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The Sitdown: Arshia Wajid, founder and president, American Muslim Health Professionals

Arshia Wajid, founder and president of the Chicago-based national nonprofit American Muslim Health Professionals, has been tackling public health issues affecting the Muslim American community for more than a decade. Her efforts landed her a seat at a recent roundtable with President Barack Obama and 13 other Muslim leaders from diverse fields across the country. It was the first roundtable Obama had exclusively with Muslim American leaders and covered a range of topics.

Wajid, 37, holds a master’s degree in business administration and public health and has worked in health care for about 12 years, currently as a health care consultant with Huron Consulting Group. She has volunteered as clinic coordinator for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s Health Clinic, which serves the uninsured on Chicago’s South Side and spoke at an Institute for Diversity in Healthcare Management Conference on how hospitals can provide a more inclusive environment for Muslim patients and employees.

She discusses the Obama meeting, damage caused by anti-Muslim rhetoric and the faith that guides her life. She also talks about the work AMHP is doing in addressing health issues facing Muslim Americans.

I felt there was a need for an organization that can foster professional development. I wanted there to be a platform where Muslim health professionals can collaborate and dialogue, Muslim professionals who are seeking to advance public health, social justice and civic engagement within their communities.

Mental health and emotional well being are becoming increasing topics of concern because after 9/11, we’ve seen an increase in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric, which eventually leads to some members of our community facing mental health issues.

Part of the problem in the Muslim community is there is stigma, shame and cultural taboo associated when you’re seeking mental health counseling and help. We’re trying to increase the conversation around mental health so we can reduce the stigma and make it a topic that everyone can feel comfortable discussing.

We’ve worked with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal organization, in launching a national webinar series along with the Islamic Society of North America. These series covered topics, ranging from understanding trauma to challenges of youth resilience in the face of alienation and discrimination.

This past year, in collaboration with Muslim Wellness Foundation, we worked on rolling out mental health first-aid training. We trained 31 imams, chaplains and community leaders to identify signs of mental illness and substance abuse disorders and to be the first responders. We did a pilot program in D.C., and we are seeking funding. Once we get the funding, we plan to roll this out in at least four to five cities this year. Chicago is one of them.

We believe there are about 600,000 Muslims in America living with some form of disability. We want to make sure our mosques are ADA-compliant. We want to provide them with the necessary resources and tools so things like closed-captioning can potentially be offered, so that individuals who do suffer from disabilities can feel more comfortable and feel their needs are being met.

EnabledMuslim.org is an online network for spiritual and community support for Muslims living with disabilities and for their families and communities. We launched the website about four months ago. We’re going to continue to build resources on this website.

The meeting [with Obama] was symbolic in that it represented a diverse cross-section of the American Muslim community, individuals working on different issues. I think one of the ideas behind this meeting is that Muslims don’t have a single-issue agenda. We shouldn’t be called upon only when there are issues related to national security or terrorism. I think, from that standpoint, this meeting was particularly important.

I mentioned to him the work that AMHP has been doing with the Department of Health and Human Services and his staff in the Office of Public Engagement on Affordable Care Act outreach. In the first enrollment cycle, we partnered with 81 Muslim organizations and educated nearly 27,000 Muslims about ACA and enrolled over 1,600 in health care coverage. With the second enrollment cycle, we again were [active] . . .

One of the issues that I talked about was funding for AMHP. Certain faith-based organizations from other faith groups received $10,000 to do ACA outreach in their local communities, while AMHP received a grant of the same amount to do national outreach. So there is definitely a disparity.

Other issues [discussed by the group] were anti-Muslim violence and discrimination.  There was talk about the need to have more representation of Muslims in government, having more appointees. Some of the topics were making sure American Muslims are not marginalized and that politicians use their bully pulpit to combat the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric in their communities.

A lot of American Muslims are professionals doing wonderful work in their respective areas, but their contributions are being overshadowed by discrimination and negativity. We’ve recruited a lot of young, passionate public health professionals who [do ACA] outreach work. Anytime they feel great about doing these enrollment sessions, the next thing they see when they turn on the TV is coverage about how Muslims are terrorists. The good work they’re doing is not being showcased, but anything that is negative that has to do with Muslims is what’s being on the forefront. That has an impact on their psyche.

American Muslims, we are part of the national fabric of this society. We are not foreigners. We’re innovators. We have been contributing in all sectors of society.

I hope that the American public, they take time to understand who Muslims truly are and learn more about our faith, so they recognize that Islam is about peace and justice. We take pride in the fact that we’re Americans, that the same values that our country espouses —  social justice, living a moral life and being contributing members to society — these same values are what are espoused by our faith. We are mandated by our faith to help the unfortunate, the underserved and the marginalized.