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Profile: Fresh Air for South Dearborn
A reluctant activist fights for a healthy community
By Marilyn Berlin Snell

Yasser Maisari, 35, is a compact man with a big personality. Having grown up in south Dearborn, Michigan, with six siblings, including three older brothers, he describes himself as outspoken and impatient. "Once I see something's not right, it's very difficult to let go," Maisari says. Now he's a pharmacist and a father of three with a sweet nine-year-old named Yasmeen who, in her brief and embattled life, has already had a nearly fatal stroke, dozens of major hospitalizations, and a liver transplant. He's also a community activist and vice president of Concerned Residents of South Dearborn (CRSD).

"We are not asking for these facilities to be shut down,” pharmacist and family man Yasser Maisari says. “But we want the right to coexist in a safe environment."

"I have an immense amount of guilt," says Maisari, who came to the United States from Yemen as a baby. "I should be home teaching my daughter how to walk again. We had to teach her even how to blink again after the stroke. But instead of devoting my extra time to my family, I am going to meetings until midnight." As his wife, Christina, looks on—nodding in agreement when Maisari says, "I know those meetings drive her crazy"—he adds quickly, "But what do you do? Throw up your hands and give up? Be selfish? Or do you fight?"

Roughly 40,000 of Dearborn's 100,000 residents are of Arab descent, and most of them live in the southern part of town. Besides Paris, there is no greater concentration of Arabs and Muslims outside the Middle East. Many came in the postŠWorld War II years, searching for good jobs and a better life provided by a booming automobile industry.

When they arrived, the Ford Motor Company's Rouge industrial complex was in full swing, employing nearly 100,000 workers spread out among 93 buildings. Built in the early 20th century at the confluence of the Rouge and Detroit Rivers, the 1,100-acre complex realized Henry Ford's dream of an all-in-one mass-production facility, where rubber, sand, coke, and coal went in one end and shiny new Fords came out the other. Between 1920 and 1950, it was the largest industrial center in the world.

Maisari and his mentor, Mohammed Ahmed (right). Since September 11, Ahmed says, it's been hard to get Arab Americans involved in the fight for clean air: "They are afraid to make waves."

Over the years, the company has sold off parts of the sprawling complex, but it continues to buy the products—power, steel, and the like—produced there. In 2000, CEO and Chair William Clay Ford Jr. hired visionary eco-architect Bill McDonough to transform Ford-owned Rouge facilities, including its 1.3-million-square-foot assembly plant, into a showcase for environmental sustainability. Yet right alongside the company's impressive "Rouge Heritage Project," other facilities in the complex continue their noisy, toxic, Industrial Age operations.

According to the most recent data from the EPA, Wayne County, which includes Dearborn, is among the dirtiest 10 percent of U.S. counties in terms of air pollution. Its emissions include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter. In 2002, the EPA ranked Rouge's steel-manufacturing plant, which emits lead, nickel, and chromium compounds, among Wayne County's top polluters. Those three metals are all known carcinogens—hazardous to both ecosystems and human health. The steel plant looms just beyond south Dearborn's Salina Elementary and Middle Schools; its hulking structure and corroded and spewing smokestacks offer an incongruous and disturbing backdrop to the children's playgrounds. The din from Rouge's power plant, across the street, is nearly constant. During the academic year, the teachers must often shout to be heard. The middle school has no air-conditioning, but even on sweltering days the windows stay closed to block out the noise. "We are not asking for these facilities to be shut down," says Maisari. "But we want the right to coexist in a safe environment." When he took his grievances about noise and pollution to Dearborn's city council, however, one of its members told him to move if he didn't like it.

Obstacles to learning: Toxic air and deafening noise are part of the daily routine for more than 600 children at Salina Elementary School.

"We know we're going up against big business," Maisari says. "But it gets depressing when city officials and people who are supposed to represent the community either ignore you or tell you to move." Though he resists calling it racism, the label is hard to avoid. At a notorious 1999 city council meeting, for example, when a CRSD member raised environmental issues and complained that the city was neglecting its Arab-American community, Mayor Michael Guido snapped, "If your organization wanted to do something, you should work on trying to train the new immigrants to this country on personal hygiene and habits of cleanliness." (Guido was first elected in 1985 after promising to deal with Dearborn's "Arab problem." He's running for reelection this November.)

With no politician willing to help, says Maisari, south Dearborn residents helped themselves.

In 2003, Maisari was part of a class-action lawsuit against Dearborn Industrial Generation—Rouge's 457-acre natural-gas-fired power plant across from the schools—for excessive noise. The lead plaintiff, Mohammed Ahmed, 55, is a longtime family friend, a mentor to Maisari, and a founding member of CRSD. After two years of legal wrangling, they finally won their case when the company agreed in August to fix the problem.

Maisari and Ahmed say that prior to the suit, they repeatedly asked Wayne County and Dearborn city officials to enforce noise restrictions on the power plant; they even called the police on evenings when the racket was unbearable or explosions at the facility woke them up. (The worst, an explosion and fire in 1999, killed six workers.) "I've gone to city council meetings and joked that we can sell tickets to watch the fireworks at that plant from all the explosions," Maisari says. "It's scary." "Why should we have had to go to court on this?" asks Ahmed. "I feel ashamed to go to court. I don't want to go. I don't want to hire a lawyer. But where are our leaders? No one helps."

We are sitting in Ahmed's south Dearborn home with his wife, Ashwak, and son, Hadeer, drinking tea from delicate china cups. On the wall behind Ahmed, pages of the Koran are displayed in a frame. Across the street is the area's largest park, its playground equipment courtesy of another, less successful legal settlement. In that one, south Dearborn residents sued the Edward C. Levy Company, which processes slag from blast and steel furnaces, for air-quality violations. Besides the slides and swings, there is little to show for their effort, and neighbors still complain of pollution problems. Though it's a pleasant summer evening—with children racing their bikes along the street, an intense basketball game going on in the park, and women in long skirts and head coverings talking to each other on the sidewalk—Ahmed's windows are shut tight. The fan above us purrs. "The simple things, like open windows, we can't do," laments Ahmed, who lives less than half a mile from Rouge's steel mill. Even with them shut, he says, his wife must constantly clean to control the dust and flakes that fall from the air. He says the metallic "fleas" build up overnight on his car, home exterior, and porch chairs, as well as on area roads. These tiny pieces of graphite are released into the atmosphere during the steel-manufacturing process, when molten iron and slag are removed from the furnace to cool.

Trying to keep a clean home next to industrial behemoths may be a headache, but it's the particulate matter residents can't see that poses a greater health risk. Dearborn has exceeded the safe annual average for fine particulate matter since monitors were installed there in 1999. These particles, less than 2.5 microns thick (about one-thirtieth the width of a human hair), are mostly composed of ammonium sulfate, organic carbon, and ammonium nitrate. Exposure to them affects breathing and the lungs' defenses, aggravates respiratory and cardiovascular ailments, and has been linked to fatal heart and lung disease. The smaller the particles, the more deadly, since they can get deeper into the lungs and even into the bloodstream.

Maisari's wife, son, and father have chronic asthma. Ahmed has just begun to use an inhaler. Still recovering from open-heart surgery, Ahmed—recently retired after 32 years as a millwright with Chrysler—jokes that "every time I visit the doctor, he says, 'Walk, Mohammed! You gotta exercise!' But what am I breathing? It might be worse than not walking."

Ahmed has been slowed by his health problems. But he continues to work the phone two to three hours a day, trying to get some relief for his community. He also attempts to document the problems. "I keep a log. Every day I write, 'yellow,' 'black,' 'smoke.' I have a camera to take pictures, but now I don't want to because people might come after me asking, 'Why you taking pictures?'" In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, it's inadvisable for an Arab to be seen snapping photographs of power plants and other industrial facilities, even if he's just trying to protect the health and security of his neighbors. Ahmed adds that these days he is often afraid to let his adult children out of the house.

When he talks about what is happening to the Arab-American community of south Dearborn, Ahmed's frustration and even sadness are unmistakable. "I'm talking from my heart," he says with a distinct accent he's carried from Aden (now Yemen), which he left in 1969. "We are always having to fight. We don't want to shut off jobs. But we need something done."

Maisari, who has just put in a full day at the Kmart pharmacy where he works, listens respectfully to the man he refers to as Uncle Mo. "He is one of my idols, a perfect example of our elders, because of the sacrifices he's made for our community," says Maisari. The two men have an easy rapport. When it's clear that Ahmed is getting emotional about the emissions from the plants across the street, Maisari jumps in to lighten the conversation. He jokes about how pollution from the Rouge River may have changed local wildlife. "They might have ten feet and glow in the dark! We don't even want to approach a rabbit or squirrel because huge fangs might come out and chew us to death!"

Ahmed smiles, then adds, "We aren't politicians. We just help our area. We want these companies to go by the law or promise us when they are going to fix their problems." "This is volunteer work," says Maisari. "The only good that has come from all this tragedy is that we now have collected the data to prove we have a problem here. It's not just a bunch of babbling idiots saying the air smells bad."

So now they're back in court. This year, Ahmed and Maisari are participating in another class-action suit—against Severstal, the Russian steel giant that purchased the bankrupt Rouge Steel Company in 2004.

The suit, filed by the environmental law firm Olson, Bzdok & Howard last December, charges that Severstal emits particulate matter and other air pollutants in violation of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act and at levels well above the standard necessary to protect public health. The document also notes that south Dearborn residents have complained to regulatory agencies but have received no relief.

At 33, wearing flip-flops and jeans at his northern Michigan office, Chris Bzdok looks more like a surfer than a lawyer. He and his associate, T. J. Andrews, 31, investigated local residents' complaints and Severstal's emissions record for five months before deciding to take on the case. (If they win, they will seek to recover lawyers' fees. If they lose, the small firm will be out substantial expenses and time.) "Severstal inherited a [pollution] problem," says Bzdok, "but it also bought the company at a cut rate through a bankruptcy court" and was aware of the steelmaker's environmental run-ins with various state and federal agencies.

For example, in 2002, after it was sued by the EPA, Wayne County, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Rouge Steel agreed to reduce its emissions. "They were supposed to make changes," says Andrews. "But we don't think [the agreement] has been productive in terms of improving air quality." She adds that the pollution in south Dearborn "continues to affect residents' property as well as their use and enjoyment of it."

According to Robert McCann, spokesperson for the MDEQ, Severstal is heading in the right direction "but has not yet reached the goals identified in the agreement." Moreover, since November 2004, the company has been sent 16 "letters of violation" from the MDEQ for new abuses of air-quality regulations—some of which, says McCann, have still not been resolved.

Bad publicity from the lawsuit may just succeed where state and federal environmental agencies have failed. Last June, six months after the suit was filed against the steel magnate, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm (D) announced that Severstal had voluntarily agreed to "upgrade" its facility—assisted by state tax credits and local property-tax holidays worth nearly $50 million. How much of that money will be spent on pollution-control technology remains a mystery, however, even to state regulators. A spokesperson for Severstal declined repeated requests for comment.

"Anything that improves this plant we're happy about," says Bzdok. "But we don't know if the upgrades are moving in the right direction." Until that's clear, the class-action lawsuit will proceed.

Maisari hopes the lawsuit against Severstal will "bring awareness and some kind of justice that is well deserved, needed, and overdue." Though still involved in the case, his name was removed from the suit after he moved his family several miles north of their south Dearborn neighborhood. (He and the lawyers felt it was important that all named plaintiffs reside in the affected area.) His daughter had taken a nasty fall down the stairs of their two-story colonial, and the Maisaris wanted a ranch-style home that would be easier for her to navigate on her own.

Maisari says he misses the neighborhood where he was raised and started his own family, though he still visits relatives and friends there frequently and attends the mosque near his old home. His son, Ramsey, will finish school at Edsel Ford High in south Dearborn so he can stay with his friends; the teenager has tried out for football and copes with his asthma by using an inhaler before each practice. Yet Maisari admits there are advantages to being miles from the Rouge complex. "Last month, when my daughter was in the hospital in Pennsylvania and my wife was staying with her, I was sitting alone in our new backyard. All the lights were out. It was quiet. I could see the stars. I could enjoy the fresh air and calm. A family of rabbits came out into the grass. I had an evening of such delight."

Finally, Yasser Maisari and his family can indulge in the joy of simple things. He hopes that someday south Dearborn residents will as well.

Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's senior writer.

Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News; middle photo: Rosh Sillars; bottom photo: Jeffrey Sauger

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