UIC’s contribution to public health in Fiji

Ada Moadsiri

Ada Moadsiri is working with a WHO campaign to reduce smoking in Fiji. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services (click on image for larger file size)

Ada Moadsiri’s story has an international flavor.

Born to Thai immigrants, she is fluent in their language and Tongan (the native language of Tonga) and speaks Spanish. She’s working in Fiji for the World Health Organization.

Moadsiri, who also has a bachelor’s and master’s from UIC, received her doctorate in public health last month. She defended her doctoral thesis from Fiji via the Internet.

Fiji is an hour’s plane ride from Tonga, the island nation where Moadsiri served with the Peace Corps from 2006 to 2008.

She spent half her time in the Peace Corps as a volunteer in a public health clinic, working on prenatal care, as well as the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and heart ailments.

The other half of her time went into teaching health, English and biology.

“I was on an outer island, Nomuka, an eight-hour boat ride from the capital, Nuku’alofa,” Moadsiri said.

“I learned the language pretty quickly,” she said. “I even learned how to weave.”

She uses cloth from the leaves of the pandanus plant. After the thorns are removed, the leaves are boiled and placed in the ocean for three weeks while the green leaves turn white.

Moadsiri learned to hand-weave a ta’ovala, a mat wrapped around the waist, worn skirt-like by men and women for occasions such as weddings, graduations and birthdays.

She returned to Tonga in 2011 as a Fulbright Scholar, working with the Tonga Health Promotion Foundation, the first of its kind in the South Pacific.

There she did research for her doctoral dissertation, “A Strategic Health Impact Assessment Approach to Food-Related Policy Development: A Case Study in Tonga.”

Her work on Fiji, which began in January, focuses on measures to combat smoking. In some islands of the South Pacific, as many as 54 percent of adults are smokers.

“We advocate increasing tobacco taxes, banning advertisements and sponsorships by tobacco companies, and promoting a smoke-free environment at government buildings, restaurants, schools and public transport — preventing second-hand smoke,” Moadsiri said.

WHO has programs in 21 different countries. “So far I’ve worked with about a dozen,” she said.

Her contract with the organization lasts through December. “If they renew me, I’d like to stay there indefinitely,” Moadsiri said.

“WHO was my goal when I started school. It idealized the vision that I would be able to make an impact at the global level. I get to be right where the work is happening.”

As a child, Moadsiri lived in Chicago, Burbank and Northbrook, where her parents still live.

“I learned Thai from them and I’m fluent, speaking not writing,” she said. “Tongan I can speak, read and write, but my writing is pretty basic — I email but don’t do reports.

“In Spanish, I can converse pretty well.” She minored in the language as an undergraduate.

As an undergrad, Moadsiri volunteered to work with Habitat for Humanity, helping to build houses in Maywood and Atlanta.

In addition to languages, “I love learning cultural dances,” she said.

She knows Thai dancing and in Tonga, she learned the hula-like tau’olunga.

The dances vary. “In some you don’t move the hips, in others there are no arm movements,” she said. “In some you use the whole body, like the hula.”

In Fiji, Moadsiri lives in a structure modeled on a Samoan house, or fale. She said her friends and coworkers tease her, “You’re a Tonga girl, living in a Samoan house in Fiji.”

When not working she enjoys snorkeling, watching movies and reading.

Moadsiri isn’t sure what her career will bring long term, but says she is happy to wait and see.

“The Peace Corps taught me to be flexible and open to whatever comes,” she said.

“That’s how I approach my career. I take every new opportunity for something new and to learn new skills so I can continue to grow.”

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