But there is another side of Tom Joubran.
He has endured decades of controversy: In 1980, during testimony before a United States Senate subcommittee, the executive director of the Saginaw Valley Crime Commission listed him as a “person of interest,” purportedly involved in “organized criminal activities” in the Flint, Michigan area.
Further evidence of Joubran’s notoriety is found in a lawsuit that two teenagers in his extended family filed in January 2000 in Flint federal court against Damon McCord, their tenth-grade teacher, and the Kearsley Community School District. Jamil Joseph Joubran and Ryan James Anderson charged that McCord, their English teacher at Kearsley High, had made “false, disparaging and/or defamatory comments” about their great-uncle.
According to the complaint, McCord told his American literature class that “Tom Joubran is a crooked son-of-a-bitch”; “Tom Joubran rips people off”; “Tom Joubran is an arsonist”; and “Tom Joubran burns down buildings.” McCord denied making the remarks, and in August 2001 the case was dismissed in favor of the defendants, court records show.
But Joubran has defenders in the Flint area, among them Hani Bawardi, an Arab-American scholar whose master’s thesis at the University of Michigan–Flint was titled “Arab Immigrants in Flint, Michigan: The Case of the Merchants in the Inner City.” He has been a lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern and Asian Studies at Wayne State University, where he recently received a Ph.D. As part of his research, he conducted an interview of Joubran.
“Tom Joubran was subjected to a great deal of discrimination. That is something I’m certain of as a researcher,” said Bawardi during a recent telephone interview. “Most of the immigrant merchants faced severe discrimination and sometimes maltreatment.
“If they make a lot of money but they work in neighborhoods where nobody else is willing to work in, they are viewed with suspicion by the police. Tom Joubran probably is the largest property-tax payer in Genesee County, but he never got any respect from the township.
“When it comes to Arabs, they are defenseless. They don’t raise any noise. And there is no public sentiment in their favor whatsoever. The Arab-Israeli conflict took its toll, meaning they became pariahs. I can give you a million examples from the media. Dan Rather used to go after Arab merchants all the time, exceedingly racist, and nobody ever lifted a finger.”
Bawardi says the frequency of weapons charges brought by Flint-area police against Arab-American businessmen is a case in point. “Having been in the country some 40 years, Tom Joubran was accused of carrying a concealed weapon, which he can obtain legally if he wanted to. He was arrested for that once.
“Just to give you an idea, in my research I encountered many of the merchants who faced the same charge, carrying a concealed weapon. It was a very common charge. A lot of them keep weapons in their businesses. These are not illegal weapons — they are for protection, and those weapons serve against them.
“It became like a rash. The customer would claim the merchant pulled a gun on them, and the merchants would be carted off to jail on a charge, and they invariably pled guilty to a lesser charge. They very rarely fight these things. It’s very dangerous for them.”
Tom Joubran’s brother, Ibrahim, was a merchant in New Hudson, Michigan, south of Flint. On the night of November 17, 1985, according to records of the Oakland County medical examiner, an assailant entered his store, the Country Stop Market, and fired a shotgun into his abdomen. Ibrahim, 59 at the time, died shortly afterwards.
Ibrahim’s son Brian, who moved to California in 1989 and now lives in Escondido, was eight years old the night his father was killed. “It was a robbery. I wasn’t there to experience it, but I experienced the aftermath, which was very traumatizing for an eight-year-old kid.
“The story I heard was that he was robbed in the middle of the night. I think they were open until like eight or nine o’clock at night. A burglar came in with a sawed-off shotgun. The cashier left while my father was in the back room stocking some products, and he came out not knowing what was going on, confronted the man, and the man shot him in the groin, and he died on the way to the hospital.
“I don’t know the exact details. That’s all I know. As far as I know, I don’t think they ever caught the guy. There was no one to give a positive identification of the man. He was African American, and that’s all I know.”
One law-enforcement source in the Flint area — who says he is familiar with the circumstances of the killing but declined to be identified because the case remains open — maintains that there is more to the story.
“There were times when we felt that we were onto stuff about the mystery of this guy dying and who did it and why they did it,” the source says. “They set it up like it was a robbery, but it wasn’t a very good set-up job. The police’s theory was that he was bumped off. The suspected mastermind was somebody from another country. The feds didn’t want to pick up any of those loose ends. I don’t know why.”
The source made it clear that Tom Joubran was never regarded as a suspect in the slaying.
Joubran says that the case represents just another example of the hardships that Arab-American merchants face in Flint.
“My brother was shot and was robbed,” he said in a recent phone interview. “They robbed him, and he only had 25 cents, and they shot him. So that’s what happened. Most of my brothers died already. All I have left is my sister, which is Tommy and Alec’s mother, and my brother, Edmund. That’s all we have left right now. And now they shot my other nephew, just about six months ago, also robbed him in the store, two bullets in his chest and two bullets in the back, and thanks to God he’s still alive. So, he’s okay now.”