Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha rose to national fame after blowing the whistle on high blood-lead levels in the children of Flint, Michigan, where she’s a pediatrician and public health advocate. Now she’s supervising a team of 20 researchers and other staff as director of the city’s Pediatric Public Health Initiative, which aims to reach all of Flint’s 9,000 children under 6 with interventions to mitigate the impact of lead. As an Iraqi-American, Hanna-Attisha says her progressive immigrant heritage inspires her to fight for Flint’s children. “It’s what drives me to do the work I do, especially when it comes to social justice issues,” she says. “When you’ve been raised with this heightened awareness of injustice, it makes you work harder.”
Hanna-Attisha was born in England to Iraqi parents who’d left Baghdad in the 1970s to study abroad, only to see their home country slip into tyranny as Saddam Hussein rose to power. For her father, a metallurgist who was slotted for a career in the nuclear industry, the prospect of working for a dictator was untenable. “It didn’t jibe with his thoughts on democracy, equality, and freedom,” Hanna-Attisha explains. Instead, after completing his PhD, her father brought the family to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he did postdoctoral research at Michigan Technological University and found a rewarding career at General Motors Research, where he developed more than 20 patents. Hanna-Attisha’s mother spent decades helping hundreds of other immigrant families realize the American dream by teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). “It wasn’t the life they’d anticipated, but they quickly recognized that this was their home,” Hanna-Attisha says. “They set their minds to making the best of it, and to raising their children to be grateful for the freedom and opportunities available to them.”
It was the American dream: They found employment, they got an education, they raised their children. It was everything immigration was supposed to be.
For Hanna-Attisha, immigration reform is not only a social justice issue but also a pressing public health imperative, since people who live in the shadows often remain out of reach of programs like the Pediatric Public Health Initiative. One of Hanna-Attisha’s current priorities is to ensure that Flint’s roughly 1,000 undocumented immigrants, most of whom hail from Mexico, aren’t excluded from remediation efforts. “People didn’t need to be citizens to drink the water; they shouldn’t need to be citizens to get help,” she says.
Other steps are also needed: Hanna-Attisha would especially like to see “dreamers,” people brought to the United States as young children, given a path to citizenship. She would also like America to return to the more tolerant atmosphere that greeted her parents when they arrived. “It was the American dream: They found employment, they got an education, they raised their children. It was everything immigration was supposed to be. We contributed, and paid our taxes, and became part of the fabric of the nation,” she says. “And there are examples of that all over the country — immigrants who contribute. It’s a win-win, because that diversity only strengthens and renews us.”
Though not herself a Muslim — her family is Iraqi Christian — Hanna-Attisha is deeply troubled by the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and broader anti-immigrant sentiment that’s taken root. “The discourse around immigration is absolutely frightening right now,” she says. That’s unfair to immigrants already in America, and risks turning away bright, eager immigrants who could otherwise have made a real contribution, she says. “If Trump had been president, I wouldn’t have been here,” and so wouldn’t have been able to raise the alarm about Flint’s tainted water. “That’s the problem: If we set up barriers, we have no idea how we’re limiting ourselves. It threatens our values and our future.”