Flint: A story of neglect and hope

There are National Guard troops, Red Cross volunteers, church groups and Islamic Relief Disaster teams driving around this town handing out supplies in trucks and vans. People are lining up for clean water. But this disaster zone is not in a developing country.

Welcome to Flint, Michigan, a small, gritty city about an hour north of Detroit that has jumped to the top of the Google news feed and is a grim reminder that the American dream is still elusive to many. It is a city that was abandoned first by General Motors, then by its local and state government, and for a time, by its faith-based communities. But in this gloom, there is another story of persistence and growing hope, where American Muslims can and have made a positive change in their country.

Life for Relief and Development volunteers distributing water in the neighborhoods of Flint.

A Brief History of Flint: No Money, No Democracy

The first hint of trouble came in the 1980s when General Motors began downscaling its manufacturing in the city and transferred it to cheaper labor markets. Thousands of people were laid off and remaining workers were paid much less. Michael Moore of Flint directed his first critically acclaimed film, Roger and Me, in 1989 about GM’s treatment of Flint workers. Financial difficulties eventually led to a government bailout for GM, and other automakers and their suppliers, to help them stay viable. Unfortunately, the people of Michigan did not receive such generous government aid. Michigan’s economy led the way with high unemployment, foreclosures and a massive exodus. Flint bore the brunt of the economic collapse with budget deficits, crime, blight and hopelessness.

In the name of fiscal responsibility, Michigan’s governor was given the right to appoint emergency managers (EM), who are given broad powers to reorganize a city, renegotiate contracts, outsource city services and even sell the city hall building. They answer to the state treasurer and their main goal is to get their city financially stable … apparently at any cost, as Flint was to realize.

It is no surprise that Flint is a financially strapped city. An EM was appointed there in 2011. While most American cities can vote their leadership in or out of office based on performance, the law that establishes an emergency manager bypasses this democratic fixture and instead gives total financial control to a governor-appointed technocrat.

These managers have taken over almost a dozen cities or school districts in Michigan, the highest number in any state. Most have large African American populations. A popular statewide referendum in 2012 to limit emergency managers was undermined by Republican-led loopholes that reversed the will of the people. Rather than address the underlying economic problems that have led to a statewide recession and budget deficits for manufacturing cities, the state Legislature and governor have appointed emergency managers to slash spending and services without accountability. Flint and other poor cities are apparently not entitled to democracy if they are broke.

Islamic Relief has donated 120,000 bottle of water.

Our Children Are Being Poisoned

The emergency managers for Flint wreaked havoc. After exploring a variety of cost-cutting measures, one manager thought he could save $19 million over eight years by diverting the water supply from the historic Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to the Flint River. The switch took place in April 2014 with little public input but with much fanfare and many happy accountants. The celebrations were short lived; almost immediately, foul yellow water began showing up in homes. Local authorities and the state assured residents that the water was fit to drink based on testing; officials later realized the tests were based on erroneous information. The federal Environmental Protection Agency was not so sure but its concerns were not relayed to Flint residents.

As Flint water flowed through dated pipes, an important anti-corrosive agent was not added for unclear reasons. Over the next year, highly toxic water did irreparable damage to the water pipe infrastructure. Furthermore, the levels of bacteria and other contaminants toward the end of 2014 prompted officials to advise residents on several occasions to boil their water. Even the local GM plants switched to other water sources in October 2014 since the Flint River water was too corrosive for its equipment.

Public outrage reached a crescendo: lawsuits were filed and even the impotent City Council voted in March 2015 to switch back to using the DWSD as the city’s water supply. But the emergency manager, who had sole authority, overrode this decision. He reported to the state treasurer, who was happy that Flint was in the black. Protests by the Coalition for Clean and Safe Water and Concerned Pastors for Social Action did little to create change, but did prompt the University of Virginia to conduct lead testing in homes. Researchers found that lead levels were unacceptably high in residents’ water, contradicting previous tests by state and local officials.

The final blow to the myth of safe water came when an Arab American pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, pediatric residency director at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, conducted a study of Flint children. She found that lead levels among children who used water from the Flint River was as much as three times the levels among children elsewhere since the switch in supply. By the end of 2015, state and local officials could no longer ignore the fact that they and their emergency managers had poisoned the children of Flint. A state of emergency was declared in early January 2016.

Leon Elamin is collecting water cases for distribution.

Faith-Based Communities Take Charge

The Flint Coalition for Clean and Safe Water is a diverse group of local activists who helped spur awareness of the issue and eventual apology from the officials involved. Concerned Pastors for Social Action and several individuals played a major role in the organizing effort, among them Nayyirah Shariff. None of Flint’s four small urban mosques, three larger suburban mosques or its Islamic schools formally participated. They had been absent for years in social justice programs. Individual community activists such as Leon Elamin played an important role in registering voters and working to bring in a new Flint mayor. But much of the Muslim community “never left the four walls of the masjid,” Elamin said.

As a youth, Elamin got caught up in the gangs and violence that infested Flint. “Flint was a war zone,” he said. He was shot in the head and left for dead in 2001 in the back of a car. He eventually was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison over drug and firearm charges.

“In prison, I realized we have another chance,” and he embraced Islam. He and another inmate, Timothy Miller, began a process of steady learning and character building. With their positive attitudes and good conduct, both were released early in 2010. “We wanted to make a difference to the youth and returning citizens.”

But life for newly released convicted felons is hard. They have difficulty accessing housing or jobs. The two men decided to start a nonprofit to inspire and train youth, and provide housing and training for job skills to people returning to the general population from prison. Elamin’s initial experiences with the immigrant Muslim community were not positive. “I won’t lie, I was very disappointed. There were a lot of barriers and prejudices … some people would not even want to stand next to me in prayer,” he recollected.

Leon Elamin with a shipment of water that just arrived at the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village.

The Muslim Community Steps Up in Flint

The lack of community engagement was not overlooked by a new generation of Flint Muslims. While immigrant Muslims were rooted overseas and could not relate to the struggles of urban Black Americans, the second generation felt a natural affinity for their neighbors, issues and indigenous Muslim struggles. A young second-generation Muslim woman, Jenan Jondy, brought together a group that organized a series of annual conferences, Healing Flint, in which largely suburban and immigrant Muslims came together to discuss ways in which they can revitalize their dying city. Muslims from urban Flint joined and shared their stories and struggles. Mona Haydar, a community activist and former Flint resident, said, “We were learning that it’s not enough to do well for ourselves, we also have to take care of other people beyond the walls of the masjid.”

A new partnership was created; in 2015, a group of Muslims purchased a large community center, the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village in the heart of Flint, with the hope of using this as a springboard for positive social action in the community. When Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in early January 2016, more and more people turned their attention to Flint. Local Muslims partnered with the Michigan Muslim Community Council to prompt Muslim Americans into playing a more important role with helping Flint residents get clean water.

Michigan had already been in the spotlight over water problems earlier in 2015. The DWSD had shut off water for people in Detroit who could not pay their bills, an action decried by everyone from the United Nations to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. The Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC) partnered with Islamic Relief USA to donate $100,000 to help pay the bills of residents facing water shutoffs. Like Muslims in Flint, a new generation of American Muslims was making serious attempts to join efforts to revitalize fallen cities.

As the Flint water crisis unfolded, the Michigan Muslim community wanted to play an important role. In addition to a religious obligation to provide water to those in need, it was a matter of pride that the Great Lake State could not provide water to its own people. With over 250,000 Muslims in Michigan, many just an hour from Flint, this was not a problem the community could ignore. If celebrities like Cher could donate more than 180,000 bottles of water, surely the local Muslim community could do more.

Volunteers from the Michigan Muslim Community Council and Islamic Relief USA at the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village giving water cases to residents who drive by for fresh supplies of water.

National Muslim relief organizations, including Islamic Relief USA and Life for Relief and Development, were on the ground early with truckloads of water for distribution. Local groups including MMCC, multiple youth groups and mosques, the Who is Hussein nonprofit and the Ahmaddiyya movement began collecting and sending water. MMCC started a nationwide crowdfunding campaign through LaunchGood.com to raise $50,000 to purchase water supplies and provide education for Flint residents. Local Muslim physicians began screening for lead poisoning and provided counseling. Over 300 volunteers from the Muslim community were present in the weeks after President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for the city January 16. They were distributing water, supplying filters, packing food, unloading trucks, drawing blood samples and more. National Muslim relief organizations, in particular Islamic Relief, brought their expertise in organizing volunteers. But that is not all.

The role of the American Muslim community is moving beyond the basic provision of food and water, and into advocacy and coalition building to address underlying policies causing the problems. Through a partnership of urban and suburban Muslims, indigenous and descendants of immigrants, there is a deeper understanding of the challenges facing our country. In Flint, this has taken the shape of the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village. Locally, the center is working with other advocates to form the Flint Coalition to push for changing the water infrastructure, creating a federal disaster zone, appointing an independent auditor and spending funds locally.

There is synergy and power when immigrant and indigenous communities come together, each bringing unique assets and history. They are bound by faith, but it is their common humanitarian action that cements deep bonds and allows a greater impact. It also is the essence of Muslim belief, combining faith with action and helping those in need.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done, however, in bringing these two communities together. Anwar Khan of Islamic Relief relates one example of this. “This Pakistani lady drives up in her Mercedes with her young kids in the back seat and says that she wants to go visit the poor and give water!” In another example, a group of Yemeni brothers stopped by from metro-Detroit with the purpose of giving dawah, or teaching Flint residents about Islam. Khan is emphatic: “We are not here to proselytize or feel good about ourselves! We are here to make a real difference, but not everybody understands this.”

Elamin and other local urban Muslims are very responsive to well-meaning Muslims who wish to help: They urge people to build relationships with others who are different and create a true partnership in planned ventures.

Berston Field House displays a sign that is all too familiar across Flint.

The Flint tragedy is the result of structural issues, one of which was the use of emergency managers to take over financially strapped municipalities. The American Muslim community has an important role in pushing for policies that protect the underrepresented and those without a voice. It has a foot in the challenged urban community and the generally affluent immigrant community. Combining the credibility and urban authenticity of African American Muslims with the networks and capital of immigrant Muslims, the community can be a major force for positive social change.

Flint’s unfolding story is a great example of why America needs an American Muslim community that can reach across economic and ethnic lines and work together to make major improvements. While the local Michigan Muslim community has distributed over 400,000 bottles of water in Flint, its real impact will hopefully be in mobilizing people to support policies that promote vibrant and healthy urban areas. Whether Flint’s example can be replicated in other metropolitan areas will important in determining the future of Muslims in America.

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  • About the autor
    Muzammil Ahmed

    Dr. Muzammil Ahmed is a cofounder of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and chairman of the Michigan Muslim Community Council.

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