Asma Hanif, founder of Muslim women’s shelter, finds herself in need of care


Asma Hanif hugs a pregnant immigrant at Muslimat Al-Nisaa, a shelter for homeless Muslim women in Baltimore, on Wednesday. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Another phone call had come from a desperate Muslim woman living in a distant state, searching for the lady draped in lavender known simply as Sister Asma.

Asma Hanif picked up her iPhone.

The caller explained that she had awakened to an angry boyfriend hovering over her with a knife. Hanif listened sympathetically.

“Can I stay with you?” the woman later recalled asking. “I can be there in two weeks.”

Then, she said, Hanif delivered the hard truth.

“What makes you think you have two weeks?” Hanif asked her.

Right away, Hanif prepared a twin bed in the three-storyhouse that serves as the Baltimore shelter. There, the caller would share space with 50 other abused Muslim women, many from Virginia and the District and some from as far as Morocco.

As the founder of Muslimat Al-Nisaa, the only known shelter in the country that exclusively serves Muslim women, Hanif has devoted nearly a decade of her life to providing safety and stability for women in a place where they could comfortably practice their faith.

But she had focused so fully on giving comfort to strangers that she had neglected to care for her mother. Back in Hanif’s home town in North Carolina, the 83-year-old woman had slipped into dementia and was dying in a hospital. Hanif, who had no income and no home of her own, didn’t know how or where she would tend to her.

The caregiver needed someone to help her. But even as supporters from the District launched a campaign to buy Hanif a home, she felt torn between the desperate strangers who depend on her and the obligation to nurse her mother before it was too late.

“People tell me that I’m a good Samaritan, but I’m a terrible daughter,” she said between appointments on a busy April day in Baltimore. “I’ve neglected my mother. I didn’t see her for three years. . . . Now she looks at me and doesn’t know who I am.”

Then: “I can’t just leave. What would happen to these women? But if I stay here, what sort of daughter would I be?”

Starting out as a nurse

Growing up as an African American in the segregated South, Hanif’s mother encouraged her to become a nurse. It was a job so important, she figured no one would care about her daughter’s race. After graduating from Howard University and the Medical University of South Carolina, Hanif began working as a nurse practitioner and midwife. She moved to Atlanta and, in 1987, started a clinic for people who were uninsured. She got married and divorced and raised four children.

When her brother contracted HIV and was shunned by the rest of her family, she took him in and cared for him. His death in the late 1990s prompted an overwhelming sadness, which was eased some by a dream.

“It was of a place that was all shades of purple and beautiful and regal and holistic,” said Hanif, who has clothed herself since in loose-fitting purple and lavender jilbabs.

To escape her sadness, Hanif closed the clinic in Atlanta in 2000 and headed to New York to live with a friend. But at a pit stop in Baltimore, Hanif called the friend who said her husband didn’t want a houseguest.

Hanif had no money, no state nursing license, no home. She walked past the drug dealers on the front stoop of an abandoned apartment building and climbed the steps to the top floor. She disinfected an empty apartment and decided to remain until she earned enough money to buy a house.

In a little more than a year, she had a nursing license and a job. In 2002, she founded Healthy Solutions, a neighborhood clinic in Baltimore serving indigent people, of all religions.

At the clinic, Hanif cared for women who acknowledged that they were victims of domestic violence, but many of the Muslim women, in particular, worried about seeking help at a shelter. Would they have a place to pray five times a day as their religion commanded? Would they be able to eat in accordance with Islamic law?

Hanif and a friend, a social worker named Maryam Funches, started working in 2005 to gather support for a shelter exclusively for Muslim women, operated without any public funding. With the donations they received, the pair purchased a house to convert into a shelter. Hanif moved out of the crack house and into Muslimat Al-Nisaa.

But before the shelter took in its first client in 2007, Funches died. Hanif vowed to continue, alone.

Each year, Hanif visited her mother less and less, hoping that she would understand.

‘Here, I don’t have to worry’

Today, the residents’ children hang crayon-scrawled stories about the prophet Yusuf on the walls near the shelter’s large, open main room, ideal for group prayer. The women share cooking duties and eat dinner together at 5:30 p.m., with lights out by 10 p.m.

“Being out in the world, you already stand out,” said one woman, who arrived at the shelter in February. At other shelters, she was forced to go to Christian Bible study. “Here, I don’t have to worry.”

Hanif’s imam provides religious counsel, and registered nurses and others sometimes volunteer to help. Her friend, Faizah Muhammad, coordinates all the chores. But at the end of the day, all calls are routed to Hanif.

She has been featured on MSNBC, invited to forums at the White House and the United Nations for her work at the shelter. Although she appreciates the recognition, “I never have that moment where I am free from responsibility and can just relax,” she said. And now, with Hanif’s mother ill, who would care for the caregiver?

“I need help,” she said. “Sometimes, I just want someone to talk to.”

Hanif was surprised at the end of March when a volunteer asked her how she was doing. Sobbing, she told Henna Javaid about about her mother.

She toldJavaid that sometimes she wished she could just collect her mother and move to the District, far enough away that she could sometimes get a break and nurse the woman who gave her life.

“I am becoming a victim of my own work,” she said.

That night, Javaid, who lives in Woodbridge, went to her computer and with other supporters from the D.C. area launched an Internet campaign to raise a year’s rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the District. The goal was $14,400, but so far the group has raised about $59,000.

Hanif “is a very well-known figure in the Muslim community, and she’s been to a lot of mosques,” said Javaid, 28. “I think when people saw the campaign was for her, it really gained popularity. I don’t think anyone really ever wondered about her [personal] situation.”

Was it fair?

But Hanif worried: If people bought her a house, would they still donate to the shelter? Was it fair to get those sorts of rewards while the shelter women lived on a threadbare budget?

“I try not to think about all of it,” she said.

Instead, that day she found herself driving to a public middle school where 10 lacrosse players needed physicals, which she performs free for students who lack insurance.

She laughed with the boys as she checked their blood pressure, asking them about the three foods they eat most at home.

“Chicken, pizza, celery?” she asked one of them. “Really, celery? How do you get that?”

“It comes with the wings, miss.”

Hanif teased him: “I’m gonna have to talk to Michelle Obama about you.”

When she returned to the clinic at 6 p.m., she had worked for 12 hours. It’s like that most days, until she finally has a moment at the end of the day to check on her mother at the hospital.

But on Monday night, the hospital called her. Her mother had died.

“She’s gone,” Hanif said, weeping. “I tried to help, but I was too late.”

Hanif tried to remember that this is Allah’s will, that her mother is in a better place, “but I can’t help but feel like it’s my fault. . . . What does it all mean? I couldn’t save my mother.”

The idea of finding money for her house is in the past. Now, she says, her biggest worry is how to pay for the funeral.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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