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How National Black Muslim COVID Coalition serves communities during the pandemic

The coalition, with many organizers and contributors in Philly, is connecting black Muslims across backgrounds.

From left to right: Safiyya Shabazz, Kameelah Rashad, and Oumy Thioune. All three women are National Black Muslim COVID Coalition organizers working from the Philadelphia area.
From left to right: Safiyya Shabazz, Kameelah Rashad, and Oumy Thioune. All three women are National Black Muslim COVID Coalition organizers working from the Philadelphia area.Read moreYong Kim / Staff Photographer, David Maialetti / Staff Photographer, Muslim Wellness Foundation

The experts on the Zoom call were there to discuss the five before five. That’s a belief that goes back to Muhammad, who said: “Take advantage of five before five: your youth before your old age, your health before your illness, your riches before your poverty, your free time before your work, and your life before your death.” Margari Hill, co-director of National Black Muslim COVID Coalition, which hosted this talk Saturday afternoon, explained that at a time like this, it can be hard to plan for one’s wellness.

“Yet at the same time we know that preparing for the unknown helps put ourselves and our families at ease,” she said.

They’d cover physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual wellness during the 90-minute talk, spiritual wellness the first topic, as panelist Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, of Washington, D.C., spoke on the significance of spending this month of Ramadan in isolation.

“I would invite us, while we are in [this] kind of self-quarantine seclusion to take that time to ask Allah to give us the things that we need,” the imam shared on the Zoom call. “So that when we come out of this cave, and we will, it’s with something that will be able to benefit us in our society.”

The National Black Muslim COVID Coalition hosts conversations like this at least weekly. Through digital organizing, the coalition steers and supports myriad initiatives looking for the concerns and experiences of black Muslim experiences during the pandemic. The coalition, which has multiple key organizers in Philadelphia, is leading a survey, a cultural preservation project that collects the oral histories of their elders, and producing a series of digital panels raising issues regarding medical racism, communal grief, and the need to provide culturally sensitive, faith-sensitive care as the community faces distressing racial disparities in the pandemic’s death toll. Through its national scope, the coalition serves black Muslim communities that not only have regional differences, but roots around the diaspora.

“Which means that when we’re talking about seemingly discrete issues, either around immigration, detention, incarceration, education, jobs, or economic insecurity, our community encompasses some of the disadvantages that occur because of the inequalities in those areas,” said Kameelah Rashad, a key coalition organizer, psychologist, and founder of the Muslim Wellness Foundation, a nonprofit based in West Oak Lane.

“We are vulnerable and marginalized in many ways,” Rashad said. “But I want people to remember that we have always resisted; we have always organized; we have always thought about the least fortunate even among us — as inspiration. And so we can do it. I’ve always felt, rooted in my faith, that God has already given us everything we need. So it’s up to us to really think about how do we effectively leverage, organize, mobilize, network in order to use the strengths and gifts that we already possess.”

Black Philadelphians are overrepresented in the city’s COVID-19 deaths, making up 53% of losses but 44% of the population. The coalition is working to cull information on families that have been impacted by both race and faith. They’ve backed two such research efforts: first, leading a survey for American Muslims on coronavirus losses, and second, supporting an academic study on how the virus is impacting black Americans from researchers at the Muslim Wellness Foundation and the University of Maryland.

Many spaces that offer resources to black folk may not be as mindful of religious diversity, organizers say; many Muslim groups don’t always consider black members of the faith. Margari Hill, cofounder of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, has observed that media reports on Muslim American experiences often show people of Arab ancestry, while media depictions of black Americans often center on Christians.

“Maybe it’s just like our reportage on black life — this needs to be more diverse, and then we’ll be in there, too,” she said.

There are long-standing suspicions among Muslims that population estimates undercount their community in the United States. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says some 200,000 Philadelphians are Muslim, 80% of whom are black. CAIR says 400,000 Muslims live in the Philadelphia region outside of the city. According to Pew’s Religious Landscape Study in 2014, 1% of Philadelphia area residents are Muslim.

Hill, a Trenton native who has been organizing from her home in San Bernardino County, Calif., recalls working with Rashad in March with Muslim advocacy groups. A couple calls in, Rashad reached out with an idea.

» READ MORE: Farewell from a distance: How this black-owned Philadelphia funeral home handles a community’s coronavirus losses

“She hadn’t seen a national response from black Muslims. And I said, I haven’t seen anything either from any of the large organizations as far as coming together," Hill said.

The women started texting around. Within days, they developed a survey to gauge if there was a need. Seeing the results, they launched March 19.

Imam Tariq El-Amin, who is director of Civic Engagement and Interfaith Services at Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago and who serves Masjid Al-Taqwa in that city, got involved because relatives had contracted the virus. His mosque’s COVID response in Chicago, a city that deals with persistent segregation, has had to address income and food insecurity. Currently, his mosque is hosting giveaways for both food and protective gear.

“Beyond the personal, what this has really shown [are] the fractures in the system and how the disproportionate impact on black folk in general, black Muslims, as a subset, is really due to systemic, structural institutional factors that have not been addressed,” El-Amin said.

» FAQ: Your coronavirus questions, answered.

Coalition member Safiyya Shabazz, a family physician and owner of Mount Airy’s Fountain Medical Associates, has been working to gain licenses outside of Pennsylvania. She’s concerned that due to mistrust of the health-care system, not all black Muslims may seek care. Those who do, she added, may encounter physicians who wouldn’t give fair assessments of, say, whether a patient is fit to fast this Ramadan. She wants to be more available, and digital talks without contact aren’t the same, she explained. Still, working with the coalition provides a means to at least disseminate more professional advice, she said.

“I don’t have the type of practice where I’m seeing 30 patients per day,” said Shabazz. “But I might be able to reach 100 people in a day with information that gets shared.”

The coalition has set its long-terms sights on maintaining a network that could respond to other crises in the future. That preparedness is motivation for Oumy Thioune, a senior at West Chester University from Upper Darby who is balancing finals with her work for the coalition.

“I wanted us to have some type of infrastructure that was ours,” Thioune said. “God forbid, but if we have another [pandemic], if that occurs, we already have a system in place, and it’s a solid system. And it works.”