By Matt Martinez
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
It started off modestly.
In 2004, Fozia Ahmed saw a need for social services in the Muslim community. With a vision but no space, she made use of what she had available: Her basement.
Four years later, a free clinic was born. Borrowing space from the nearby Salam Elementary School, volunteer doctors provided free medical services on Saturdays.
The clinic moved into a new space in 2015. Looking to expand and grow, the Muslim Community and Health Center began providing services six days a week, added a senior center and began providing refugee services.
Ahmed remains president of the Muslim Community and Health Center to this day. Arman Tahir, director of operations at the clinic, said the clinic’s development came from one mission: to take care of everyone in the community.
“Our door is open, and we’ll do almost anything to make sure people are taken care of,” Tahir said.
The Muslim Community and Health Center, a medical clinic located at 803 W. Layton Ave., provides clinical and behavioral health services. The clinic is open to everyone in the community regardless of faith or culture.
Tahir said the team tries to remove financial barriers as much as possible. Many patients are on Medicaid, and the clinic offers a sliding scale to uninsured patients. Tahir said the clinic sees about 4,500 to 5,000 patients a year across its services.
Salma Akhter, administrative assistant and clinic float for the Muslim Community and Health Center, said the center has four branches: primary care, behavioral health, a senior day center and refugee resource center.
The clinic has seven providers offering primary care services and three who manage behavioral health services. It recently added a cardiologist to its roster for specialized care.
The clinic’s Sakina Senior Center provides space for socializing and activities among elders in the community. This includes kitchen classes and a meal program that provides food to enrolled seniors.
The clinic also provides resources for a growing population of refugees, including Afghan, Somali and Burmese populations. One of the emerging needs is mental health services.
Refugees can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and anger management issues because of experiences in fleeing their home country. Being able to have them feel at home makes a huge difference, Akhter said.
“Refugees can experience culture shock,” Akhter said. “To be in an environment where your language is spoken, and to see people who look somewhat like you and maybe have some similar understanding and similar values as you, it’s really comforting.”
Staff at the clinic can provide services in twelve languages, Akhter said. Six languages are spoken in-house, and another six are provided through interpreters.
Janan Najeeb, president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, said it is critical for staff at the clinic to be well-versed in different languages and recognize the different cultures and countries where people may come from as well as factors like refugee status.
“It’s important for patients to be comfortable and confident,” Najeeb said. “When they realize that their culture is being taken into account, you’ll have a happier patient and better outcomes.”
Without that understanding, people will walk away from the experience without feeling heard. Najeeb said the learning curve for navigating health systems was also something that needed to be addressed.
“Many times, people have felt dismissed, especially if they don’t know English well,” Najeeb said. “Sometimes they feel like doctors see them and get rid of them … We need to make more accommodations for people who have less understanding of the systems.”
Tahir said that the clinic was the first of its kind in Southeast Wisconsin. It is in the process of becoming a federally qualified health center this year and hopes to achieve the status in autumn of 2022.
For Akhter, the importance of visibility and understanding with the community is apparent. Doing routine rounds in the clinic recently, she found herself administering a pediatric vaccine to a little girl. When the visit was over, the little girl said, “I want to be like you when I grow up.”
“Something like that is really heart-touching,” Akhter said. “They see the care we put in and the effort we put in, and they say ‘Oh, I want to do that, that’s something I want to pursue.’ That really makes it more meaningful and increases the purpose of what we’re doing.”