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The Tale of a Detroit Merchant

As part of Assignment Detroit, TIME.com is working with 11 high school students from the Detroit area. They come from all walks of life, from suburban prep schools to city schools both strong and weak. The project will illustrate the Detroit region from their point of view—what it's like to live there now, and whether the area has a place in their future or not. Today's post is from Nadine Zebib, a senior at Dearborn High School.

As long as I could remember, my mother's life had been nothing but “N & Z's Dollar Discount,” which she named after me and my brother, Ziad. Life was that way whether she chose it to be or not.

Break-ins were an everyday reality in Brightmoor, the northwest Detroit neighborhood my mother's store was in. She woke up to calls from the alarm company at 2 or 3 a.m., sometimes as often as four times a week, and had to make the 15-minute drive from our home in Dearborn to make sure everything was OK. And if everything wasn't OK? In this area, there was no police officer waiting to meet her, no matter how many times she would call. This, however, was the life my mother had to endure for six long years to survive as a single mother raising two children. She came to America from Lebanon with her family of 11 when she was just 17 years old. In her home country, a working woman was relatively rare, but independence was always in her blood. So, if she wanted something, she worked for it.

Don't get me wrong. Not everything involving my mother's store was horrible. In terms of money, we were well off because of the store's location. Everything was priced around a dollar, and the store was in one of those Detroit neighborhoods where the next supermarket was miles away. While the location was great for business, it was not safe. It seemed as though every day my mother had to ban someone else from her store for stealing. Every night, another break-in. There were so many break-ins at her store that the news of it actually made papers and the local news.

But every time my mother banned someone, they would always come back to apologize. If my mother earned nothing else from her customers, it was respect. The younger kids began to trust her and would inform her right away if someone was stealing from her. They felt safe coming to talk to her and would tell her that they really didn't have anyone else in whom they could confide. On Halloween, she gave out free candy to all the little kids who stopped by. “Miss Sarah's giving out candy!” had the neighborhood flooding the store.

Even the older customers said they felt close to her because she would never act as though she was above them, a manner they were so used to in dealing with outsiders.

On Christmas Eve, 2007, my mother's store was held up at gunpoint. Then, she knew she had to sell. But the hope of finding a buyer was slim, as she couldn't even seem to find people willing to work there. For almost two years, as she waited for a buyer, my mother seldom had a day off. She worked 10-hour shifts, seven days a week because she said nobody wanted to “risk his life” for a few dollars. When the customers heard she was going to sell, they begged her not to leave. Every day someone new would beg her to stay. “Please Miss Sarah, don't leave us, we love you,” they'd say.

Every day she came home exhausted and weary. Occasionally someone would be interested, but the area discouraged them. In October 2008, my mother signed the papers to transfer the store to someone else. But she still had to wait 10 long months because few banks wanted to make a business loan in the area.

About two months ago, my mother received a call from the insurance company. The store had burned down. Arson was suspected. When my mother asked the insurance company representative why he had called her, he said people in the neighborhood identified her as the owner.

A few weeks later, we ran into one of her former customers at a Big Boy restaurant. When my mother asked about the fire, she told us the whole story as she knew it. She described the look in the new owner's eyes, full of suspicion and distrust. She explained the way he talked to them; belittling them and making them feel inferior. “They just burned it down,” she told us, shaking her head. “It's too bad. We really needed a place like that.”

The store was never where my mother wanted to end up in life. Now, she's in beauty school, and hopes to open a salon, someday. But she doesn't regret her years at the store. The neighborhood needed someone like her -- someone who could trust and be trusted, and someone with a positive outlook. For those few years, that person was my mother. She made an impact on people's lives, and we only hope it leads to a better Detroit.

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