There are hundreds of thousands of kids in foster care across the country. There’s often an effort to place children in families of the same ethnicity or similar cultural or religious backgrounds, but at times that can be difficult to do — especially in Michigan for Muslim kids.
Now there’s a push to change that.
Looking for a sense of belonging
Najla Almayaly entered the foster care system at 13 years old when her parents divorced. She and her three sisters were separated as a result. Now 20 years old, she has lived in seven foster homes, five of which were not Muslim.
“There was no halal food. There was no going to the masjid on Friday. There was no salat, no what I was used to,” she said.
Almayaly says she felt that her non-Muslim foster parents didn’t care about her religion. Food was not prepared a certain way, she didn’t go to the mosque for the traditional Friday prayer. She wasn’t comfortable wearing hijab to cover her hair.
“I felt like I wasn’t home,” she added.
About 240,000 Muslims live in Michigan.
Jessica Sweet recruits foster parents for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. She says the state doesn’t collect religious information when placing children in foster care.
“Right now, it really is based on, the anecdotal information that we’re getting, reaching out to county offices and having them hand count this information and send it to us,” she said.
Sameena Zahoor became a foster parent in 2012, after learning about the need from a sermon at her local mosque.
Her friend, lifelong educator Ranya Shbeib, became licensed in 2015.
Shbeib says they realized many people were not aware there was a need for Muslim foster parents.
“There were some gaps within the foster care system and the Muslim community. And with my fostering experience, I knew that with the insight that I had as a foster parent, Sameena and I could work to bridge those gaps,” she said.
That’s why they created the Muslim Foster Care Association in 2016.
Finding homes for Muslim children in foster care
Shbeib says there are only about 10 licensed Muslim foster care homes in the state while her organization serves more than 200 Muslim foster care kids every year.
Zahoor says its work expanded quickly from making holiday Eid baskets and care packages at the end of Ramadan to working with federal and state agencies to do a better job of placing Muslim children.
“It was sort of like a grassroots. We would do these panel discussions, we go to different communities, and then people are saying, ‘well, where can we find out more information,'” she said.
Last November about 300 current and potential foster parents gathered at the Soho Banquet & Event Center in Westland to learn more.
Mona Musaid, MFCA’s domestic foster care program coordinator, says the fundraiser was also held to help break the stigma surrounding foster care. She says persuading Muslim families to become licensed foster care homes is a challenge because the system can be intrusive.
“I mean foster children are always under the watch. Caregivers are always in and out of the home, therapists, licensing workers. And it’s very hard for the foster family to adjust to that lifestyle,” she said.
Taking the next step
The state does work with the association to train staff and families regardless of their background.
Shbeib says Muslims can step up to do more.
“There’s so much to talk about in this area of foster care. And, in Islam, it’s part of our faith tradition,” she said. “But unfortunately, it’s not something that we’re at the forefront of, and we want the Muslim community to be at the forefront of foster care.”
She encourages more Muslims to take the first step by volunteering or becoming a mentor to Muslim children.