve helped establish some affiliates.
We have a foundation, a total budget of about $2 million dollars a year that helps with our refugee population. We also have other issues that we deal with such as advocacy. We do a lot of networking. We do what we can to work for our members, and protect the interests of small-business owners.
When we do a survey of why people join the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce, (we see that it) is because they want to support the community they live in and they also want to have the ability to network with others. So a lot of what we do at the chamber, besides providing them cost-effective programs that can help their business, is to help introduce them to other businesses so they can do business with each other.
Lastly, since we launched nine years ago, our foundation has donated almost $300,000 to organizations or communities in which Chaldeans live, work or worship, not just to Chaldean organizations, but to organizations where we own businesses.
My mother and father and five of my brothers and sisters came in 1968 and then the last three of us were born after that year in the states.
Iraq has had a history of turmoil, so they left as the Ba’ath Party came into power. That’s when a lot of Chaldeans migrated to the United States. Detroit was chosen because of the automotive industry and the ability to try and get a job with Ford and Chrysler at the time.
Before the chamber, I was involved in doing some charitable work in the community on a volunteer basis. I wasn’t necessarily ever involved with the chamber, but I was always involved in organizing and helping to tell the positive contributions of the stories of the Chaldean community.
On the community side I always volunteered with community organizations, so this is just an opportunity to do something I really was passionate about and I think we have a great group of people who work here now, almost 20 folks, that are carrying on that mission today.
How prominent are Chaldean-Americans in the business world, both locally and nationally, and what challenges do they still face today business-wise?
MM: It’s like any other group, you’re seeing occupational patterns are formed and when you look at the city of Detroit supermarket ownership as an example, there’s about 80 supermarkets in the city of Detroit and maybe 75 are owned by Chaldeans. Before them, it was primarily the Jewish community, and before them it was the Italian community, so we’re no different than any other immigrant population that came before us.
They’re dealing with this economic downturn like anybody else. Some of the industries like hotel ownership have been harder hit than maybe the grocery industry, so those are some of the issues we’re dealing with.
One of the things we’re working on is helping with race relations. Because Chaldeans own so many businesses, for example in the city of Detroit, there seems to be some resentment against the community, so we’re trying to get our store owners more involved in giving back and working with the African-American community, as an example, in the city of Detroit.
Some of the chain stores continue to get tax subsidies, or tax breaks, and they’re making billions of dollars, but they’re never really given to the small business owner or the independent grocer. Those are some of the smaller things we’re working on.
On a bigger basis, we continue to do some work on our affiliates to protect the rights of minorities in the Middle East, specifically the Christians, so that hopefully the new constitutions that established in the Middle East will give rights to everybody, including Christian populations.
The Chaldean Community Cultural Center is set to open soon at the Shenandoah Country Club. What can visitors expect when they come to the center?
MM: That’s not a project of the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce. The Chaldean Cultural Center is a standalone organization, a separate 501 (c) 3. We’re proud of the work that they’re doing.
The cultural center is expected to open sometime next year. It’s about $2 million dollars in exhibits. Most of them are interactive. It will give you a sense of going through life and the history of what the Chaldean life was. So it starts in Mesopotamia, and dates back 5,000 years to the Cradle of Civilization. From that, it goes to Chaldean village life and an understanding of what it was like to live in the northern villages of Iraq as a Chaldean. Then it talks about the Chaldean faith, family, and religion, and talks about us being Eastern-rite Catholic to Chaldeans coming to America, how we migrated here and why we chose Detroit. And finally, the last zone will talk about Chaldeans today, and the contributions we’re making to this region.
It’s very interactive with five different themed zones and it will give a lot of folks, specifically the young folks, an opportunity to really understand our history and our culture, our language and the contributions we’re making to this region.
West Bloomfield Township Supervisor Michelle Economou Ureste recently said that she’s considering more Chaldean employees after being approached by individuals in the Chaldean community. What would you like to see in terms of more Chaldean participation in West Bloomfield township matters? What are the chamber’s future plans and objectives in helping Chaldean-Americans advance their stature in the business community?
MM: I think the supervisor does a great job of reaching out to our community and the general community. I’m a fan of the supervisor and anybody else hiring the most qualified people, regardless of their background or ethnicity. And frankly, if there’s Chaldeans that are interested and they’re qualified, we would welcome the opportunity, I think, to work with the township.
In some aspects, we’ve seen that when we have members of our community working in West Bloomfield, it’s been a positive impact for the township and the residents. So if West Bloomfield’s 20 percent Chaldean, I think it just makes sense that the township hire some qualified Chaldeans to help with the township’s services.
We have a business survey that is going to be released here in the next month or two that was completed by Kirk Metzger at Data Driven and Dr. Marla Scafe at Walsh College. This survey was one we commissioned that will ask many members of our community general questions — what kind of businesses they own, how many people they employ and, of those people, how many are non-Chaldeans, what are their energy costs, and what are their thoughts on health care. We’re excited to see those results. That’s going to help share our future, understanding what the needs are of our community, and from there we’ll continue our strategic planning.
One of our goals is always on the charitable side — what can we do to help these refugees that are coming, that continue to come here. We want to teach them how to fish so they’re not dependent on government services or subsidies and we want to create additional entrepreneurs. And for our members, I think we want to continue to provide the best service we can for them to help them grow their business, and we’re going to do that in collaboration with all these wonderful chambers that we have in this region and, most importantly, the general community as proud Americans.