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Michigan Relatives of Shia Leader Berri Have Mixed Feelings on Crisis

June 19, 1985|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

DEARBORN, Mich. — The family and friends of Shia Muslim leader Nabih Berri, many of whom live in the large Lebanese immigrant community in this Detroit suburb, said Tuesday that they share what they described as Berri's mixed emotions about the Beirut hijacking crisis.

While Berri's relatives and supporters here say they strongly oppose the hijacking of the TWA jet, they add that the Shia Muslims have been forced to respond to Israel's detention of 766 Shia prisoners, who they insist are just innocent villagers from southern Lebanon.

"Most of the Lebanese here have come to run away from the war--they've suffered and they are tired of it," said Abdul Berry, ( Berri's uncle and a Ford Motor retiree. "But they definitely want the Lebanese prisoners to be traded for the hostages."

There are more than 1,000 Berrys (who have Americanized the name by spelling it with a final y) scattered throughout the Detroit area, which has the largest Arab population of any city in the United States. Many of them voiced the opinion Tuesday that the American hostages are safe now that Berri is acting as a mediator in the hostage crisis.

"He's an intelligent man, a moderate. You can bet your life on him taking care of this matter," said Abdul Kareem Berry, Berri's cousin and the owner of a large meat market in Dearborn's Lebanese neighborhood, located almost in the shadow of Ford Motor Co.'s huge Dearborn factory.

"If Mr. Berri doesn't succeed, nobody can succeed in this situation," added Abuhassan Sawan, a Dearborn engineering student who says he is acting as Berri's U.S. spokesman during the crisis.

But their opinions about the Beirut crisis have been complicated by the fact that the large Berry family here--which includes Berri's ex-wife and six grown children--has become very American, with deep roots in the Detroit area.

Indeed, the international terminal at Detroit's Metro Airport is named Berry Terminal, in honor of Michael Berry, a relative of Nabih Berri's. Michael Berry, a former chairman of the Wayne County Road Commission, which administers the airport, is now a prominent Detroit attorney with ties to the Michigan Democratic Party.

"I've lived here 38 years, I'm an American, my wife and kids are American," said Abdul Kareem Berry. "Nabih is practically an American, too."

Berri's former wife Leyla, an American who reportedly has not been in contact with her ex-husband since the crisis began, is a dispatcher with the Dearborn Police Department. She has refused to grant interviews since the crisis began and began a vacation from her job Monday.

Berri himself briefly lived in Dearborn and is said to come here at least once a year to visit his family. "He (Nabih) is very positive about the U.S., he cares about this country," said his uncle, Abdul.

Many of the Berrys trace their roots to the area around Tibnin, a southern Lebanese village just a few miles from the Israeli border that was also the home of Nabih Berri's parents. A number return regularly to visit relatives still living in Lebanon.

As a result, their concerns for the hostages are tempered by their outrage over Israel's detention of the Shia villagers from southern Lebanon. "We feel as bad about the hostages as anyone, but the Lebanese prisoners are innocent, too," Abdul Kareem Berry said.

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