God Makes A Way Out Of Every Hardship: A Revert Sister's Story of Hanging On To Faith Despite Great Struggles
By Br. Ariz Saleem, ICNA Relief Outreach Coordinator
Nathaly Vasquez, renamed Hayaat or “life” after her conversion to Islam, has faced her share of challenges in life. After converting to Islam, four years ago, she was immediately thrust into the culture of Muslims. As a mature woman of 23, it was a must for her to be married off and urgently. She received a referral from the masjid for a brother of Yemeni background. Although the family was reluctant and unhappy with his decision, he persisted and eventually married Hayaat.
Soon afterwards, the couple had a daughter named Aleena. Aleena was born with a condition called aniridia -- this meant that she lacked an iris and was considered legally blind. In addition, Aleena had neurological problems consisting of seizures and learning disabilities. A few months after her birth, Aleena's father left for Yemen mainly due to pressures from his parents.
A month after her husband's departure, Hayaat learned that she was pregnant with twins. But, he was not to return to America for another two years. In her early to mid twenties, Hayaat was responsible for five children, two of which she mothered prior to her marriage and acceptance of Islam.
When Hayaat's husband did return, she predominantly saw him at court proceedings around their divorce. He claimed that he wasn't the father of the twins. “It's embarrassing, you know, to have to do a DNA test as a Muhajiba (woman who covers),” Hayaat said.
Although Hayaat has endured a lasting struggle, her character shines through these tribulations. “Everything he did was a reason for me to leave Islam. My family said not to marry an Arab. He confirmed my family's worst fears,” she admitted. As a listener attempting to sympathize with her struggle, I said I was sorry for what she had been through. She rebutted saying, “Don't be sorry. It made me stronger in my deen (religion).” Hayaat felt her experiences built her character and taught her that no one except God could be relied upon.
Undoubtedly, there has been a world of change for Hayaat since she first accepted Islam. “I used to work for Nissan corporate and had an awesome apartment,” she said reflecting on her past life. She related the verse in the Holy Qur'an in which God reminds the believers not to think that they won't be tested after professing faith; a beautiful and effective reminder for Hayaat in her situation.
Despite the undulations of adversity and calm, Hayaat has gracefully managed to hold on to her connection to God. Part of her energy to do so came in the form of help from other concerned Muslims. She related that it was because of ICNA Relief and other compassionate Muslims that she has encountered on her journey that she was able to experience the beautiful character of The Messenger, peace be upon him. Her faith was strengthened and affirmed by the strong community that supported her through her hardship.
When asked how ICNA Relief got in touch with her, she said they reached out to her first. Umber Siddiqi, who is a part of our ICNA Relief team in New Jersey, found out about her through a fellow Muslim who was acquainted with Hayaat. Knowing Hayaat's habit of not asking others for help, she reached out to ICNA Relief to initiate contact. “SubhanAllah, you know what, [Umber] chased me down to help me -- 'send me your ID, send me your documents' -- Masha' Allah, she was so persistent,” Hayaat recounted in jovial gratitude. “I've never seen Umber's face. I hope, insha' Allah, I get a chance to see her and thank her,” she added.
During our conversation Hayaat mentioned yet another heartwarming experience. Upon walking into the masjid with her twins, the aunties would immediately recognize her. “Are you Nathaly?” they would ask and Hayaat would reply with a reserved yes. “Oh my God! I know you!” an aunty would exclaim. “I was like, I don't know you,” Hayaat related with a chuckle but appreciated the care she received from these sisters. Through experiencing love and support from her community and ICNA Relief, Hayaat was able to overcome her financial and spiritual struggles.
Hayaat's sends a heartily thanks ICNA Relief's donors for the help she got through their contributions and encourages them to do more for the sake of Allah. “I would like to tell them to give," she said. "If they already give, then give more. They do make a difference. They make an impact on lives. I received help for my light bill right when was it about to be gone. Give. Don't think twice about it. Give. Community is worth more than anything that you can buy for yourself. Allah sees everything. You may not see them [the people who you help] but one day you will be rewarded.”
Once A Refugee Herself, A Sister Works to Help Other Iraqi Refugees Settle in America
“Every morning I pray and pray to Allah to accept my work so I can be in Jannah, with my ten year old son, Anas. When the USA invaded Iraq, my oldest child, Anas, was nine years old. When the B 52’s began bombing, just the sound made the children throw up. We slept away from the windows because they would shatter and we never knew if we would live to see the next day. We left our life to Allah. Anas was so brave and my daughter Rukaya who was five and my Abdullah, who was 7, followed his example.”
You may know Ahlam Mahmood as a staffer at ICNA Relief Chicago’s food pantry. What many may not know is that her passion to serve the less fortunate stems from her own experiences as a refugee. She knows only too well how hard it has been to learn a new language, to raise her children, to put food on the table, to find work that can continue to shelter her family. Even as she fights for her health, her commitment to ICNA Relief Chicago and its clients never falters. This is her story...
“The most difficult day was when we ran out of drinking water and I left the house for the first time in days to get some. I saw dead bodies of men, women and children on both sides of the streets. It was really starting to smell and I knew the dogs would start to eat them. So I called my cousins and we buried 40 bodies deep enough for the dogs not to get to them. From this moment I believed that I have to help my fellow human beings.
Before the war we had no Iraqi humanitarian organizations. So I reached out to western agencies such as International Relief, Red Crescent, Women for Women, Christian PeaceMaker Team. The militia’s thought I was working for the American military. They kidnapped me. For eight days, I was handcuffed, blind-folded and kicked, slapped, and hit on my head with the back of a pistol. They shot a bullet beside my right ear and I lost my hearing in that ear.
When I was released, we fled for Jordan, then Egypt and Syria. I explained what was happening to my 9 year old Anas and he explained it to my Ruqaya and Abdullah. The little ones listened to him so well. Anas became my best friend. But on the morning of the 3rd of May 2006, Anas said he had a pain in his right shoulder. As refugees we were not able to afford a private clinic, so I took him to one of the hospitals for Iraqi refugees. They gave Anas an injection, but they gave him an overdose. It caused inside bleeding and they took him for an emergency surgery. The last time I saw him he was looking at me as they took him into the elevator. The last words I heard from him was “you are my friend.” My nine-year-old son died 15 minutes later. The men in my family never allowed me to see him, nor go to the cemetery. I was not even told where his grave was.
My husband took six months to recover from the shock of losing his son. To stay patient, I began working with agencies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to help Iraqi refugees like myself. The Syrian government imprisoned me for refusing to gather intelligence for them. With pressure from Amnesty, I was released, and put on a plane with my kids. I did not even know where I was going. The first time I saw the sun in five months was from the plane. I arrived in Chicago, and Amnesty International sent Beth Ann Tuopin to check and see if I needed something. Three months later, she and I co-founded a non profit, Iraqi Mutual Aid Society. We have collaborated with foundations and organizations including the Illinois State Department, Refugee Assistance Programs and ICNA Relief.
Today, with income that sometimes nearly covers my rent, Ruaqa, Abdullah and I survive. As I said, I am doing all this to be with my son, Anas, in Jannah. I am also doing it because I never want to see another mother or her children go through what we have gone through. As citizens of the world, we must never allow our governments to use war to rob any other mother of her child, ever again. Let us never forget to use our voices to make sure our government does what is just and what is right. Let us never forget that our neighbors may need our help, even if they don’t ask for it.”Add a comment
Finding Home Again
On August 29th 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana soil. The devastating effects of this storm have left us awed and overwhelmed. Ten years later we are entering 2015 with a renewed spirit to uplift the communities and neighborhoods that were affected by this tragedy. On January 5th, ICNA Relief had the honor of being a part of this noble effort to rebuild and restore New Orleans.
ICNA Relief's Director of Disaster Response, Jane Aslam, was working with staff and volunteers to rebuild a home on the corner of South Scott Street in Mid-City New Orleans. On this cool sunny day, students from local MSAs, families, and friends came together to make a difference. A mix of hoodies, hijabs, and hats colored the scene with an atmosphere of unity and collaboration. The siding of the yellow painted house was being replaced and caulked in preparation for painting. Volunteers stood on scaffolding that they had recently set up. Inside, debris was being removed and window frames were being painted. The ICNA Relief 'Muslims for Humanity' T-shirts were swimming in and around the house, embodying the slogan in real time.
Amongst the group of hard workers was Hannan Albassisi, mother of Eman, a student volunteer with the MSA of Xavier University. Hannan first heard of the rebuild project from her daughter at home. “601 South Scott Street,” Eman said to her mother. At first, she thought it was a joke. “Oh my God!” exclaimed Hannan after Eman insisted she was serious. It was a shock. Hannan immediately picked up the phone to call her sisters, nieces, nephews, and friends to join her in the effort to rebuild her childhood home.
Hannan was born in Detroit, Michigan. Her parents migrated from Palestine to the United States. At the age of six, her family moved to New Orleans, where she lived in the very same house she stood before on that beautiful morning. “Back then the house was white with a red porch,” Hannan explained. While on site, she revisited her past as old memories rose to the surface. “The whole block was one big living room. Everyone was out on the porch. The kids would be playing together, as the parents sat watching. We were the outdoor generation,” Hannan reminisced. Upon visiting the backyard she recalled burying her kitten there. In years past, there were several times that she drove by South Scott street and made a point to share her childhood memories with her kids. This day, she had the chance to literally show them exactly where it was that she fell and broke her arm or where she would play 1,2,3 red-light with her friends.
While Eman and her friend painted inside, she yelled to them, “Make sure my windows look nice!” Clearly, Hannan's sense of ownership and love for her home are very much alive. She lived in this house from age six to nineteen, spending her formative years here. She was very proud and invested in contributing to the rebuild project.
In addition to New Orleans, ICNA Relief USA's Disaster Response team recently visited Columbia, Mississippi. Columbia is a small rural town in the southern Mississippi Delta with a population of 6,400 people. An EF3 tornado stormed through this area on Christmas Eve leaving over 100 families without homes and 5 people dead. This was a heavy blow to bear for this small, close-knit community. Our Director of Disaster Relief Services, Sister Jane Aslam, joined by her sister, niece, and great-niece journeyed to Columbia, her native town. When they contacted the Community Donation and Volunteer Center, they learned that the food supply had run out. Evening phone calls were made in a frenzy of concern and eagerness to help. By the next day, volunteers were purchasing, packaging, and delivering food to families that were now doubling-up in the homes of their relatives.
While in Columbia, Sister Jane visited the community cemetery. As she stood at the feet of her parents' graves, she noticed the head stones surrounding theirs. The etched names echoed back the story of her past. Uncles, aunts, great-uncles, aunts, and other kin lay resting together. At this moment, it dawned on her that she was literally standing at the "roots of her family tree". She was home. While witnessing the traces of her ancestors, she was overcome by a feeling of deep gratitude for being the first among her family to receive the blessing and beauty of the Islamic tradition.
Sister Jane's father, a home-builder, moved from Columbia to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965. History has come back full circle now that Sister Jane has traveled from her current residence in Louisiana to help the people of Columbia, Mississippi.
As a convert to Islam, Sister Jane is among those Muslims that have deep roots in this country, and with that comes a natural attachment and desire to keep the home safe and happy for all those that reside in it. The story of Hannan Albassisi is not so different. Although, her ancestors come from a land faraway called Palestine, she is growing new roots in fresh soil. The work of ICNA Relief USA is unearthing new meanings of home for those taking part in the transformation and healing of our communities.
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