It was 2001, and ASMA HANIF was broke. She came across an abandoned apartment building in a run-down section of Baltimore, climbed to the top floor, found an empty room, and moved in. Ayear later, she had earned a nursing license and landed a job, then founded Healthy Solutions, a clinic serving indigent people.
Soon, Hanif realized that many of the people who came to her clinic were not only poor but also women, immigrants, homeless, Muslim, and victims of abuse: “They have nowhere to go. Society doesn’t want them. Their family doesn’t want them, and the man who beat them doesn’t want them.”
So Hanif gathered donations, purchased a house, and turned it into Muslimat Al-Nisaa, a shelter for Muslim women—the only one in the US. Hanif lives in the shelter with over 50 women and pays for everything with her nursing-job income and her fundraising.
She gets calls from everywhere not, she’ll tell you, because she has any official standing. “They call me because I answer the phone.” It seems that no one else does.
Her empathy for the people she’s helping takes a toll on her emotional health: “I hear their voices in my head, crying,” she says. “It wears on my soul. I used to be a happy-go-lucky person, but now I carry a lot of sorrow.”
Hanif is emphatic that, “Domestic violence is criminal, it’s not religious. It has nothing to do with Islam. We say this Muslim man beat this Muslim woman. No! This abusive man beat this woman.”
Her clinic, which is not exclusive to Muslims, provides free medical examinations, screening and education about cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, family planning, vision and hearing testing, classes for at-risk youths, and care for female victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking.
Over the decades, Hanif has enlisted volunteers and raised money relentlessly so she could expand her services to include outreach programs, distributions of food and clothing, physicals for women who lack insurance and, most recently, caring for families who have been affected by the coronavirus epidemic. She’s even driven around the city giving out face masks to the homeless.
Her organization’s website has been sabotaged, and the abusers of the women she protects are a constant concern for her and all the women at the shelter. Nevertheless, she persists.
“In this life,” she says, “if you remove random acts of kindness from society, all you have left is selfish, uncaring individuals, and who wants to live in that world? I want to make a difference in the lives of others.”