When Imam Siraj Wahhaj was diagnosed with prostate cancer a year ago and discovered that his health insurance did not cover treatment, the word went out.
"People all over the world called me and said, 'I'm praying for you,' " said Wahhaj, head of the Muslim Alliance in North America. "But what about the little guys? No one is praying for them. No one is raising money for them."
Yesterday, the national social service organization announced intentions to create a network of free clinics - some existing, others new - staffed by volunteers in underserved Muslim communities nationwide, starting in Philadelphia.
The news conference was less about concrete plans than a vision and a call to action for Muslim health professionals to serve others. More details are expected at a health forum, show, and fund-raiser April 24 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.
But Rashidah Abdul-Khabeer is fully expecting to follow through with plans to expand the volunteer social-service organization she now runs out of a community center in Nicetown into a part-time medical clinic with a bricks-and-mortar building.
"As Muslims we are mandated by our faith to provide services to the needy. And we have the resources here in Philadelphia" - medical schools and the broader health industry - "to be able to do that," said Abdul-Khabeer, who two years ago founded the Islamic Social Services Association of Philadelphia (ISSAP).
She has not applied for grants, preferring to begin with volunteers and show that the effort can be sustained. That's the model that the HIV nurse and health educator used with ISSAP and, 25 years ago, in the founding of BEBASHI, now an established AIDS-services organization in the city's African American community.
Her goal now is to open a free clinic two or three days a week by the end of the year and eventually serve more than 300 patients a month with a variety of medical needs in a building of 6,000 to 10,000 square feet. Some of the money to be raised at the Kimmel Center would support that effort.
Although not well-known to the general public, more than 1,200 free health clinics operate in the most underserved communities nationwide, according to the National Association of Free Clinics.
At least 30 of them and perhaps many more have Muslim affiliations and serve an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 patients a year, said Faisal Qazi, a neurologist near Los Angeles who started a free clinic in Detroit during his medical residency. He said the closest Muslim clinic to Philadelphia was in Silver Spring, Md.
The volunteer model "has its challenges but for the Muslim community it has been able to draw from within the community volunteers and resources," said Qazi, a board member of the American Muslim Health Professionals organization.
Advocates of the concept say free clinics are needed to help people who are uninsured, who have recently immigrated, or who avoid mainstream medical care because they don't speak English or don't feel comfortable with the culture. Many Muslim women will not undress in front of a man, even a physician.
Immigrants in particular "tend to be more isolated and so any programs that would help to address those barriers to access I think would be welcome," said Juliane Ramic, director of social services for the Nationalities Services Center, which works with new immigrants in the city. She estimated that 80 percent of her organization's resettlements this year will be Muslim.
At yesterday's news conference, officials described their vision as a complement to the overhaul signed by President Obama this week. And they said the new clinics would be faith-based but would serve communities that in many cases are a mix of populations.
"The blacks, the whites, the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews - we want to help everybody," said Wahhaj, the organization head who leads a mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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