“It’s a matter of life and death,” Asma Hanif wrote in an email last night, about a Syrian woman Noor (not her real name) and her five children, who are in a shelter in the U.S. Noor’s husband has threatened to kill her and all her children if he finds her, which he did once before; he is considered armed and dangerous. The children, ages 2 to 11, will be removed from Noor’s custody if there is any contact between herself and her husband. Asma is desperately trying to raise funds to get Noor and her kids to her shelter in Baltimore.
“InshAllah please save her life,” she pleads.
Asma receives emails and calls like this one on a daily basis from Muslim women across the country and around the world desperate to escape domestic violence or homelessness. Women call her not because she has better resources than other shelters or masjids, she says, but because she answers the phone, day or night.
I’ve written a feature story on Asma, which will be published in a couple of weeks in “The Islamic Monthly”. Her story – of her childhood, her grandmother’s inspiration, her conversion to Islam, her commitment to her local community, and her passion to provide a home for Muslim women escaping abuse – is extraordinary. I’ll share the full story with you once it’s published, but I didn’t want Ramadan to pass without telling you about her and providing us the opportunity to help support Noor and her children, and so many like her who count on Asma for a home, a chance, a shoulder.
Asma is a nurse, midwife, chaplain, domestic violence advocate, community organizer, and champion for the underprivileged. She has been helping people in need for the past 30 years. She runs a neighborhood clinic that serves Baltimore’s needy of all faiths, and provides services like school physicals, a food pantry and a back-to-school health fair for the city’s homeless and uninsured. She founded Muslimat Al-Nisaa in 1987, a nonprofit that provides health, education, and social services to Muslim women and children.
Hanif established the shelter for Muslim women victims of domestic violence in 2007, after a two-year comprehensive assessment. It can accommodate 50 women and children; currently there are about 27 people living there; by tomorrow, iA, there may be six more. Each story Hanif shares with me is laced with pain, even the one about the shelter’s capacity. She tells me about a mother and her four children who slept in one bed because they had been abused for so long, they were too scared to let each other go.
The aim of the program is for women to become self-sufficient, based on individual circumstances and needs, by pursuing education, getting training or finding employment. Noor was a math teacher in Syria; at Muslimat Al-Nisaa she will get the support and resources to be able to regain employment and become independent, iA.
Asma gives voice to the issue of domestic violence, particularly in the Muslim community where she feels it’s not recognized as a problem and therefore not addressed. It’s important to separate the crime from the religion, she says, then perhaps Muslim women will get the help that women of other cultures and faiths get. “Domestic violence is criminal, it’s not religious. It has nothing to do with Islam.” She is frustrated that after so many years she still has to beg for funds to keep the shelter running.
A few months ago, I invited Asma to share her story at MoverMoms’ Inspiration Day. “I’m not sure my story will be inspirational,” she told me. It seems very very sad.”
She shared with us the story of her mother, who fell ill a few years ago. “As a child you never think of the death of your mother. You always think you’ll have more time.” Asma regrets that she didn’t have a home that she could bring her mother to; her mother was in a nursing home, and Asma lived in the shelter. She felt torn about leaving the women at the shelter to go and care for her mother; she knew that being away even for a few days would be problematic. “That’s one of the things that makes my heart very sad,” she tells me. The day Asma found out that her mother passed away, she was on a train to meet another woman in distress and bring her to the shelter. “I know that people may say that I’m doing a good thing, and that may be true. I may be a good Samaritan, but I’m a bad daughter.”
It broke my heart to hear her say that. I wanted to make sure that Asma could visit her mother’s grave, for Mother’s Day, two weeks later. She did, and sent me the picture above.
“I will continue to take care of those in need,” Asma says, “because if nothing else my mother would not be pleased with me if I stopped.”
Read the feature story in The Islamic Monthly