In 1993, Naheed Murad and her husband immigrated to the U.S. after graduating from medical school in Pakistan. They were accepted to a Minnesota training program and intended to return to Pakistan after that. The opportunities here, however, were suited to their specialties. Political instability and safety concerns after 9/11 made it challenging to return.
In addition to work, “[we were] trying to establish our [Muslim] identity as well as raise our [three] children as American Muslims,” she says. “One of the things that struck me the most when I came here is the isolation that you can feel because you do not have your extended family, you do not have your neighbors, you do not have the people that you grew up with. I did not want my children to feel that isolation. So we worked really hard to develop that sense of community.”
Murad’s daughter Yusra, 25, says she reflects on her childhood often. “In hindsight, we were cognizant of our racialized identity the moment we entered elementary school, but didn’t have the language for it until almost a decade later. As a kid, there is intense shame and isolation and general confusion about how to navigate white spaces. All that said, we still had so many privileges — access to good education, a financially stable household, even grandparents who could participate in raising us.”
After Yusra became a teenager, Naheed started to spark conversations with her about the things she was experiencing at school and seeing on the news. “Our relationship shifted — we were finding more common ground as we simultaneously processed our experiences as brown Muslim women in the U.S.,” Yusra explains.
As people engaged in community service with members of the Muslim community in Eagan, Naheed and her husband co- founded ZACAH in 2013, setting up a board and operations with a contingent of others. The intention was to formalize what was already an ongoing process of redistributing wealth to meet the needs of the low-income immigrant community in Minnesota who cannot rely on extended family. Many Muslim immigrants send zakat (a mandatory charitable tax for many Muslims) and sadaqah (voluntary donations) back to deserving families in their countries of origin. ZACAH began to gather monetary donations in 2014, returning 100 percent directly to community members.
Social justice is a fundamental pillar of Islam, Yusra explains. She and her mother began to talk about how to challenge institutional and structural racism and fight for an equitable distribution of resources.
ZACAH opened a transitional home in 2017. The small three-bedroom house was primarily offered to women who were victims of domestic abuse. After the pandemic hit, rental assistance took on a renewed sense of urgency. The board “all realized through our work how intricately housing and health are connected,” Naheed says. “It is not possible for someone to have a sense of physical, mental, and social well-being without having safe, stable, dignified housing.”
The mission of ZACAH is to protect vulnerable Minnesotans from homelessness and eviction, but Yusra and Naheed talk often about the need to move away from reliance on philanthropy and create change on a systemic level. Says Yusra, “The driving cause of homelessness is the fact that we do not consider housing a human right and a public health need. ZACAH, or any nonprofit, can purchase a building, but this is a short-term solution.
“Nonprofits will never solve the housing crisis. We have to focus on creating neighborhoods where people can thrive physically and socially, to achieve the best state of health. We need public housing.”
Naheed notes that, growing up in Pakistan, her childhood experiences were marked by limited resources in a developing nation. “Basic human rights were not given to a majority of the population.” To combat that, the community looked out for each other. “If somebody did not have food, we provided them with food. When people needed assistance with building their home or with rent, we reached out to family and friends and collected funds. We did not call it mutual aid, but it was.”
Yusra adds, “Sometimes my mom and I will reach an impasse, where I am deeply cynical about why nonprofits — including ZACAH — exist in the first place. She wants to focus on the immediate needs of the rental applications, which we do. But we also need to question, ‘Is it viable or sustainable for grassroots nonprofit organizations to be paying rent for people in a country where housing could be provided by the government?’ Of course not.”
“Start asking public officials questions about public housing,” says Yusra. “Cities and counties in Minnesota have a waitlist for public housing and subsidized housing that is two to five years long.”
She also recommends: “There is so much research that tells us that people listen when they hear something from a trusted person in their life. I always have to remind myself how important it is to always be in the process of education with yourself and your network.”
ZACAH is working with the state to assist Afghan families settling in Minnesota. Naheed explains the process Minnesota is going through to help accommodate Afghan refugees.
The Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans has convened the “Afghan Evacuee Community Roundtable” task force, comprised of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, public health authorities, resettlement organizations, and community-based, Afghan- and Muslim-led organizations as they navigate an unprecented refugee resettlement process.
This involves Al Maa’uun, Asian Women United of Minnesota (AWUM), the Afghan Cultural Society of MN, Sewa-AIFW and others. “Islam places enormous emphasis on the rights of refugees and Muslims’ obligation to provide assistance to refugees, so we are honored to be involved in this effort.”
As one of the only housing-focused organizations involved in this effort, ZACAH is partnering with the Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC) and other resettlement agencies to offer rental assistance to Afghan families transitioning out of the hotel program into permanent, stable, dignified housing. MCC is serving as the lead coordinator for the five resettlement agencies in Minnesota. With the assistance provided by ZACAH, they are able to extend the overall period of assistance for families from three or four to six months. ZACAH is also collaborating with AWUM to assist Afghan sisters that may be survivors of domestic violence.