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Arab Americans: Voting Our Values

posted on: Oct 21, 2020

By Mona Hanna-Attisha, Arab America Contributing Writer


MSU’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.

This is a generation-defining moment for our nation. And it is no time for our community to be silent. 

I am a proud first-generation Iraqi American. My family is part of the international diaspora of Iraqi immigrants displaced over generations, particularly after the rise of Saddam Hussein and even more so with the disastrous wars of the past thirty years. Many of us, or our parents or grandparents before us, fled our home countries because of injustice, oppression, and persecution. We know first-hand the ugliness of autocracy, discrimination, and even genocide. As a people, we have been resilient in the face of dictatorship, oppression, and war – and we wish it on no other people.

Many of us, or our parents or grandparents before us, fled our home countries because of injustice, oppression, and persecution.

We are a community that values freedom, peace, and equality. Consequently, we treasure the freedom we have in this country to stand up and fight for justice. And we cherish and understand the solemn responsibility of civic participation. This has shaped us collectively and contributed to who we are. This has shaped me.

My story is not so different from so many other Arab immigrants. I was a young Brown girl who came to this country at four years of age, only speaking Arabic. At that time, I was embraced by Lady Liberty and I grew up competent, confident and committed to service. Like many of us, I had to explain hummus, dolma, and kibbeh when I opened my school lunches. But it took only a short while for my classmates to ask my mom to make their school lunches too.

 It is through that lens, that immigrant lens, that I woke up every day grateful to be in this country – this land of freedom, opportunity, and democracy – this land of my realized American Dream. I also acutely understood what injustice could be, and what people in power could do to vulnerable populations. I’ll never forget when I was 10 or 11 years old and my parents showed me a picture of a beautiful chubby baby lying on the ground with her father – both lifeless on the street. They were victims of the largest chemical weapons attack in history where over 5,000 people died in Halabja, Iraq. Saddam Hussein literally poisoned an entire city.

My parents raised me to never look away. It is with that perspective and privilege, that I pledged my career to service no matter where my community may be. And it is in that capacity that I found myself as a pediatrician in Flint in the middle of another preventable public health crisis. Tragically, it was another poisoned city. Understanding my role in Flint and how I see the world is also about understanding who I am and where I came from. My immigrant story – complete with the Arabic I speak at home, our food, culture, and social justice heritage – is unapologetically part of who I am. In a sense, it’s my superpower that has given me a heightened antenna for injustice and the courage to fight for justice.

 When politicians talk about walls, bans, and deportations, and when we see children in cages separated from their mothers, we should see ourselves in those pictures, not “the other.” Many of us were refugees. With all the hateful stereotypes percolating about immigrants today and corrosion of the American Dream, we shouldn’t shy away from telling our story of American success. We are immigrants engaged, active, prominent, and effective in our communities, and have been for decades. 

Dr. Paul Shikwana

Our shared family history is full of stories that embody our Arab values. I want to tell you about two of my cousins. We are all related; they are your cousins too. The first is  Dr. Paul Shikwana. He was a public health scientist, something of a bacteriologist or epidemiologist specializing in infectious diseases. He arrived in Washington, DC in 1904, and then he was quickly called to Iowa City because a deadly outbreak of typhoid fever had struck. He ran the public health lab in Iowa City. He was a roving public health warrior, using science, facts, empathy, and compassion, to selflessly care for his new community. He recommended things like hand washing and pasteurizing milk. A stark reminder of the similarities to today’s recommendations to wash hands and wear a mask.

When politicians talk about walls, bans and deportations, and when we see children in cages separated from their mothers, we should see ourselves in those pictures, not “the other.”

It’s amazing to think there were Arabs in Iowa at the turn of the century, and also amazing to consider Iraqis in Boston in the 1930s. In the 1930s, my great uncle Nouri Roufeal Kotani left Iraq, and after a stint at the American University in Beirut, he came to Boston to study at MIT. While Nouri was in the United States, he learned how to be an activist. He may have done a bit too much rallying and not so much studying because he lost his scholarship and he had to go back to Iraq. But that spark – that vision that made him see how the world could be – was lit in the United States and his activism continued back home where he bravely spent his entire life fighting for justice. 

Throughout my childhood, I learned about the adventures of my great uncle Nouri (he even had a tattoo). He helped write the Iraqi Declaration of Independence from British rule and he founded a group called the Iraqi Association Against Imperialism and Fascism – perhaps inspired by American revolutionaries like John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton, and Paul Revere. He fought for Palestine’s independence from colonial British rule. And in 1937, my uncle Nouri stood up in what was another most dangerous and momentous of times; an eerily similar time of rising nationalism and hate. He was one of two Iraqis who traveled from Baghdad to Spain to fight Franco and the Fascists in the International Brigade. He believed in a borderless progressive cause – not loyalty to a certain race or a religion or even a country – it was bigger than that – it was about loyalty to justice and freedom for all.

Nouri Roufeal Kotani

I often think about my great uncle Nouri – who had the courage to stand up and risk his life fighting for justice all over the world. It was not because it was easy, but because it was the right thing to do. And I also think about my distant cousin Dr. Shikwana who left Iraq and bravely worked to improve the lives of Americans in the midwest during a different plague.

These stories are woven into the fabric of my family history, and your family history, and we have all been shaped by their legacies and lessons.  Just like our ancestors and just like so many of you in your everyday work and lives, being Arab American means taking care of each other and our communities, no matter where that community may be, fighting for justice when we see injustice, valuing education and science and truth, and making the world a better place.

I am blessed and privileged to follow this legacy, and my husband and I try to share it with our daughters. My story, and the stories of Nouri and Paul, remind us that we all have a role to play – no matter who we are, where we are, what we do, or how we ended up in this country. 

As citizens of this country, disproportionately concentrated in critical swing states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Virginia, and Florida, we all have a privileged power to shape the future of this country. I strongly encourage you to vote for the values of love, decency, equality, truth, generosity, fellowship, and justice. I urge you to vote for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

For my friends who have long-held conservative political views, perhaps those who have been Republicans because of our tradition of small business entrepreneurship, this election is about more than taxes and regulations. It’s also not an election about any religion. We can no longer let religion be manipulated to condone the status quo – no religion supports intolerance and racism, indifference to the poor and most vulnerable, degradation of our environment, and a blatant disregard of our public health. This president has disqualified himself from consideration by any ethical and moral people.

For my friends who are concerned that a President Biden will not meet our progressive expectations when it comes to peace and justice with respect to Middle East policy, I heard the same things in 2016. Look where that got us: an embassy in Jerusalem, multiple Muslim bans and increased hate crimes, warmongering with Iran, the embrace of Netanyahu and Gulf autocrats, and the bombing of civilians in Yemen. As Vice President, Biden was a consistent voice against military adventurism. He will be a steady hand who is committed to listening to us.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I fear that the foundational tenets of this country that embraced us may not survive another four years. Our freedoms, and the freedoms of our neighbors, are in the balance. Many of our parents experienced first-hand the rise of dictators, corruption, and fascism. We must not let these pathogens spread in our new home; we cannot stay silent. We will have other elections to debate ideology. This election is more fundamental; it is about our future as a civil society, a democracy, and a beacon of hope for the world. 

Mona Hanna-Attisha (@MonaHannaA) is a pediatrician, scientist, and professor in Flint, Michigan. She was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World and one of USA Today’s 100 Women of the Century for her role in uncovering the Flint Water Crisis and leading recovery efforts. She is the author of NYT’s Notable and Great Michigan Read book, “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance and Hope in an American City.” 

This article was modified from “Chaldeans Vote Blue” published in Medium.