Physician, Bestselling Author, Congressional Candidate: An Interview with Dr. Nadia
As the midterm elections near, more women and minority candidates are throwing their hats in the ring. Alexander Nasserjah interviews Democratic candidate for Maryland’s 6th district, Dr. Nadia Hashimi.
The 2018 election year is shaping up to be one of the most important elections in history. President Trump’s election has energized many women and minority voters to run for seats at all levels of government. As a result, Republicans face stiff competition to hold their narrow majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. To cover the elections, the Heinrich Böll Foundation will be highlighting civil society voices that have become part of the political discussion in 2018.
The first of many voices we bring to you is Dr. Nadia Hashimi, Democratic candidate for Maryland’s 6th district. She is a pediatric physician, three-time internationally best-selling author, and the first Afghan-American woman to run for Congress. She is campaigning as a local voice who is concerned about America’s future.
“The healthcare system is almost set up for them (patients) to fail. And that’s why I’ve decided to step up and work towards cleaning up that system, making it something that’s sustainable, and that actually gives people the healthcare they need.”
In the interview, Dr. Nadia (the title she goes by on her campaign) discusses many of her policy objectives. Her unique background as a physician has given her an inside look at our healthcare system, a system she feels is failing America's youth. If elected, Dr. Nadia plans to reform the healthcare system to grant easier access to more comprehensive care.
In addition to fixing the healthcare system, Dr. Nadia outlines her positions ranging from the environment to immigration reform. Stream the interview here or read the transcript below for more on Dr. Nadia’s policy positions. Stay tuned to us.boell.org in the coming months for more coverage of civil society voices arising during the 2018 election year.
Alexander Nasserjah (A): The United States is in the early stages of what is sure to be one of the most polarizing election years in history. Republicans are at risk of losing their majority in the house, along with their slim one-vote majority in the Senate. The election of President Trump has energized both women and minority voters to run for those contested seats.
My name is Alexander Nasserjah, and today I’ll be interviewing someone who is on the front lines of the push for diversity. Dr. Nadia Hashimi is a Democrat running to represent Maryland’s 6th district in the House of Representatives. She is a pediatric physician, the author of three internationally bestselling novels, and the first Afghan-American Woman to run for Congress.
Nadia, thank you for letting me interview you today.
Dr. Nadia (N): It’s a pleasure to be here with you.
A: Let’s start out with asking about what are some of your motivations for running?
N: For me, I’m someone who is now a physician, I’m a mom of four. I live in this area. And what I’ve been seeing around healthcare - dealing with patients and their families - I’m realizing that they are embroiled in such a convoluted system. The healthcare system is almost set up for them to fail. And that’s why I’ve decided to step up and work towards cleaning up that system, making it something that is sustainable and that actually gives people the healthcare they need.
A: As I said earlier, you’re the first Afghan-American woman to run for Congress. How important is that heritage to your campaign message? Is there a large Afghan community in your district?
N: This was never going to be a campaign about identity politics. I’ve never said that I’m out there campaigning because I’m an Afghan-American, or an American-Afghan, or however we want to label ourselves. I’m running because I have experience around healthcare, and I wanted to bring my voice to the conversation. But identity is an integral part of each of us, no matter what your identity is; it is a piece of you. So when I decided to step up and run for office - of course, who were the people around me, who were closest to me? Who were the first ones to come out in support? They were people who identified with me on that level as well.
So here I am getting a lot of support from my own community, which I’m proud to have, and I’m humbled to have that support. But what are the issues I’m running on? They are issues around healthcare, and the education system, and the environment. Issues that affect every single one of us, not just Afghans.
A: I would like to shift to discuss some of your policy standpoints, starting off with the environment. As most people are aware, the president has withdrawn the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. Which was a landmark accord aimed at strengthening the global response to climate change. Several governors and mayors have recommitted to achieving those agreement goals. As a congressional representative, how would you seek to shape US climate policy, and what sort of initiatives would you want to promote for your state and community?
N: I believe this was a mistake on the president’s behalf to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. I think what we can do is to see if Congress can reach some resolution to get back into the Paris Climate Accord. They have the power to do so, but it’s just about taking the initiative and standing up. But in the meantime, I’m happy to see that the people of the United States, which is more directly represented at the local government level, they’re stepping up and saying: no matter what the rules are now from the top, we on the ground here understand that we have a role and a responsibility in safeguarding our environment. And that’s, I think, more valuable than any decree that can come from the presidency.
A: A lot of ground level stuff that’s going on.
N: Yeah, and that’s where real change happens, right? That’s where we affect change that we understand, that we have a vested interest in. Because this is our own backyard, this is our water, this is our air.
A: So next I’d like to touch on immigration. Immigration has been a hotly contested issue lately. The president in his state of the union speech specifically targeted what he calls “chain migration,” which is, in fact, a family reunification program. The status of DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) - those recipients have been left in limbo. Republicans continue to push a narrative that disparages immigrants, and that we need to limit who comes into our country. This is a message that resonates with a lot of Americans. When you talk about immigration with your constituents, how do you connect with people who sympathize with that rhetoric?
N: It’s all about showing people who immigrants are, and what immigrants add to our society here in the United States. I can tell you that I talk about my own parents, who became entrepreneurs in this country, who raised two children, and who have become very involved. My parents are people who, from the time that they were even relatively new to this nation, my mother became a girl scout troop-leader because she wanted to be a part of what I was doing when I was engaging in that kind of activity. My father coached the soccer team so that my brother could have him involved as well at the community level. They have done the same thing even as small business owners, in a town in upstate New York. Being integrated and a part of the community is something that we were raised with that value.
Others are doing the same. If you look around you, in every aspect, in every sphere, immigrants are integrating themselves into society. And at the same time adding professional value, adding - whether it’s in construction, or in medicine, or in law, or whatever it is - they're adding something to the economy.
I always tell the story of my own husband, who is here, I think under “chain migration.” He was sponsored by family members. He was at that time a refugee in Europe and had left the country of Afghanistan because it was a war-torn nation, made it to Europe as a refugee, and then from there was accepted to come to the United States because he was sponsored by family members. So this person who started off with English as a second language - who would not have qualified under the “merit system” because he was a teenager - he's now a practicing neurosurgeon and provides care at several of the area hospitals. So we have to know that people coming into this country have a potential that we cannot deny.
A: I heard you speak last month at the Women's March. I would like to talk about your role in representing women. You’ve written three internationally bestselling novels and are proud to call yourself a feminist writer. Your novels address the dark realities of what it’s like to be a woman living in the Middle East. What do you see as the most important issues facing women in your community here in the United States? How do you hope to fight for these issues in Congress?
N: All the issues that I write about are in the context of what happens to an Afghan family. Specifically, the challenges that a woman has to face dealing with the situation in Afghanistan. There are issues around poverty, around gender inequality, around domestic violence, substance abuse - and none of these are unique to Afghanistan. They might be happening in a different way. They might have a certain color to them because they’re in that context. But realistically, these are universal issues that women battle across the world. Domestic violence affects countless women in this area, even within well-to-do neighborhoods. It’s something that cuts across all kinds of barriers and lines.
Those are the very same issues that I want to tackle here. I want to make sure that women are able to get a higher education, make sure that childcare is something that people can afford. When we talk about healthcare, are people able to get the care that their children need? Because that has a huge impact on the wellbeing of a family overall, and then what a woman is able to do.
A: I understand that you have a new children’s book coming up. Would you like to talk about that?
N: Aside from the adult books that I've released, I have two books that are for children. They're for middle-grade readers, so like a 9 to 12-year-old reader. The first one was around gender equality and was a mother-daughter read around one of my adult novels. But this one that's coming out in March is called, "The Sky at Our Feet."
It's the story about a 12-year-old boy - living in New Jersey - who learns that his mother is undocumented. And this is news to him, he did not realize that. It's just the two of them, him and his mother. Shortly after he learns that, he watches as she is led away by authorities with the intent of being deported. He finds himself alone in New Jersey, and the only person he knows in this world that might be able to help him is his mom's best friend in Manhatten. So he sets off for Manhatten. From there on it's an adventure into New York City, with that backdrop of Central Park and the subway system and all the amazing things that happen in New York.
It's on the way - it'll be out in March.
A: In addition to writing, you are also a pediatric physician, giving you a degree of expertise in the medical field. In his State of the Union address, the president failed to outline a coherent strategy to address the opioid crisis, even in the past we saw him declare it as a public health emergency, not a national emergency, severely limiting funds to deal with the issue. As a physician, you have seen these addictions and how they can affect a community. Where do you think we need to focus our response to target the issue?
N: That was a glaring and obvious void in his State of the Union. He has said this is a huge issue and yet there has been no release of funds. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to address it? He’s left the responsibility to the local levels. Which we know that at the local level, that’s where we know how to address problems as well. But that has to come with some kind of partnership. There has to be some kind of investment.
What I’m seeing, both in my role as a pediatrician and in managing a neurosurgical practice, is that there are gaps in the system. We’ve had patients that pass through this clinic who are being denied the care they need or being denied a surgery that they need - and therefore their pain is lingering, their pain is ongoing. And there are very few ways to treat that pain. So we have people who have been on painkillers for about 3 years because Medicaid, for example, is denying a surgery that we believe and have seen that went on to treat them and relieve some of their pain.
I think we’ve got so many things that we need to tackle. For one, we need to talk to people about why they’re on painkillers. Some people are on pain medications because they have a physical ailment. But what percentage of people are on pain medications because there are other causes of their pain or unrest? Being able to address the social issues that individuals are dealing with, and being able to provide the psychological support and therapies that people need, means understanding pain in a very holistic way and in a broader scope.
We’ve got to partner with hospitals, and we’ve got to partner with providers. Maryland’s doing a good job of creating a registry. Anyone who’s being prescribed certain controlled substances - in which painkillers is one of them - doctors who are prescribing these medications can access the system and see who else has prescribed medications for that individual and what other prescriptions they have.
A: Your work as a pediatric physician has put you in the room with a lot of people from all walks of life. I was curious to see what you’ve learned from working with your patients about what we all share as Americans, just a general feeling you get from the people you work with.
N: The biggest thing is that we’re all worried about our kids. We’re all worried about their future. Are they going to be okay? Are they going to get through this cold? What does that bruise on their leg mean? It’s all of these things. You know, my child is being bullied at school. My teenager doesn’t want to come out of his room for hours - what is he doing in there? So there are so many concerns that we all have but all of them center around the future for our children. The future for our children is representative of the future of our country.
That’s why I believe that all of our policies should be made with providing that next generation with a solid foundation - with empowering them and making sure they have a clean environment that they’re going to be walking into. That they have clean air to breathe - which will have an effect on their overall wellbeing. That they the proper education to enable them to have a successful future and a thriving future and provide for their own families. And we know very well that it’s the foundation that makes a big difference. That’s why so many of us going into pediatrics because we know that we have an ability to have a huge impact.
A: I would like to move on to some issues abroad. The war in Afghanistan has been America’s longest running war. In recent months, we’ve seen increased attacks on civilian targets by the Taliban and ISIS, such as the recent hospital bombing in Kabul that killed over a hundred people. As a nation, we’ve become so numb to the violence in that region, that we don’t really meet it with the same reaction that maybe we maybe use to. Do you see a pathway to bringing the Afghan war to an end without leaving the Afghan people behind? Or do you think it’s something that’s going to continue to go on for a number of years still?
N: That’s probably one of the hardest questions. It’s one of the hardest realities for all of us to deal with as Americans. And for those of us who have some background with the country and who have some links to the country as well, it’s very difficult to watch what’s been happening there and feel like it’s moving in the wrong direction. The body count is going up as opposed to going down year by year. Also at the same time, being someone who lives here, who feels very American, and who understands that it’s my neighbors who are going abroad to serve and are being put not only in harm's way but just spending huge amounts of time away from their own families. Which I think is a huge sacrifice for the entire family to be making.
The situation in Afghanistan - I believe what could help us do a better job there is making sure that the amount of resources that is being sent to the country is enormous- whether it’s people power or if it's funding. But what I’ve heard and have seen through people who actually work in Afghanistan is the criticism that much of the resources that came into the country never actually landed on the ground. It was money that was sourced into contracts and to subcontracts and then flew back out of the nation without actually making a tangible difference in the local economy.
What my wish would be would be is to focus our energies on building the infrastructure of the country. Both the physical infrastructure of the nation and the educational infrastructure. Empowering women especially. The data’s there. If you educate a woman, her family’s in a better situation, her children are better off - healthwise, education-wise, economically, all of those pieces. I think it’s really critical that we make sure there’s a pathway for each woman in Afghanistan to have an economic value in that society because that changes all other values attached to her and everything that she can do for her children as well and uplift herself. And that is the way to, I think, house by house and family by family empower neighborhoods and towns to a different status.
Everything good that will happen to Afghanistan will happen because of the people there taking the initiative and having the empowerment to be able to do that and affect some real kind of change. It cannot be just sort of applied from abroad as a western solution.
A: There are a lot of factors you need to worry about in Afghanistan, there’s not a silver bullet.
N: There’s not a silver bullet, it’s not an easy question to answer. There’s not one single solution. It’s going to be lots of different things happening.
A: How do you feel about the president’s position on this? He has given some guidance on how he wants to see the war go. He wants to focus on fighting ISIS and fighting terrorism. Not focusing so much on nation-building. Do you feel that Afghanistan’s partners in the area should also play a role? Say India who has been an ally in funding. Do you see more of a Middle Eastern role being played in helping Afghanistan? Or do you think a lot of it should still come from the United States because we are so entangled already?
N: I think that this is a good opportunity for the world to show that it can come together and impact in a positive way the fate of one particular nation. Everyone has already had a hand in Afghanistan up until this point. So going forward, do we say that everybody pulls out and withdraws? It’s backtracking.
If we’ve gotten this deep in, then I think we need to figure out how we can to turn our efforts into something good. Whether it comes from the bordering countries that have a vested interest in the peace process of Afghanistan or if it comes from the United States, who's already invested so much and has had a hand in Afghanistan since the 70s, really, where it started its presence in the country. And then into the war with the Soviet Union as well. We can’t turn around now and say hands off and you guys figure it out.
But we have, I think, what’s a really powerful opportunity to do something good. We’ve seen countries like Japan even have an interest in what’s happening in Afghanistan and help build some hospitals there as well.
A: You’ve got a lot of stiff competition from other Democrats running in your primary. What sets you apart from them? What makes you the best candidate for Maryland’s 6th district?
N: What sets me apart is when we talk about healthcare, which is 16% of the country’s GDP. It’s a huge issue for every single household because medical debt is the top cause of bankruptcy for families. And of those who go into bankruptcy because of medical debt, the majority of those people actually have health insurance. So there’s something that’s not working in our system.
I believe that having worked in the system as an actual health care provider, I’ve sat down with families. I’ve seen where the challenges are. I understand where the rising health costs are coming from because I know when a patient goes from here to there and records aren’t transferred, then they’re repeating an $800 CT scan. These are the pieces of the puzzle that I can comprehend in a way that I believe other candidates cannot.
But I’m also someone who’s not a politician. And I say that as simply a fact. I’m not a politician, I’m not climbing up some political ladder. I am here to represent the wishes of the people. I’m here to bring my expertise and the stories of the families that I’ve been working with to the table.
So, I’m not beholden to anyone. I don’t owe anyone any favors. I’m just here to do my job. I’ve signed a pledge already around term limits. So I’m not looking to make this a career, but I’m looking to make a positive impact and I think I’m in a position to do that. Knowing that we - the people of the United States - have been energized, as you were talking about earlier, by the election of President Trump. And realizing that we’ve got to get off the sidelines, and we’ve got to bring our own personal voices and expertise to the table.
A: That answers all the questions I have for you today. So I appreciate you taking the time out of your day, Dr. Nadia.