Arab American residents hard hit by Flint crisis
By Ali Harb | Thursday, 01.21.2016, 11:36 PM

The Flint River. Photos: Hassan Khalifeh

FLINT — The water crisis has not spared anyone in the Vehicle City. On Thursday afternoon, Palestinian American activist Mona Sahouri walked over to the local offices of the United Way, a national charitable organization, to acquire four pallets of water for Arab American residents.

The city has received "overwhelming support" over the past week, after the elevated lead level in its water supply dominated national news and became a topic of discussion during the latest Democratic presidential debate. Despite the abundance of bottled water sent by private donors and humanitarian groups, Sahouri wants to make sure that the city's Arab American families have access to it.

After a short conversation with a United Way official, the CEO of the company called, pledging to send unlimited supplies to the St. George Orthodox Church.

Sahouri, the executive director of the Flint-based Arab American Heritage Council, said despite negative stereotypes, the Flint community has shown a great spirit in coming together to face the catastrophe.

Flint’s drinking water became contaminated after the state-appointed emergency manager temporarily switched its source from the Detroit system to the Flint River.

River water caused corrosion in the pipes, but the Michigan Department of Environmental Equality insisted that the water was safe to consume despite complaints of foul odor, unusual color and outbreaks of rashes.

Independent studies showed elevated lead levels in both the water and children's blood.

Gov. Rick Snyder took responsibility for the man-made catastrophe and apologized to the city's residents in the State of the State address on Tuesday.

Snyder released emails relating to the crisis on Wednesday. The correspondence revealed that the governor's top aides tried to play down the lead levels in residents' blood.


Sahouri said she first noticed the water problem at the Arab American Heritage Council’s office.

The AAHC is housed in a building on the University of Michigan-Flint's campus. Sahouri said the water had an unusual color and about 10 months ago the school warned people not to drink it.

"I thought it was a problem with the building," she said.

The Flint area has a large Arab American community, according to Sahouri, but they mostly live in the suburbs and are not affected by the crisis.

However, the Heritage Council has identified about 42 families who live in the city.

Sahouri said the AAHC is trying to spread awareness about the severity of the crisis and provide bilingual information directing Arab immigrants to available resources.

She added that Flint's Arab Americans do not interact with the wider community and they get their news from Middle Eastern satellite TV channels versus local media.

"The lead levels are very high, to the extent that can be actually fatal," Sahouri said. "That's not something to be taken very lightly."

Some Arabs view the United States as a corruption-free country when compared with the untrustworthy governments of their home countries.

Nashwa Mashraki, a Flint resident, said that two months ago the water department told her husband the water is safe.

"We believed them and we have been using the water," she said. "Now we are starting to worry. We are going to get our kid tested."

Sahouri knows Mashraki. She said Mashraki lives near downtown and is likely a part of the Flint water system, adding that she worries that Arab Americans trust the government too much.

Sahouri said buying water could be a massive financial burden, even on middle class families.

"When you talk about purchasing bottled water for everyday use, you're not just talking about drinking water," she said. "You're talking about water for bathing, water for cooking, water for washing the dishes."

Israa Daraiseh, who works for the AAHC, lives in a Flint suburb, but works in the city.

"I am angry that luck is what kept me from having this water in my home," she said.

Daraiseh said she is still worried about her health because she ate at Flint restaurants regularly.

"The fact that the state and the federal government did not react as quickly as they could is disappointing," she added. 

Poor Flint

Sahouri said the AAHC is staying away from politics and focusing on helping residents.

"We're not in the business of dividing anyone; we're in the business of consolidating and helping," she said.

Without delving into partisan politics, Sahouri voiced frustration with the government, blaming the political system for the situation in Flint.

She said people are extremely angry about the issue, adding that the crisis would have been addressed more quickly if Flint had been richer.

"Some people are saying, 'If this was a problem in West Bloomfield, nobody would have dared to sweep it under the rug for this long,'" Sahouri said.

Flint was once an affluent town, but outsourcing jobs overseas and the decline of the auto industry hit the city hard. General Motors was the main employer there. But after automakers closed their factories, the residential base shrunk and median income was slashed. About 160,000 people lived in Flint in 1980. Fewer than 100,000 reside there today.

Sahouri explained that during the peak of the auto industry, residents were discouraged from getting an education because they could get a decent wage at the plants at an early age. Hence, when the automakers left, many residents lacked the skills required for the job market. Those who could afford to leave left. Poor people stayed in the city, but had limited opportunities.

"If you have a community that is as underprivileged, the role of the government should be to leverage that community so it has access to programs and upward social mobility," Sahouri said. "Instead of that, the government has let this community down."

She is skeptical of the governor's apology.

"The reason why I'm taking it with a grain of salt is because I know that not all the information is out there, yet," she said.

The Palestinian American activist said she is not ready to point the finger at Snyder, but there are indications that there has been a "considerable failure" in the state's reaction.

"Healing process"

Father Joseph Abud of the St. George Orthodox Church in Flint said his congregation was in shock after learning about the water situation.

He said many of his parishioners did not know the magnitude of the crisis until the past two months.

The priest is coordinating efforts with the AAHC to reach out to Arab American families to increase awareness and ensure aid.

He said there is a language barrier between immigrants and the information and resources available to them.

Abud said the worst aspect of this crisis is that "the poorest of the poor" live in the city.

He added that the level of services in the city, including policing, is weak.

"People don't move to Flint unless they have to move to Flint," he said. "They can't afford to live anywhere else."

Abud said although federal, state and local relief efforts to distribute filters and bottled water are ample, the problem is much deeper.

Corrosion from the pipes is still contaminating the water and replacing the system could cause upward of $1 billion.

"People still need water," he said. "There is no quick fix to this."

Abud believes the governor's apology is sincere and thinks anger does not solve the problem.

However, he said it appears there was some kind of cover up of the scandal at the state level.

He lamented the long-term effects of the crisis, saying that residents may be affected for generations to come.

He said residents were "further humiliated" after the scandal when their water rates were raised.

"Now they're asking people to pay for the water they cannot use," he said.

Abud added that the people of Flint are taxpayers who have rights and are not asking for handouts.

Asked about restoring trust in the government, Abud said, "If they come up with enough money to fix the infrastructure, that can begin the healing process."

Father Abud with Sahouri

By Ali Harb

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